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Opinion

French laws shouldn’t cramp our style

James Lileks Newhouse News Service

Creeping theocracy watch, continued: A court has ruled that a fashion company can’t run ads that make fun of the Last Supper. To be specific: They can’t make fun of a painting done 1,500 years after the event. Pretentious denim-vendors Girbaud parodied Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting; bishops complained; and the government banned the ad. Typical for Red-State-Uber-Alles Amerika, eh?

But this happened in France. Yes, it’s Europe that has blasphemy laws — secular, post-Christianity Europe, come-for-the- cathedrals-and-stay-for-the-hash-cafe Europe. The ruling came from a French court in response to a case brought by a group of French bishops.

Said Thierry Massis, the bishops’ lawyer, “When you attack sacred things, you create a moral violence that is dangerous for our children. Tomorrow we’ll have Christ selling socks.”

Don’t give them any ideas. It’s still a miracle that Lot’s wife hasn’t endorsed Morton Salt. The bishops’ complaint might seem rather exaggerated, since the ad takes its inspiration from Leo, not the Bible; great though DaVinci was, divine he was not. If a parody of a painting based on the Bible is blasphemy, you could say the same about comedic interpretation of Charlton Heston’s acting in “The Ten Commandments.”

That’s the trouble with blasphemy laws — the crime is often in the eye of the beholder, and the unbelieving art director is often utterly clueless as to what might offend.

Except for Islam, to which no offense must be given. Not because the art directors hold it in great esteem, but because it’s just not worth the aggravation. Fashion directors would love to have models parade down the catwalk in chadors, then whip them off to show the spring line of thongs, but they remember the fate of Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered for disrespecting the Quran. Compared to that, bishops with lawyers is just the cost of doing business.

If Europe starts to enforce blasphemy laws, ought not the United States do the same? A recent Entertainment Weekly had film director Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me” fame in a crucifixion posture, burgers in each outstretched hand, bloody ketchup trickling from his palms. Stupid, yes. Clueless. But should it be outlawed?

Of course not. Government can’t hurl fatwas from the bench, even if some moronic ad agency uses a marshmallow chicken rolling back the stone on Easter morn to sell Peeps. What’s more, the ad industry in America is inexplicably smart enough not to cross that line. But even if Madison Avenue completely lost its bearings and started spoofing the Gospels to move pop or widescreen TVs, most wouldn’t clamor for laws to stop them. That’s what they do in Iran. Or Saudi Arabia. Or France.

But wait a minute. Hold on. If other nations have blasphemy laws, well, shouldn’t we? After all, the Supreme Court did a hat tip to foreign law when deciding that juvie murderers should not ride Old Sparky down to their reward. If other nations forbid such things, ought we not pay heed? In for a penny, in for a euro, after all.

Well, no. One suspects that the possible downsides don’t bother those who want U.S. courts to follow international “trends.” No, our wise, robed solons will inspect the rich buffet of international precedents and select the “proper” laws.

But the supporters of the international voice might consider the wisdom of letting them dang fur’nurs have a voice in our courts. We’re constantly told that the United States is about one public prayer away from being a full-blown theocracy, after all; if the neo-con project to revoke the Constitution and install George W. Bush as the first God-ordered Boy-King is successful, do they want the courts finding precedents in backwater Pakistani courts that mandate the death penalty for rape victims on religious grounds?

Not that they would. Believing in the Constitution as the final word, not some vast, amorphous, wobbly blob of international law, is becoming a “conservative” position, and it’s unlikely we’ll see Bush float judges who want to bend U.S. law to fit the whims of Canada or Belgium.

Import French jeans, if you want. But leave their laws at the dock.

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