On Charlie Hebdo and the Real Free Speech Weenies

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

Not everyone believes in free speech.

I’m not talking about those on the authoritarian right. No one expects them to stand up for the right to dissent. They are ideologically consistent; for them, the rights of the individual always, a distant second to the prerogatives of the state and its incessant campaign to maintain the status quo that keeps them in power.

Today I’m pointing to those – liberals, progressives, left libertarians – who purport to support freedom of expression, and must be seen to do so in order to continue to identify as members of the antiauthoritarian left, but only state their defense of press and personal freedom with reservations.

As in: “Andres Serrano has the right to soak a crucifix in urine, but I would never do anything like that cuz I’m, like, awesomely sensitive.”

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned last week’s mass shooting at Charlie Hebdo‘s offices in Paris — yet found it necessary to introduce the qualifier “whatever you think of this magazine…”

What he or you or I think about the editorial cartoon content of Charlie Hebdo pre- or post-shooting ought to be irrelevant. Either you support freedom of expression, or you don’t.

Even when it is offensive.

Even when it is racist.

Even when it is gross.

Especially when it makes us uncomfortable. (For a recent example of something that triggers my censorship impulse, check out this reactionary response by an Australian cartoonist to the Paris massacre. Really gross. Australian police thought Islamists might think so too, because they turned up at the artist’s house to offer protection.)

Having been at the center of cartoon controversies, I am well familiar with the standard issue liberal “well, I wouldn’t draw anything that disgusting about our soldiers, firefighters, 9/11 widows, president, but Rall clearly has the legal right to do it – if he can get someone to print it” talking point. What these weak sisters conveniently forget is that, even while they’re kind of sort of defending free  expression, death threats and dismissal letters are pouring in… and they are not kind of sort of.

Arthur Hsu’s essay in The Daily Beast is a classic entry in this oh-so-reasonable rhetorical tradition.

First comes the required condemnation of mass murder: “Shooting people is wrong. I want to get this out of the way. When twelve people are killed by violence, whoever they are, for whatever reason, that is a tragedy and a waste. To murder someone by violence is the greatest crime imaginable…”

Yeah yeah yeah, we get it.

Though it’s too late for Hsu to cut to the chase, he finally gets to the point: “Charlie Hebdo is also a crap publication and people need to stop celebrating it and making martyrs out of its staff.”

Why does Hsu think it’s a crap publication?

“Paging through translated cartoons from Charlie Hebdo’s past, the comparisons that kept coming to mind were to Mad magazine or pre-David Wong Cracked, but while the sophomoric level of humor fits—we’re talking single entendres on the level of this crappy joke about the Pope raping choirboys—none of those publications ever descended to quite the same depths as, say, making fun of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram by portraying them as pregnant welfare queens.

The best comparison here for an American audience is, well, Internet stuff. The stuff that ends up in censored form on Tosh.0—the kind of videos, images, and text memes you see linked from 4chan or Something Awful.”

As someone who speaks and reads French fluently, and has read more than my share of French cartoons and graphic novels, Hsu’s reliance on “translated cartoons” jumps out at me. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are stripped of cultural and historical and political context when they are translated minus the extravagant puns, leftist orientation of the editor and artists, and literary and cultural references of the original. I’m about as French as you can be without living in France, and I don’t get half of this stuff.

I doubt Hsu gets 5%.

But never mind that.

Referencing the magazine’s cartoons about Muslims, who are a persecuted minority in France, Hsu writes: “The whole reason the concept of responsible satire has been summed up as ‘punch up, don’t punch down’ is to acknowledge that not all your targets of satire start out on an equal footing.”

Well, fine. I agree with him. But that’s because I’m American. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted is the American way, especially for left-of-center American satirists. But the slaughtered cartoonists weren’t American. They come from a very different cultural tradition. It’s not possible for foreigners to judge these cartoons intelligently.

Cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo make people like Hsu — and me — uncomfortable. They set off all sorts of triggers rooted in political correctness and identity politics, some, no doubt well-intentioned.

But that’s exactly the point.

If those cartoons hadn’t been outrageous, the cartoonists who drew them probably wouldn’t have gotten shot to death. (Similarly, my cartoons about 9/11 icons were over-the-top. That’s why they stirred a fuss.)

To believe in freedom of expression, to truly defend satire, we must stand up for it unequivocally, without reservation — not despite our distaste for the cartoons or standup routines or humorous essays or films drawing fire from critics and potential murderers, but because they make us uncomfortable.

If you can’t compartmentalize, if you can’t refrain from playing the critic even when the cartoons or whatever have gotten their creators blown away by automatic weapons, then you are not with us. You are with them.

[Corrected 1/23/15. “Piss Christ” was the work of Andres Serrano, not Robert Maplethorpe.

This entry was posted in Blog on by .

About Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the political cartoonist at ANewDomain.net, editor-in-chief of SkewedNews.net, a graphic novelist and author of many books of art and prose, and an occasional war correspondent. He is the author of the biography "Trump," to be published in July 2016.

13 thoughts on “On Charlie Hebdo and the Real Free Speech Weenies

  1. I support ALL types of free expression.

    A young lady, married, decided she didn’t have any respect left for her husband and the father of their child.

    So she was having an affair simultaneously with two males, who both obviously hated each other and wanted the other out of the way.

    Well, I had a few people over at my apartment and among them was the semi-happy trio, when the door bell rung. At the door was the lady’s husband.

    He was known to be one of the many to carry a gun in the neighborhood, and I was interested in getting past this impending confrontation as painlessly as possible, so when he asked if his wife was there, I lied.

    Technically I told the truth because they had just stepped out my back door.

    He found out later that I lied to him and put out a window with a brick. No big deal in a neighborhood where really big deals happened regularly. I considered the lack of a shooting and murder in my apartment to be all upside.

    The moral of the story is if you are going to make moral judgements there may be consequences. You may live or die with them.

    I wish all innocent bystanders the same good luck. At least as good as it gets.

    P.S. Somebody died but it wasn’t me. And somebody went to prison for a long time and it wasn’t me.

    • What a lovely, delightful woman. I’m sure she’ll make those two men happy. I wish her all the best!

      • Jack, I dunno — but I read into that the hubby killed her and went to prison. Ya think? 🙁

      • Hubby took up with new girlfriend. New girlfriend told hubby to kill another girl who stole from her. He killed her then told girlfriend what he had done,

        New girlfriend tells hubby to turn himself into the police. Hubby confesses but Police kick hubby out, calling him a liar. Husband gets no respect nowhere.

        Detective checks the pockets of a dead girl found wrapped in electric cord in a river. Detective finds court appearance slip for disorderly naming dead girl, hubby, and new girlfriend.

        Hubby goes to jail.

        The story ends there for me because I moved out of that neighborhood. I don’t need to live there. I can get that kind of crap anywhere.

      • I really have to work on my internet sarcasm. She blows up her family because she is bored and horny for other men? Damn her vows and obligations? Damn those she hurt, right? I was HOPING she was dead. She makes her life decisions based on rank lust. That’s not a civilized person. That’s an animal. I’m sure her behavior gets a pass from many here but not from me. The only consolation is in this case is that the husband was somehow worse.

      • No, Jack –
        I understood your meaning perfectly.
        It’s just that my own personal wish that she might have met the fate she deserved came to the forefront of my imagination. 🙂

  2. Glenn understands ~

    I will defend your right to free speech to the death! … Well, at least a metaphorical death. I will also defend your right to travel unencumbered throughout the United States. But if you eschew proper crossings and really enjoy j-walking, I’m not going to be jumping to push you out of the path of any semi-tractor trailers.

    If somebody illegally discriminates against your sex, age, or national origin for the specific purpose of prohibiting you from visiting the local zoo, I will add my voice to your protest, but I won’t follow you into the primate cage to help you tease the resident silverback.

    I want my money to be safe, so (in sufficiently protectable quantities) I will keep it in a bank. Of course, I will expect that institution to have an effective system to protect itself (and my money) from the armed gangsters who would try to steal my (and their) property.

    Charlie Hebdo was already firebombed once by extremists. It was quite apparent that they were doing some dangerous shit. That they stupidly didn’t truly take sufficiently reasonable precautions to protect themselves from criminal office invasion tells me that they were both stupid and/or foolish.

    Finally, if a 0.01%er-sponsored, false-flag terror-group is instructed to massacre your magazine staff while wearing disguises and shouting “ALLAH-AKBAR,” if the rag you work for was just recently bought out by a Jewish bank-lord, I’ll expect that somebody’s going to deceptively bleed (probably to the death). The staff of Charlie Hebdo didn’t get wiped out for press freedom, they were slaughtered to promote a political deception.

    I will will not hesitate to defend your right to waste your life stupidly, but at least, under certain circumstances, I’ll do it from a distance.


    • “… they were slaughtered to promote a political deception.”
      Kinda like the victims of the three Trade Center Towers?

      • You mean the three steel-framed towers that, one right after the other, uniformly fell perfectly centered into their architectural footprints, but only two of them got hit by one aircraft each, that had already used up nearly half their fuel in order to take off and then reach cruise altitude, get hijacked, then commit a multi-state circle back towards New York, and finally perform an extended, full-throttle, low-altitude dash back towards lower Manhattan for the blowoff?


      • Yeah, those are the ones I referenced!
        Never before or since have “office fires” brought down a steel-framed building (Building Number 7).
        Many films available on YouTube document this fact.
        But we should all be afraid! BE VERY AFRAID!
        (Go shopping to soothe your nerves.) 😀