Limits of expression

My favorite religious satire is by Tom Lehrer, that icon of the 60’s, whose work we heard recently after many years at a Hanukkah party we went to near Beersheva. The host played Lehrer’s famous record (on CD) called “That was the year that was” dating from 1965! It is antiquated, but still so relevant. The particular song I am referring to is “the Vatican Rag.”
Here it goes:

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want,
ifYou have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody says on Kyrie eleison,
Doin’ the Vatican Rag.

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playing it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,Time to transubstantiate!

So get down upon your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Make a cross on your abdomen,
When in Rome do like a Roman,
Ave Maria,Gee it’s good to see ya,
Gettin’ ecstatic an’
Sorta dramatic an’
Doin’ the Vatican Rag!

Even now I get a tingle at how daring it was and is. Of course, Catholicism survived his satire of it, but he could not have sung this in earlier eras, before the secular state became strong enough. If he had done a song satirizing Judaism in 1965, it would not have been considered funny. But, now, after “The Producers” and Woody Allen and Jackie Mason and “Borat,” it’s so common to satirize Jews that it hardly raises an eyebrow. Jews are expected to poke fun at themselves, in fact in Germany before WWII it was customary for Germans to tell anti-Jewish jokes in public and Jews were expected to laugh at them and to tell them too, otherwise they were not considered sporting like other Germans. This is not simply my opinion, but comes from Peter Gay’s work, such as “Freud, Jews and other Germans.” But, satirizing Jews is not like satirizing its heretical offshoots, Christianity and Islam. They seriously believe that they have the only true answer to man’s needs, and there were and are times and places where you will die if you don’t accept their version.
Now this is what I want you to imagine, what if Lehrer had made a similar song about Islam then? Noone would have got it. The reaction in the US would have been, why do that? But, if he did it now, wow! He would be hailed as a brave man and there would no doubt be a fatwa issued against him and he would be in hiding. So much has changed in the past 40 years. After the incredible fuss over the Danish cartoons, and the Pope’s remarks, you know that you can’t say anything publicly satirizing Islam. To do so is taking your life in your hands. This leads to self-censorship, precisely the reason why the editor published the Danish cartoons. So I propose a new rule (call it Cohen’s rule), you’ll know that Islam has become like all other religions and the danger from Islamist extremism will be over when someone publishes a song every bit as satrirical of Islam as the Vatican Rag is of Catholicism, and lives to sing it twice. As a matter of fact I’m working on one now.


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