Today, Ross Douthat bewails the decline of civilization as manifested by Comedy Central’s censorship of South Park’s recent representation of Muhammad. On the one hand, Douthat laments the kowtowing of the network before the implied threat of a marginal Islamist website. On the other, he laments that, these days, only Islam seems off-limits to sacrilegious satire.
Across 14 on-air years, there’s no icon “South Park” hasn’t trampled, no
vein of shock-comedy (sexual, scatalogical, blasphemous) it hasn’t
mined. In a less jaded era, its creators would have been the rightful heirs
of Oscar Wilde or Lenny Bruce — taking frequent risks to fillet the
culture’s sacred cows. In ours, though, even Parker’s and Stone’s
wildest outrages often just blur into the scenery…
Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established
under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of
self-preservation and self-loathing.
This is what decadence looks
like: a frantic coarseness that “bravely” trashes its own values and
traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute
But anyone who thinks South Park is about trashing our own values and traditions hasn’t been paying attention. Just an inch or so beneath the scatological surface, the show is little more than a typical Western religious exercise in criticizing hypocrisy, sanctimony, and false prophecy. As a contributor (OK, my son Abe) put it in a perspicacious article in Religion in the News a few years ago:
Yet as sacrilegious as South Park can be, it is something else to accuse the show of being anti-religious.Although eccentric faiths like Scientology are called into question, the central tenets of mainstream Christianity and Judaism remain unchallenged. What draws most of the show’s assaults is the abuse or trivialization of religion.
Like The Simpsons even if lots edgier, South Park promotes the values and traditions of its culture. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be so popular.
Update: For a Catholic case in point, see this discussion by Regina Nigro over at In All Things.