I’ve never found Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip to be either laugh-out-loud funny or brilliantly incisive, and it’s been years since I read it at all regularly, but I do appreciate the strip’s wry, intelligent commentary on American politics when I happen to come across it. Trudeau isn’t an edgy or provocative cartoonist by the standards I’m used to, but his work can be fun and perceptive, and Doonesbury apparently pushed some boundaries in its early years and occasionally still manages to upset certain people.
Given that Doonesbury has periodically ruffled feathers, sparked outrage, and attracted condemnation from moralistic busybodies of various stripes, one might think that Trudeau would be entirely sympathetic to fellow cartoonists who were actually killed for drawing something that offended people – and one would be dead wrong. On the occasion of winning something called the George Polk Career Award (I’ve never heard of it either), Trudeau offered some thoughts on the slaughter of 12 people at the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo that took place just a few months ago, on January 7. Trudeau called the incident a “tragedy”, but that was literally the only word of his speech that expressed any sense of solidarity with the four cartoonists who were among the dead. However, Trudeau did have plenty to say about what he saw as the sins of Charlie:
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.
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, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.
The last sentence of that quote is really quite astonishing. The present participle “triggering” sneakily glosses over the agency of the people who actually performed the violent acts that took place in the course of those “protests across the Muslim world”, the plain fact that they chose to respond to imagery in a magazine by getting violent rather than protesting peacefully or drawing their own damn cartoon of Marianne getting banged by a hippopotamus or something. There’s also a rather clear distinction between “incites violence” and “provokes violence” that Trudeau is simply ignoring.
More interesting, though, is the idea that legitimate satire has to “punch up” rather than “punch down”. Trudeau is presumably talking here about pointed, cutting “Juvenalian” satire, because the gentler “Horatian” kind could hardly be construed as punching at all. Everything I’ve read about Charlie Hebdo suggests that it’s always been pretty firmly in the Juvenalian tradition, but even so, there are two clear problems with the fashionable notion that punching up is just peachy whereas punching down is abhorrent. First, the vertical position of the people who produce and appreciate a given piece of satire relative to the people being targetted by it may not actually be that obvious, especially considering that much good satire is nuanced stuff that works at multiple levels. David Frum, not someone with whom I’m generally in the habit of agreeing, made the basic point rather pithily in response to Trudeau’s remarks:
But here’s the trouble: There are many dogs in any fight, and the task of identifying which one is the underdog is not so easy.
In this particular case, in fact, it’s hard to see how mocking or insulting the capital-P Prophet Mohammed, as Charlie Hebdo did occasionally, could be interpreted as “punching down” from a Muslim zealot’s own point of view. Jesus might have been a vocational victim who ended up getting crucified and mewling that his daddy had abandoned him, but Mo was a successful warlord who, as his own website assures us, “had a body formed in perfection” (I don’t think even Mary Magdalene is on record as having said that about Jesus) and “could hear from a long way off and see further than anyone”. He was also, of course, a messenger of Allah and so forth. If one were to believe all (or even much) of that rot, it would surely be hard to see how a French cartoonist could possibly even reach Mohammed no matter how high he or she might aim when attempting to punch.
The second problem is that, well, sometimes even the most unambiguous underdogs just happen to be ridiculous and rabid. Yes, sympathy for underdogs is a noble impulse, as Frum also acknowledges, but surely it doesn’t have to trump all other considerations. When people (Islamic zealots, say) who happen to be underprivileged in some way are being dreadful, destructive or threatening, does their disadvantaged status really mean that satire is off the table? I don’t think it ought to, particularly when the satire is directed less at the people themselves than at their belief systems, prophets and other assorted sacred kine.
However, I do have a couple of points of serious discord with Frum, which makes me suspect the world remains on its proper axis after all. For one thing, Frum draws the following inference about Garry Trudeau’s motives:
Violence does work. Unlike Garry Trudeau’s abortion cartoons, news organizations that report on the Muhammad cartoon controversy typically omit the images at issue. And indeed, in the absence of violence, it’s hard to imagine that Garry Trudeau—a winner of the Pulitzer prize, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of 30 honorary degrees—would have been moved to condemn as “hate speech” the violation of someone else’s definition of blasphemy.
I think Frum must be suggesting here that Islamist objections to Charlie Hebdo grabbed Trudeau’s attention only because they were expressed in a manner that involved flamboyant bloodshed, not that Trudeau was so personally frightened of being attacked by jihadists that he felt obliged to publicly and spontaneously uphold the validity of their “definition of blasphemy”. The latter, after all, would be patently ridiculous. However, Frum does seem to share my co-blogger Indi’s opinion that the fear of being attacked is largely responsible for the reluctance of “news organizations” to run cartoons of Mohammed, whereas I think the fear factor is unlikely to explain more than a small percentage of the phenomenon. There can’t exactly be a limitless supply of Muslims who are prepared to throw away their lives in the name of violent fanaticism, capable (in terms of skills, equipment, and gumption) of pulling off an attack like the one mounted on the Charlie Hebdo offices, and positioned within striking distance of any given media outlet. Publishing cartoons of Mohammed is a bit like getting on an airplane – if it does lead to disaster, it can do so in spectacular and headline-grabbing fashion, but the physical risk involved is small. I think it’s much more likely that the average editor who shrinks from the idea of running blasphemous cartoons shares Trudeau’s exaggerated concern about “punching down” and/or doesn’t fancy the idea of being called a racist and Islamophobe by a yowling chorus of politically correct Twittershits on that same basis.
My other disagreement with Frum involves his dismissal of what I’m inclined to acknowledge as Trudeau’s one good point about L’affaire Charlie, namely the following:
The French tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace. Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column. Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another.
Frum thinks this quote reflects a move on Trudeau’s part to “equate the practitioners of violence with their targets”, on the basis that Muslims in France commit many more “hate crimes” against Jews than vice-versa (and I don’t doubt Frum on this point), but isn’t this just another version of Trudeau’s own shallow argument about the moral unacceptability of punching down? I don’t see any realistic escape from the conclusion that France, like most Western countries, has a prevailing concept of free speech that can be rather selective. So yeah, je suis Charlie – but je suis Dieudonné, too.