Is drawing a stick figure on the ground of a college campus and writing “Muhammed” next to it an expression of free speech? That’s certainly what people around the United States and likely further afield seem to think. Incitement to do so came from the drawmuhammedday website (which is offline at writing–that’s a google cache copy)[Link updated--here's a you-tube video discussing it] itself a response to some misplaced censorship of a South Park episode.
I haven’t had the pleasure to see any of these free-speech-motivated religious insults myself but I have been surprised at how vigorously people have defended it as justified behavior. Of course it’s your free speech right in the United States and elsewhere to be rude. Indeed, sometimes hearing what is necessary is painful for people. Would the enthusiastic chalk artists enjoy the comparison with the folks at Westboro Baptist Church? As far as they’re concerned, when they wave their “God Hates Fags” banners and U.S. military funerals—it’s their free speech right.
We have the right to say what’s on our mind, but it’s patently childish to do so when our words and actions have little further purpose than to offend a belief we do not share. Most U.S. Americans can’t understand why it’s wrong to label a stick figure Muhammed. Most Chinese are probably equally at a loss why Americans gather around a dead tree they brought into the house for a few weeks in December. Because we don’t understand why American muslims might be offended by something doesn’t justify shoving their faces in a mockery of their beliefs.
Mockery should be protected, even when it’s offensive. Art and music are often at their best when expressing opinions opposed to what other’s find sacred. Not for a moment am I suggesting that these protesters should be limited in their actions, any more than Piss Christ should be attacked because many find it offensive, or misunderstood.
Those participating in this prank claim a wide range of justifications such as protecting the rights of artists; and maybe they have a point, but one can’t help but wonder if they couldn’t have signed up to a more effective protest. We might even accept the offense as collateral damage in the battle to protect human rights if this response were a more than giant “so there!”
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In relating the taxing efforts of a do-all government in Germany I noted in an earlier post that graffiti had become more rampant. I considered that this might actually just a difference in my experience in Frankfurt, compared to my earlier experience in law-and-order strong Bavaria. Germans with whom I spoke seemed to confirm this, but I’ve just returned from a short trip to Regensburg and München, both in Bavaria, and I can confirm plenty of the horrible stuff.
I am not always opposed to graffiti. I’ve frequently smiled at the art of Banksy and others and enjoyed many a mural that has decorated an otherwise dreary urban wall. Tagging, on the other hand, the annoying, egotistical ‘Kilroy was here’ scrawl that appears the same from language to language, country to country is just plain vandalism. The youthful self-importance of “Xteam” or “daboyz” repeated dozens of times on the inside of a Frankfurt metro is bad enough, but to see these same silly tags in the medieval old town of Regensburg, the whole town center is a recognized Unesco World Heritage site, is just outrageous.
Graffiti isn’t a new experience of course, and it’s always come with mixed emotions from the viewers, but I simply have a hard time seeing tagging as anything beyond ugly vandalism. I’ve seen ancient graffiti at historical sites from England to Egypt. Age alone isn’t enough to impress me. A name and date scrawled on a monument, no matter how artfully represented, ought to be seen as an embarrassingly self-centered disfiguring of property, likely compensating for a masculine lack somewhere else. I no more care that a hip-hop gangsta wannabe or a noble from 18th century England had the indecency to leave his mark. Both are like a dog, peeing on every bush and fire hydrant-except the dog’s mark isn’t nearly so obtrusive.
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Generally, I’m a budget traveler. On business I scale up to ensure that the computer is safe in the hotel room, that I don’t waste time getting to a client meeting and that I can be clean and pretty when I arrive, but even then, I wince at high price hotels next to exhibition centers and figure out ways to avoid the $20 breakfast and $10 internet charges whenever I can.
So when I say I spent money on a recent trip to Prague, we understand, that it’s only relative. Prague is very expensive these days. I visited there twenty years ago, just before the Berlin Wall had fallen. It was a very different place. Quiet. I remember the very awkward feeling I got when a disheveled soldier, his sidearm holstered on his belt, sat slumped outside a bar on the main square and begged some money from me. I didn’t want to make the guy with a gun unhappy.
My traveling companions and I discovered too late how to order another beer, how easy they are to drink, and how friendly the locals can be. At a beer hall in downtown, guests sit together at long tables as is the custom in most of Germany as well. Two working class Czech men sat jovially next to us and, struck up a conversation of broken German (theirs and ours) and asked us where we were from. “America is O.K.” in unison, four thumbs up in the air, is the only English they could muster. We bought each other beers and kept getting new ones every time we finished the last. A tall glass of beer was $0.25 to $0.50 (!) The waiter would tick your coaster with a pencil when he set the glass down. Once drained, he’d take this as a sign to bring another without asking. I was barely conscience when I realized you can’t finish the last beer until you’ve paid to stop the flow.
Today, the waiters mark the coasters with pens and ask if you want another one before assuming you’re familiar with the local custom, but they look poised and ready to bring another one if you even hesitate. Beer is still relatively inexpensive at $2 – 4 depending on how touristy the location. Prague is still as beautiful as it ever was and there’s much more to do if you like dance-clubs and Irish pubs. It’s easier too. English is everywhere; it’s more clear what Bohemia has to offer (apparently, Russian nesting dolls and Bohemian crystal). There are tours meeting next to the old astronomical clock every couple of hours. Tourist choose them by choosing guides holding out distinctive umbrellas indicating where they take you. They’ll show you the castle, the ghosts, the underground, the communists. They take you around Prague and its sights in busses, antique cars, horse drawn carriages, or on foot. They’ll drive you to a church decorated in human bones or on a spelunking trip outside of the city, including traditional Bohemian lunch and a free beer.
Prague is flashier too. In 1989 there were tourists; I remember Charles bridge was pretty packed even then; today the old town is nearly overrun. In some order of frequency: Russians, French, Italians, Germans, Americans, and Spanish. All of us in high tech travel clothing, or completely impractical high heel shoes. Together, quite a bustling scene. There are billboards and neon lights. The chic discos are advertised along with mobile phone and new cars. Radio stations have ads on the sides of trams rumbling along the streets.
With only a short visit planned we did some upgrading. Instead of the youth hostel for $5 a night, we graduated to the penthouse suite. Actually, it was a budget hotel by Prague standards at around $150 per night and the room, while large and with a bit of a view, was not much better than any business hotel I normally stay in. Instead of scrounging meals of bread and cheese from grocery stores and market stands, we ate where ever the mood and setting struck us. Beer at house breweries, coffee at Café Kafka, Bohemian specialties at Café Orient, tastefully, and historically decorated, above the Cubist museum.
I didn’t avoid pricey entrance fees, (and I didn’t back in 1989 either, I’d come all this way to see this stuff after all) but I did skip the tours. Informative signs in all the tourist languages were widely available. I didn’t buy any expensive souvenirs (and there were few cheap ones) but because they really weren’t worth what was being asked for them, regardless of whether they were bought at home or while traveling. In the end, the strange thing is how little difference it made to travel with money. It was more relaxing, obviously, to eat whenever and where ever I finally got hungry but prices in the tourist center don’t vary as much as expected from cheap eats to expensive ones. Lodging was much more money, of course, but for a short trip, tolerable. Above all, both Prague and how I chose to visit it have changed much since my last trip, and yet, its attraction remains constant. There’s a reason there are so many tourists there driving up the prices. No matter how you choose to visit it, it’s absolutely gorgeous.
Check out my flickr stream as I’ll be adding some selected pictures to prove it.
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