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They Killed South Park!

Toilet humor? Absolutely. Extremist? Hardly. by Galina Stolyarova 11 September 2008 ST. PETERSBURG | A Christmas show is being put on in a primary school. One of the mothers raises hell and demands that her Jewish son not take part in the Christian production. The boy leaves the rehearsals and creates an imaginary character, Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, who emerges from the toilet to wish everyone a very happy Christmas, regardless of their religious beliefs.

This episode of South Park, an animated sitcom shown around the world, has just been branded as "extremist" and "a sacrilege" in Russia, and the character, Mr. Govnyashka in Russian, as "insulting to the feelings of religious believers."

Prosecutors in Moscow are taking the 2x2 television channel to court for broadcasting the unfortunate cartoon, which they claim promotes extremism. They have also asked the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service to investigate all content broadcast by the channel and take measures to filter out anything they regard as improper. A district court in Moscow has already issued a warning to the channel, and the next step could be its closure.

In an official statement released this week, the General Prosecutor's Office declared 117 other cartoons shown by the channel unsuitable for children. Among them were international favorites like The Simpsons and The Family Guy.

"Nearly all the cartoons exploit the theme of suicide; they promote violence, cruelty, pornography, and antisocial behavior; the characters demonstrate a willingness to risk their lives in a search for questionable pleasures and extreme sensations," the statement reads. "The products of such low ethical quality are exerting an extremely negative influence on children, distorting their values and increasing the risk that they will be put into a state of panic and develop neurotic conditions."

The American animated series at issue was created as a fusion of provocation, black humor, and razor-edge political satire. Ridiculing political correctness has been a trademark. South Park has had politicians ranging from George W. Bush to Saddam Hussein among its characters. It has drawn criticism from religious organizations across the globe but apparently has never – until now – faced an official ban.

Government agencies in Putin-Medvedev Russia have been keeping a close eye on the content of television programs. One of the most prominent victims of this scrutiny was the hugely popular political puppet show Kukly, which was criticized for "creating a distorted and insulting image of President Putin" and then canceled.

With satirical cartoons being provocative by nature and grotesque in style, to judge them "propaganda" and "promotion" is to miss the point.

Such a fierce attack on cartoons and satire shows just how embarrassingly backward the ruling elite is, and the approving media coverage, complete with quotes from concerned experts and angry mothers, how ready society here is to embrace censorship.

It does not occur to prosecutors that animation exists for adults as well as children, nor that interpreting subjects in such a manner can easily lead to, as 2x2 general director Roman Sarkisov put it, "ending the broadcasts of Formula 1 races as a potentially suicidal sport and terminating the licenses of all channels showing extreme sports and any adrenaline-fuelled activities."

The prosecutors' crusade against the channel is all the more intriguing considering that the cartoons have already been shown by other channels with no objection. The station’s owners have wondered aloud if a company favored by the Kremlin has its eyes on their frequency, though they have not named names.

POTTY MOUTHS

At the same time, it is remarkable that while monitoring the purity of language of characters in American cartoons, no state agencies have expressed interest in urging officials themselves to mind their own language.

Russia's most powerful politicians are widely ridiculed for their verbal lapses, but not by government agencies. Such lapses and the use of foul language feature prominently in thousands of blogs and kitchen talk across the country.

The examples are countless, from Putin's famous pledge to catch Chechen terrorists any time and place: "Find them in the outhouse, we will whack them there," to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's clumsy attempts at flattery when addressing Vladimir Putin. "I don't want to be unfaithful, either to my wife, or to the president or to Muscovites," the mayor once proclaimed.

Why was no government agency disturbed by Medvedev's words about Georgia being "forced to accept peace," as if peace is something that can be forced on any particular country – and that's without mentioning the question of whether the president of the country in question is, as Medvedev put it, "a political corpse." Any country is first and foremost the people, and only then the leader.

When, during the Russia-European Union summit in Brussels in 2002, Putin replied to a question from a French journalist by inviting him to Moscow to be circumcised – he pledged that it would be done "in such a way that it would never grow back" – none of the state agencies in Russia showed the slightest concern.

The standoff between the prosecutors and 2x2 television channel, although it appears to revolve around a character appearing from the toilet and singing silly songs, is essentially about tolerance. And if it comes down to banning harmless cartoons, it will be an illustration of just how little tolerance remains in modern Russia. Hatred among ethnic, religious, and social groups does not grow out of cartoons. It develops when people see the leaders of their countries dividing the world into friends and foes, and when bans and restrictions, rather that negotiations and reconciliation, are promoted as the only decent means of solving problems.
Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.
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