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.