“If absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the actor Harry Shearer once asked, “does absolute powerlessness make you pure?”
The answer, according to a lot of people, is yes.
Upon receiving the George Polk Career Award last month, Gary Trudeau, the creator of the satirical comic strip Doonesbury, attacked the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo:
“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, voilà — the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world.”
Putting aside Trudeau’s tendentious misreading of France’s hate speech laws — which were not written to prevent violent protests outside of France — there’s a perverse irony here. After all, there’s surely no greater act of “punching downward” or “attacking the powerless” than castigating a corpse. That’s not debate; it is verbal gibbeting.
In March, the prestigious writers’ group PEN America announced it would honor the magazine and the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award at its gala Tuesday night. In response, more than 200 members of the group protested the decision.
“Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire,” they wrote in an open letter. “The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.”
“A hideous crime was committed,” novelist Peter Carey has admitted, “but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” He also denounced “the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
Writer Francine Prose fretted that “the narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders — white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists — is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.”
Maybe so, but however lamentable that “narrative” may or may not be, it doesn’t obscure the fact the murders actually, you know, happened. Facts are stubborn things, and sometimes they lend credence to storylines that storytellers find inconvenient. For instance, the attempted shootings at a “draw Mohammed” event in Texas immediately elicited condemnations on Twitter of the event, as if it somehow justified attempted murder.
This obsession with the idea that the heinous acts of the “powerless” are somehow justified runs through vast swaths of literary and journalistic cultures. (How many commentators rush to defend rioters on account of their sense of “powerlessness”?)
Many journalists recite Finley Peter Dunne’s credo that the press must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” as if it is their 11th commandment. The mantra of countless intellectuals is that they must “speak truth to power.”
The problem is that they define the powerful and powerless based upon their own preferred narratives. When the truth interferes with the narrative, the truth must be bent or jettisoned.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat notes that while it is true “power flows from pre-existing privilege, it also grows from the barrel of a gun, and the willingness to deal out violence changes power dynamics.” Terrorists may rationalize their violence in terms that make Western intellectuals swoon, but that doesn’t mean they are powerless. They have enormous power — because they have the ability and the will to use violence to kill.
Meanwhile, Trudeau and the PEN dissidents have a very funny definition of courage. Trudeau has won awards and wealth by taking at best droll and more often clichéd potshots at Republicans at no personal risk to himself whatsoever. But he thinks it is cowardly to openly defy those who are eager to murder the mockers.
I’m no fan of Charlie Hebdo’s anti-religious bigotry, but I am even less enamored with murderers who believe that their grievances justify the slaughter of cartoonists. And I have nothing but contempt for those who ridicule the courage of the slain because they proved inconvenient to their oh-so-comfortable narratives.