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Funny And/Or Die: When Did Being a Mocking Wiseass Become Life-Threatening?

January 10, 2015
by Glen Martin
Cartoon of a someone dressed in all black holding a smoking gun over a body on the ground

Danger is part of the territory for war correspondents. From the U.S. Civil War on, anyone who covered conflict knew that they could be shot just as dead (or, more recently, beheaded) as the grunt walking point on patrol. But now it’s not just the dashing combat reporter at risk—it’s the editor, the receptionist, and as this week’s killings at the offices of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo also chillingly demonstrate, it can be the cartoonists. If you’re trying to be funny about a controversial subject (or even if you’re vaguely associated with someone trying to be funny), you’re now a potential target.

This applies most particularly to anyone who satirizes Islam by mocking the Prophet Muhammad as Charlie Hebdo often did, mercilessly—in ways that critics even outside the Muslim faith regarded as infantile and offensive. In 2010, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris went into hiding on the advice of the FBI when radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki issued a fatwa for her death following her mock promotion of an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” In 2005, there were various plots (all foiled) against the editors and cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper that ran a series of caricatures of Muhammad. And two U.S. citizens are now serving prison sentences for conspiring to solicit murder and threatening violence against the creators of Comedy Central TV’s South Park, after an episode lampooned the widely accepted prohibition against depicting Muhammad by showing him in a bear suit. (The threats were accompanied by photos of Dutch author/filmmaker Theo van Gogh, dead with a knife in his chest—a retribution for his critiques of Islam.)

But the trend appears to be metastasizing beyond Islamic subjects—most recently, the threats of war, murder and rapine issued by the “Guardians of Peace” prior to the release of Sony’s Kim Jong-un-assassination-themed comedy The Interview. And though the saturnine Vladimir Putin has yet to kill (so far as we know) any artists or reporters who produce works critical of his regime, his blithe persecution of the punk band Pussy Riot has had a dampening effect on anyone inclined to mock the Russian leader.

While this increasing willingness to violently retaliate against anyone simply for being a wiseass is deeply alarming, some media authorities warn it is a mistake to conflate it with the dangers faced by war correspondents in the field.

“This [Charlie Hebdo incident] has been presented as part of the deepening problem of increased threats to journalists, but it’s actually very different,” says Ed Wasserman, the dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “Cartoonists are not journalists—they’re humorists, they’re comics, which makes attacks on them even more troubling.”

The Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, continues Wasserman, were a brutal attempt to “redefine the contours of popular culture by reframing the parameters of permissible speech. Charlie Hebdo was targeted because it promotes a very rude brand of satire that is integral to French culture, a brand that emphasizes derision. From our perspective, you could consider it a cross between Mad Magazine and The Onion, except that it’s more pointed, more forthright. I have to admit that I reacted viscerally to these killings. I’ve lived in Paris, and I’ve read Charlie Hebdo. This was just horrible, and there’s little doubt that it will, sadly, restrain free speech to at least some extent.”

Not that Americans haven’t exercised significant—critics say too much—self-restraint when it comes to free speech. Several mainstream American media outlets, including The New York Times and NBC News, have declined to run the caricatures that provoked the Charlie Hebdo shootings. And Wasserman notes that American satire is pallid compared to the strong stuff the French imbibe. It wasn’t always so. Back in the 1960s, he observes, American satire was raucous to the point of complete and utter tastelessness. As examples, he cites the underground comics of the period and The Realist, a magazine published by Paul Krassner that ran, among other highly offensive and hilarious things, a Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster that portrayed the beloved Disney animated characters engaged in antic sex, and supposed expurgated portions of a book on the John F. Kennedy assassination that described Lyndon Baines Johnson violating the corpse of the late President in a way that would bleach the hair of most of the current era’s good progressives.

“Krassner’s intent, of course, was to ridicule liberals who despised Johnson,” says Wasserman. “It shows how willing people were to investigate satirical possibilities that are almost unimaginable now, and it demonstrates just how risk-averse we’ve become in this country when it comes to free expression.”

Not that self-censorship isn’t a rational survival response in the current situation, of course. Fundamentalist Islam and secular Western society represent two diametrically opposed world views, with different values and different ideas on just what constitutes a heinous crime. And on today’s ever-shrinking planet, where anyone can literally reach out and touch (or blow up) anyone else, it’s salutary to remember that.

“Contrary to popular misconceptions, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone,” wrote British Islamic political activist Anjem Choudary in response to a USA Today editorial lambasting the Charlie Hebdo killings. “Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires … Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend [the Prophet’s honor] is considered to be an obligation upon them…. Because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see….”

As Wasserman sees it, “The first line you draw is that you don’t kill or jail anyone for things they say. [But] we also need to acknowledge the power of satire, and ensure that it doesn’t become bullying. Satire is appropriately used by an underclass to ridicule people in power, the people in charge. But when it’s used to stereotypically portray a deprived or minority group—the avaricious Jew with long forelocks, the bearded Moslem terrorist—it’s something else entirely. Then it can become an instrument of subjugation.”

Mark Danner—a Berkeley journalism and English professor, former New Yorker staff writer, National Magazine Award recipient and MacArthur Fellow who has reported extensively on Middle East conflicts—also sees multiple shades of gray in an issue often presented in the West as a black-and-white chiaroscuro.

“David Brooks wrote a not-too-terrible column on the negative [American] reactions that would likely result from satires or cartoons that were anti-Semitic or racist,” Danner says. “We champion free expression, but we condemn ‘hate speech.’ These issues are not as simple as they may seem.”

So what now? Wasserman anticipates “renewed public good will for the National Security folks in the U.S.,” and a hardening of law and attitudes against Muslims in Europe.

“I anticipate tougher immigration policies, additional rules against cultural expression such as banning the hijab, and just a general tightening of European society,” he says. “To me, this now seems like the primary battleground—not Afghanistan, not Iraq.”

Danner generally agrees with that assessment. And such a scenario, he says, is likely part of the radical Islamist playbook.

“We need to consider the strategic implications of the Paris attack,” Danner says. “It’s unlikely that it was simply about outrage over Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. It’s probable that it was also about mobilizing the European [Sunni] Muslim community. It’s strikingly similar to the techniques used by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda radicalized the Sunni community in the city of Mosul by attacking Shias. The Shias attacked the Sunnis following the Al Qaeda killings, who responded in kind. That ultimately led to the Islamic State. If we see a heavy crackdown on European Muslims, we should certainly expect a reaction.”

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