On April 10 at Long Island University, Garry Trudeau accepted the George Polk Career Award for his lifetime of work on Doonesbury. In his acceptance speech Trudeau addressed January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which twelve people were killed at the offices of the French satirical weekly, many of them cartoonists. Trudeau’s remarks, which were less sympathetic than one would expect from a fellow political cartoonist, have resurrected a debate over the limits of freedom of expression.
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That Charlie Hebdo reaped the whirlwind by flaunting the well-known Islamist edict against drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed is undeniable. However, Trudeau breathed new life into the charge that Charlie Hebdo consciously sinned against France’s Muslim minority or else made innocent Muslims collateral damage in Charlie’s witless razzing of terrorists. This is a line of argument that began immediately after the massacre, and has greatly diluted the ability of some to put that crime into a proper context.
So let’s set the record straight: Charlie Hebdo is not, in any way, shape or form, bigoted, and anyone still struggling to find moral equivalence between a tree house full of snickering cartoonists and a global movement of unmitigated violence must have the conscience of a bowl of unflavored Jell-O.
The claim that Charlie Hebdo is racist began as a counter-narrative to the Je Suis Charlie (“I Am Charlie”) solidarity that emerged in the days after the attack. “Ne pas vite!” (“Not so fast!”) cried the bleeding hearts: Charlie’s staff, though not deserving of death (a point raised in one breathless disclaimer after another), was nevertheless guilty of “punching down” at weaker foes rather than dishing out upper cuts to the privileged. In his speech at the Polk Awards, Gary Trudeau added his assent to this argument:
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
Where will we find Charlie’s meanness? If you listen to the Trudeaus of the world, it is to be found nowhere at all except in a handful of cartoons Charlie ran that held the Prophet Mohammed up to ridicule—an explicit “F-U” to jihadists, and a detail that nominal leftists just can’t process. Surely such infamy was meant to pummel average Muslims! How could a truly empathic newspaper not understand the deep hurt that would be caused France’s Muslim immigrants by portraying their most sacred figure wearing a red rubber nose?
Phil Ochs once sang that liberals occupy the shadiest of political territory, “ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.” We should not be surprised that in trying to reconcile the Islamist attack on left-wing Charlie Hebdo with their white guilt, liberals have tacked right—that is, towards political correctness. Unwilling to share the ground with the guy who just took a bloody nose on their behalf, these liberals would rather identify with the bully by claiming that the fallen must have picked on the bully’s kid brother. This is what Trudeau is saying when he tells us that:
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech… What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain.
I’d be willing to bet that those murdered cartoonists felt quite a bit of pain themselves before the vestiges of their life finally dripped out onto the floor of their offices.
France’s Muslims may suffer injustices small and large, the kind which attends every minority in every nation that ever has been or will ever be, but let’s get a grip. France’s immigrants are not living in the ghettos of Warsaw. There are more mosques in Paris than there are cheese shops! Why then are so many white atheists willing to twist themselves into pretzels to protect the sacrosanctity of one Mohammed H. Prophet, whose name is on the lips of anyone who you’ve ever seen saw a guy’s head off on YouTube?
Charlie Hebdo’s publisher Stéphane Charbonnier (“Charb”), who had been living under police protection for years before dying in the massacre, perhaps anticipated the eventual backhanded eulogies he would someday receive and preemptively condemned such “disgusting white, left-wing bourgeois paternalism” as Trudeau’s in a book he completed just before his death, adding:
By virtue of what twisted theory is humor less compatible with Islam than it is with any other religion? Saying Islam is not compatible with humor is as absurd as claiming Islam is not compatible with democracy or secularism.
If you want to know who’s really guilty of “punching down”, crack open a daily American newspaper, which represents the interests of a nation actually overflowing with true xenophobic hatred for Muslims, whose Air Force routinely splatters Muslims far and wide with the casual indifference of a police officer putting seven slugs in a fleeing suspect’s spine, and whose own cartoons can scarcely arouse a yawn, much less arouse a public. Which work do you think leads to more death: cartoons that mean something or Garfield?