Forty years after becoming the first cartoonist to win a Pulitzer Prize Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau was recently honored with the prestigious George Polk career award in Journalism — the first cartoonist so honored.
In his acceptance speech Trudeau addressed the controversy surrounding the French Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. After condemning the murders and violence, Trudeau said:
“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 [Hebdo] wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence,” he continued. “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 10 people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.”
“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,” Trudeau said. “Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point, free-expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.”
Last week America witnessed such fanaticism in Garland, Texas. Two Muslim gunmen from Arizona were shot dead on Sunday while attempting to attack the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” sponsored by American Freedom Defense Initiative President Pamela Geller, an extremely well-compensated anti-Islam activist and conspiracy theorist.
On one side were inter-linked American fanatics Pamela Geller (AFDI, Atlas Shrugged) Robert Spencer (AFDI, Jihad Watch) and keynote speaker and provocateur Geert Wilders, Dutch parliamentarian and international anti-Islam activist.
In opposition was the violent criminal response of two Muslims who, offended by the cartoon contest portrayals of their Prophet, felt compelled to try and use violence to stop the AFDI event. Fortunately, the two men, well-armed and wearing body armor, were stopped and killed by police.
Pamela Geller and her cohort Robert Spencer, who are described by The American Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as “anti-Muslim bigots,” and whose organizations are designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, knew exactly what they were doing when they organized their “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest”
They wanted to incite and provoke, and from amidst an American community of millions of law-abiding Muslims two disaffected men emerged and threw their matches into the flammable pool of gasoline that Geller and Spencer had poured onto American soil. Together they despoiled our Public Square.
The ADL “founded in 1913 to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as being pro-Muslim, knew exactly what it was doing when it named Geller and Spencer as bigots that promote, with Wilder, “a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam.”
They spewed hatred. Violence erupted.
While the initial inclination of many pundits, and politicians was to take Geller’s side after the violence, a more nuanced and mature narrative soon emerged. Support for AFDI’s intellectually unsustainable provocation was not universal, even among a predictable constituency, America’s right wing. Fox Host Greta Van Susteren accused Geller of lacking “good judgment” and of putting police in danger.
“Yes, of course, there is a First Amendment right and of course it’s very important,” Van Susteren said. “But the exercise of that right includes using good judgment,”
Bill Donahue of the Catholic League condemned the contest: “When you embolden people, when you empower people, the haters, you’re going to get violence,” he said. “And so why would anybody who’s morally responsibly want to intentionally incite other people?”
“We live in a sick society that some people think it’s good to taunt other people,” Donahue said.
Fox Host Martha MacCallum challenged Geller, who had compared herself to Rosa Parks. “No, no, no, where are you getting the Rosa Parks comparison?” MacCallum said. “If you want to make a difference, you do it in a Christian way, you don’t do it in a crass way by insulting someone’s religion.”
Even Rev. Franklin Graham, whose negative opinions of Islam are well-documented, chimed in: “As a Christian, I don’t like it when people mock my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and what this event in Garland, Texas, was doing was mocking the Muslims,” he said on Fox. “… I don’t believe in Islam, but I’m not going to mock them and make fun of them.”
Perhaps it is in the space between those comments and in the silence between our words where we can find hope. Perhaps in the space between the footsteps of the living and the dead we will reach a fuller understanding of the intersection between privilege and pain, between the arrogance and fanaticism of the powerful and the fanaticism of the disenfranchised.
Last week 26 authors, including Junot Díaz and Joyce Carol Oates. signed a letter to protest PEN America’s freedom of expression award for the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The letter accused Charlie of mocking a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.”
While the letter writers, including Pulitzer and National Book Award winners, condemned the murder of 12 Hebdo staffers they also criticized the award: “There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression,” they wrote. “The magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.
“Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire.”
Our Founding Fathers called upon us to recognize the tensions between rights and respect, between the responsibility and freedoms they endowed upon us — and to figure out how to make it work, generation after generation.
“It’s not easy figuring out where the red line is for satire anymore,” Trudeau said. “But it’s always worth asking this question: Is anyone, anyone at all, laughing? If not, maybe you crossed it.”
NB Earlier comments on the Charlie Hebdo attacks can be read here: