Punching Downward — Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau on free speech, satire, and the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo.
I, and most of my colleagues, have spent a lot of time discussing red lines since the tragedy in Paris. As you know, the Muhammad cartoon controversy began eight years ago in Denmark, as a protest against “self-censorship,” one editor’s call to arms against what she felt was a suffocating political correctness. The idea behind the original drawings was not to entertain or to enlighten or to challenge authority—her charge to the cartoonists was specifically to provoke, and in that they were exceedingly successful. Not only was one cartoonist gunned down, but riots erupted around the world, resulting in the deaths of scores. No one could say toward what positive social end, yet free speech absolutists were unchastened. Using judgment and common sense in expressing oneself were denounced as antithetical to freedom of speech.
And now we are adrift in an even wider sea of pain. Ironically, Charlie Hebdo, which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. This is a bitter harvest.
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. 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.
The White House took a lot of hits for not sending a high-level representative to the pro-Charlie solidarity march, but that oversight is now starting to look smart. 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.
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. 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.
As Seen on TV — Charlie Pierce on what happened in South Carolina.
No video, no crime.
That’s the simple truth of it. That’s all you know and all ye needs to know about the cold-blooded slaying of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina. No video, and Slager drops his Taser by Scott’s body and probably gets away with what he did. No video, and Scott goes down as just another of the many semi-hoodlums that are occupational hazards to our brave men in blue. No video, and Slager’s doing three nights a week on Hannity’s show by next Monday. No video, and Slager’s half-a-hero, while Scott remains dead.
But there is a video and Slager is shown both killing Scott, and appearing to try to cover it up in that most ancient of cop ways — with a drop piece. He is seen handcuffing a dying man. So let us not have any explanation containing the phrase “isolated incident.” Let us have no talk of “split-second decisions” or the “heat of the moment.” What we see in the video is Slager’s almost instantaneous response to what he’s done. Drop a weapon. Concoct a story. Rely on your brother officers and ginned-up public opinion to mount your defense. Rely on the fact that you’re a white man with a badge and the person you killed was clearly neither one. In everything we see on the video, Michael Slager was following…procedure.
There is a video, so Michael Slager will face murder charges in this case, and that is as it should be, but the systemic problem goes merrily on.
North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, with a population of about 100,000. African-Americans make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent. The Police Department is about 80 percent white, according to data collected by the Justice Department in 2007, the most recent period available.
The country has to decide what the function of its police forces actually is. Is it their function to protect and to serve all citizens, or is it to respond with overwhelming deadly force to placate the fears that one sector of the population nurses toward The Other? Are our police custodians of ordered liberty or some sort of Praetorian Guard of established privilege? I’m sympathetic enough to the average officer to believe that many of them want to be the former, but are trained too thoroughly in the techniques of the latter. I hope the villain of this piece doesn’t turn out to be the guy who took the video, but I’m not sure that won’t be the case. There shouldn’t have to be video, is what I’m saying.
In extremely related news, the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri turned out in admirable numbers to begin to change the essential nature of their city government yesterday. For all the noise and bother, this is how you do it, one phone call at a time, one more door on which to knock. This is how the culture changes. This is how we get our police back.
The Spending Begins — Andy Borowitz on the unconscionable waste of money yet to come.
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—The two major political parties’ unconscionable waste of money officially commences this weekend, as Democrats and Republicans will soon begin spending an estimated five billion dollars of their corporate puppet masters’ assets in an unquenchable pursuit of power.
The billions, which could be spent rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, improving schools, or reducing the scourge of malaria in Africa, will instead be squandered in a heinous free-for-all of slander and personal destruction, alienating voters as never before.
The media will inevitably focus on the personalities of the bloated roster of narcissists lusting after the White House, but scant attention will be paid to the Wall Street bankers, industrial polluters, and casino magnates whose grip on American democracy will remain vise-like.
While attention this weekend turns to the Democrats, the Republicans remain quietly confident about their chances of purchasing the nation’s highest office. In the words of one top operative, “Our billionaires can beat their billionaires.”
Doonesbury — Sure-fire investment.