Last year, I drew a cartoon that showed a man in Middle Eastern apparel at the wheel of a Ryder truck hauling a nuclear warhead. The caption read, “What Would Mohammed Drive?” Besides referring to the vehicle that Timothy McVeigh rode into Oklahoma City, the drawing was a takeoff on the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign created by Christian evangelicals to challenge the morality of owning gas-guzzling SUVs. The cartoon’s main target, of course, was the faith-based politics of a different denomination. Predictably, the Shiite hit the fan.

Can you say “fatwa”? My newspaper, The Tallahassee Democrat, and I received more than 20,000 e-mails demanding an apology for misrepresenting the peace-loving religion of the Prophet Mohammed — or else. Some spelled out the “else”: death, mutilation, Internet spam. “I will cut your fingers and put them in your mother’s ass.” “What you did, Mr. Dog, will cost you your life. Soon you will join the dogs … hahaha in hell.” “Just wait … we will see you in hell with all jews … .” The onslaught was orchestrated by an organization called the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR bills itself as an “advocacy group.” I was to discover that among the followers of Islam it advocated for were the men convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. At any rate, its campaign against me included flash-floods of e-mail intended to shut down servers at my newspaper and my syndicate, as well as viruses aimed at my home computer. The controversy became a subject of newspaper editorials, columns, Web logs, talk radio, and CNN. I was condemned on the front page of the Saudi publication Arab News by the secretary general of the Muslim World League.

My answer to the criticism was published in the Democrat (and reprinted around the country) under the headline With All Due Respect, an Apology Is Not in Order. I almost felt that I could have written the response in my sleep. In my thirty-year career, I have regularly drawn cartoons that offended religious fundamentalists and true believers of every stripe, a fact that I tend to list in the “Accomplishments” column of my résumé. I have outraged Christians by skewering Jerry Falwell, Catholics by needling the pope, and Jews by criticizing Israel. Those who rise up against the expression of ideas are strikingly similar. No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance. Despite differences of culture and creed, they all seem to share the notion that there is only one way of looking at things, their way. What I have learned from years of this is one of the great lessons of all the world’s religions: we are all one in our humanness.

In my response, I reminded readers that my “What Would Mohammed Drive?” drawing was an assault not upon Islam but on the distortion of the Muslim religion by murderous fanatics - the followers of Mohammed who flew those planes into our buildings, to be sure, but also the Taliban killers of noncompliant women and destroyers of great art, the true believers who decapitated an American reporter, the young Palestinian suicide bombers taking out patrons of pizza parlors in the name of the Prophet Mohammed.

Then I gave my Journalism 101 lecture on the First Amendment, explaining that in this country we do not apologize for our opinions. Free speech is the linchpin of our republic. All other freedoms flow from it. After all, we don’t need a First Amendment to allow us to run boring, inoffensive cartoons. We need constitutional protection for our right to express unpopular views. If we can’t discuss the great issues of the day on the pages of our newspapers fearlessly, and without apology, where can we discuss them? In the streets with guns? In cafés with strapped-on bombs?

Although my initial reaction to the “Mohammed” hostilities was that I had been there before, gradually I began to feel that there was something new, something darker afoot. The repressive impulses of that old-time religion were now being fed by the subtler inhibitions of mammon and the marketplace. Ignorance and bigotry were reinventing themselves in the post-Christian age by dressing up as “sensitivity” and masquerading as a public virtue that may be as destructive to our rights as religious zealotry. We seem to be entering a Techno Dark Age, in which the machines that were designed to serve the free flow of information have fallen into the hands of an anti-intellectual mobocracy.

Twenty-five years ago, I began inciting the wrath of the faithful by caricaturing the grotesque disparity between Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s televangelism scam and the Christian piety they used to justify it. I was then working at The Charlotte Observer, in the hometown of the Bakkers’ PTL Club, which instigated a full-bore attack on me. The issues I was cartooning were substantial enough that I won the Pulitzer Prize for my PTL work. But looking back on that fundamentalist religious campaign, even though my hate mail included some death threats, I am struck by the relative innocence of the times and how ominous the world has since become - how high the stakes, even for purveyors of incendiary doodles.

One of the first cartoons I ever drew on PTL was in 1978, when Jim Bakker’s financial mismanagement forced him to lay off a significant portion of his staff. The drawing showed the TV preacher sitting at the center of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper informing his disciples, “I’m going to have to let some of you go!” Bakker’s aides told reporters that he was so upset by the drawing that he fell to his knees in his office, weeping into the gold shag carpet. Once he staggered to his feet, he and Tammy Faye went on the air and, displaying my cartoons, encouraged viewers to phone in complaints to the Observer and cancel their subscriptions.

Jim Bakker finally resigned in disgrace from his PTL ministry, and I drew a cartoon of the televangelist who replaced him, Jerry Falwell, as a serpent slithering into PTL paradise: “Jim and Tammy were expelled from paradise and left me in charge.”

One of the many angry readers who called me at the newspaper said, “You’re a tool of Satan.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re a tool of Satan for that cartoon you drew.”

“That’s impossible,” I said. “I couldn’t be a tool of Satan. The Charlotte Observer’s personnel department tests for that sort of thing.”

Confused silence on the other end.

“They try to screen for tools of Satan,” I explained. “Knight Ridder human resources has a strict policy against hiring tools of Satan.”

Click.

Until “What Would Mohammed Drive?” most of the flak I caught was from the other side of the Middle East conflict. Jewish groups complained that my cartoons critical of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon were anti-Semitic because I had drawn Prime Minister Menachem Begin with a big nose. My editors took the strategic position that I drew everyone’s nose big. At one point, editorial pages were spread out on the floor for editors to measure with a ruler the noses of various Jewish and non-Jewish figures in my cartoons.

After I moved to the Northeast, it was Catholics I offended. At New York Newsday, I drew a close-up of the pope wearing a button that read “No Women Priests.” There was an arrow pointing to his forehead and the inscription from Matthew 16:18: “Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church.” The Newsday switchboard lit up like a Vegas wedding chapel. Newsday ran an apology for the cartoon, a first in my career, and offered me a chance to respond in a column. The result - though the paper published it in full - got me put on probation for a year by the publisher. That experience inspired the opening scene of my first novel, The Bridge.

The novel’s protagonist, a political cartoonist named Pick Cantrell, is fired after beating up his publisher and returns with his wife and son to North Carolina, where he confronts the ghosts of his past in the form of his grandmother, Mama Lucy, the family matriarch and his boyhood nemesis. In an attempt to show how the grandmother became such a formidable ogre, the book flashes back to mill life in the thirties, when Lucy, like my own grandmother, was bayoneted by a National Guardsman during a textile strike. There were obvious autobiographical elements of The Bridge. Like Pick, I would have beaten up my publisher if it had been legal. And The Bridge’s fictional setting of Eno, North Carolina, is based loosely on Hillsborough, a former mill village where my ancestors once worked in the cotton mill’s weave rooms and where I now live with my family. These days the town features an advanced white-wine-and-Brie-in-bulk community of writers and other bourgeois bohemians. Various members of the community were given highly fictionalized analogs in the novel, from a vegan restaurateur to a sex-toy manufacturer. But most of the book came straight from the imagination.

I’m not sure I expected my foray into what Mark Twain called the “littery” world to be a stroll through a Bloomsbury garden, but I surely did not expect the Taliban, or as some people in my town of Hillsborough called the literary terrorists who went after my book, “HillQaeda.”

A neighbor of mine thought he recognized himself in the gay-writer character, Ruffin Strudwick, the author of a Civil War best seller, “told from the point of view of a female Confederate spy,” which had “created an uproar among Civil War scholars by suggesting that the relationship between Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson was latently homosexual.” It’s true, my neighbor made a name for himself by taking on the fictional persona of a Confederate female (not a spy), but the fictional Strudwick was a composite. In fact, his troubled relationship with his father prompted Pat Conroy’s sister to write and thank me for basing Strudwick on her brother. Their father, The Great Santini, “would just love how you made Pat gay,” she said. The only literal trait my neighbor shared with Strudwick was a weakness for vintage costumes and red high-tops. If I had to defend myself for lifting those details, I would contend that dressing like that around a cartoonist amounts to entrapment.

Sadly, the title of my first chapter - “A Gift for Pissing People Off” - proved to be all too nonfictional. As the galleys of the novel circulated, the offended writer wept like a televangelist to anyone who would listen, claiming he had been viciously caricatured. Another local writer known for her “niceness” called urging me to change my book. Amused as I was to see literary sophisticates behaving like small-town provincials (this is North Carolina; hadn’t they read Thomas Wolfe?), the smile was presently wiped off my face. A local publicist I had hired to promote my book called in tears after being told by the nice writer’s husband that she would never work in this town again if she continued to represent me. Then the rector of the Episcopal church my family attended complained about the Strudwick character and, lest he be mistaken for the earthy minister in the novel, contacted my publisher and asked to have his name removed from the acknowledgments. This, of course, set off alarms within my publishing house, which brought in lawyers to vet the novel for libel.

Then the weeping writer’s close friend who managed the campus bookstore at the University of North Carolina (where I had just become a visiting professor) canceled my book signing there. She tried to get other booksellers around the state to do likewise, on the ground that The Bridge was “homophobic trash.” (Her bookstore sells T-shirts that proclaim, “I read banned books.”)

Reviews were posted on Amazon.com trashing The Bridge, repeating the homophobia charge, all with similarly worded, weirdly personal talking points. A bit of verse was sent anonymously to my home address: “May maggots munch your belly-bone and rats chew on your ears … .” My wife, who had already been shunned on the street and at the local latté bar, read it as a death threat.

I resisted the impulse to respond. My day job requires enough gladiatorial duty on behalf of free speech. And the attempts to censor my novel weren’t really a First Amendment abuse: the government wasn’t trying to shut me up (unless you count that state-owned campus bookstore) - only a bunch of unarmed and dangerous writers. Besides, my brothers and sisters in the free press covered my flank nicely. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, for instance, called the attack “a panty-wadding fatwa,” adding “I, for one, can’t wait for the cartoon.”

But how do you cartoon a cartoon? It’s a problem of redundancy in this hyperbolic age to caricature an already extravagantly distorted culture. When writers try to censor other writers, we’re in Toontown. We are in deep trouble when victimhood becomes a sacrament, personal injury a point of pride, when irreverence is seen as a hate crime, when the true values of art and religion are distorted and debased by fanatics and zealots, whether in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Prophet Mohammed, or a literary Cult of Narcissus.

It was the cynically outrageous charge of homophobia against my book that brought me around to the similarities between the true believers I was used to dealing with and the postmodern secular humanist Church Ladies wagging their fingers at me. The threads that connect the CAIR and the literary fatwas, besides technological sabotage, are entreaties to “sensitivity,” appeals to institutional guilt, and faith in a corporate culture of controversy avoidance. Niceness is the new face of censorship in this country.

The censors no longer come to us in jackboots with torches and baying dogs in the middle of the night. They arrive now in broad daylight with marketing surveys and focus-group findings. They come as teams, not armies, trained in effectiveness, certified in sensitivity, and wielding degrees from the Columbia journalism school. They’re known not for their bravery but for their efficiency. They show gallantry only when they genuflect to apologize.

The most disturbing thing about the “Mohammed” experience was that a laptop Luftwaffe was able to blitz editors into not running the cartoon in my own newspaper. “WWMD” ran briefly on the Tallahassee Democrat Web site, but once an outcry was raised, the editors pulled it and banned it from the newspaper altogether.

The cyberprotest by CAIR showed a sophisticated understanding of what motivates newsroom managers these days - bottom-line concerns, a wish for the machinery to run smoothly, and the human-resources mandate not to offend. Many of my e-mail detractors appeared to be well-educated, recent émigrés. Even if their English sometimes faltered, they were fluent in the language of victimhood. Presumably, victimization was one of their motives for leaving their native countries, yet the subtext of many of their letters was that this country should be more like the ones they emigrated from. They had the American know-how without the know-why. In the name of tolerance, in the name of their peaceful God, they threatened violence against someone they accused of falsely accusing them of violence.

With the rise of the bottom-line culture and the corporatization of newsgathering, tolerance itself has become commodified and denuded of its original purpose. Consequently, the best part of the American character - our generous spirit, our sense of fair play - has been turned against us. Tolerance has become a tool of coercion, of institutional inhibition, of bureaucratic self-preservation. We all should take pride in how this country for the most part curbed the instinct to lash out at Arab-Americans in the wake of 9/11. One of the great strengths of this nation is our sensitivity to the tyranny of the majority, our sense of justice for all. But the First Amendment, the miracle of our system, is not just a passive shield of protection. In order to maintain our true, nationally defining diversity, it obligates journalists to be bold, writers to be full-throated and uninhibited, and those blunt instruments of the free press, cartoonists like me, not to self-censor. We must use it or lose it.

Political cartoonists daily push the limits of free speech. They were once the embodiment of journalism’s independent voice. Today they are as endangered a species as bald eagles. The professional troublemaker has become a luxury that offends the bottom-line sensibilities of corporate journalism. Twenty years ago, there were two hundred of us working on daily newspapers. Now there are only ninety. Herblock is dead. Jeff MacNelly is dead. And most of the rest of us might as well be. Just as résumé hounds have replaced newshounds in today’s newsrooms, ambition has replaced talent at the drawing boards. Passion has yielded to careerism, Thomas Nast to Eddie Haskell. With the retirement of Paul Conrad at the Los Angeles Times, a rolling blackout from California has engulfed the country, dimming the pilot lights on many American editorial pages. Most editorial cartoons now look as bland as B-roll and as impenetrable as a 1040 form.

We know what happens to the bald eagle when it’s not allowed to reproduce and its habitat is contaminated. As the species is thinned, the eco-balance is imperiled.

Why should we care about the obsolescence of the editorial cartoonist? Because cartoons can’t say “on the other hand,” because they strain reason and logic, because they are hard to defend and thus are the acid test of the First Amendment, and that is why they must be preserved.

What would Marlette drive? Forget SUVs and armored cars. It would be an all-terrain vehicle you don’t need a license for. Not a foreign import, but American-made. It would be built with the same grit and gumption my grandmother showed when she faced down government soldiers in the struggle for economic justice, and the courage my father displayed as a twenty-year-old when he waded ashore in the predawn darkness of Salerno and Anzio. It would be fueled by the freedom spirit that both grows out of our Constitution and is protected by it - fiercer than any fatwa, tougher than all the tanks in the army, and more powerful than any bunker-buster.

If I drew you a picture it might look like the broken-down jalopy driven by the Joads from Oklahoma to California. Or like the Cadillac that Jack Kerouac took on the road in his search for nirvana. Or the pickup Woody Guthrie hitched a ride in on that ribbon of highway, bound for glory. Or the International Harvester Day-Glo school bus driven cross-country by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Or the Trailways and Greyhound buses the Freedom Riders boarded to face the deadly backroads of Mississippi and Alabama. Or the moonbuggy Neil Armstrong commanded on that first miraculous trip to the final frontier.

What would Marlette drive? The self-evident, unalienable American model of democracy that we as a young nation discovered and road-tested for the entire world: the freedom to be ourselves, to speak the truth as we see it, and to drive it home.