Tuesday, May 10, 2005

“East is east and West is west, and never the twain shall meet.” The jet airplane and the Internet have rendered a lot of Kipling’s eloquence irrelevant, but the old boy had a point. Cultures, if not necessarily at war, still clash.

Consider the noble dog. In the West we regard him as man’s best friend. For one thing, he sees and hears a lot, and he’ll never tell. Little old ladies have been known to bequeath fortunes to his interests. “A gay dog” was once a sly compliment for the man about town and with very different connotations than such a compliment would imply today. Shakespeare characterized mighty armies with canine metaphor (“let slip the dogs of war”). Great universities invoke him as mascot for their beloved athletic teams. Yalies sing a hymn to him: “Bulldog, Bulldog, bow, wow, wow,” and the Georgia Bulldogs are annually the scourge of college football. The most loyal Democrats of yesteryear proudly called themselves “yellow dogs.” Loyal Democrats of the present day style themselves “the blue dogs,” and our soldiers are “working like dogs” on far-flung fronts today in the interests of what our French friends celebrate as liberte, egalite, fraternite. Indeed, we regard the dog as one of God’s greatest gifts, one of the noblest expressions of patience, loyalty, kindness and devotion.

A dog, in short, has soul, if not a soul. But this, alas, doesn’t always translate accurately to other cultures. In much of the Islamic world, for example, the dog is not, not to put too fine a point on it, held in such high repute, and is often regarded as not much better than, say, the sole of a man’s shoe. You can offend a devout Muslim, as the editorial page of this newspaper has learned to our chagrin, with a canine comparison that would cheer a conscientious Christian.

Our Bill Garner, whom we regard as the most incisive and talented cartoonist at work on American newspapers, set out last week to express, in a cartoonist’s irreverent way, a little gratitude for Pakistan’s work in the pursuit and capture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, believed to be the third-in-command of al Qaeda.

In an unexpected “tribute” to the long reach of the influence of this newspaper, the Pakistani parliament adopted, unanimously, a resolution decrying Mr. Garner’s cartoon, and the Pakistani embassy has protested “an insult to the sentiments of the people of both Pakistan and the United States as it strengthens the hands of the extremists.” This imputes more power to a mere newspaper than any newspaper deserves, but we take the embassy’s point and offer the assurance that no insult was intended. Other Pakistani politicians have demanded an apology from no less than the president of the United States. The suggestion that any American newspaper speaks for the government or a president betrays a profound ignorance of how America works. If an American president could prevent newspaper cartoonists from insulting, reviling, abusing, affronting and “dissing” politicians, he would not exercise this power in behalf of anyone but himself. Newspaper cartoonists have been insulting, reviling, abusing, affronting and “dissing” presidents for more than a century, and all that presidents can do about it is grin, bear it and ask for the originals, for framing and display on desk or wall.

For his part, Mr. Garner, who admires Pakistan and, we might as well say it, loves old hounds, meant no offense or injury. Indeed, quite the contrary: “When I showed a dog bringing in a terrorist I did it in the spirit of goodwill and friendship that exists between the two countries. I did not mean anything disparaging.” Nevertheless, he says he will find other metaphors next time: “I now understand that it obviously is a very negative symbol in Pakistan. I hope they will have an understanding of what I intended, and will accept differences among religions and cultures.”

And if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll be careful about what he says about cats.

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