Two writers criticize Garry Trudeau’s view of the Charlie Hebdo affair

April 15, 2015 • 11:59 am

I’ve already outlined my disagreements with cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s unfortunate remarks about Charlie Hebdo when Trudeau received his Polk Journalism Award—the first for a strip cartoonist (see my posts here and here). Trudeau was not only wrong about the meaning of the supposedly anti-Islamic cartoons in the French satirical magazine (they were almost always satirizing the anti-Muslim French right or the perfidies of the religion itself), but was also misguided  in suggesting that it’s fine to “punch up” (satirize the powerful), but that “punching down” (satirizing the oppressed and relatively powerless) constitutes “hate speech.” In fact, I noted that Trudeau’s remarks came close to blaming the cartoonists themselves for inciting protest, and for their own murders. He showed very little sympathy for the French satirists.

As Kenan Malik (a liberal writer who often discusses science) points out at his website in a critique of Trudeau’s remarks (“This is not a post about free speech“), Trudeau’s speech got several facts critically wrong, including the misapprehension that the editor of the newspaper who commissioned the famous Danish anti-Islam cartoons was a woman, and that French law prohibits hate speech only if it incites violence. Both claims are wrong. But neither is as wrong as Trudeau’s misunderstanding of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. As Malik says:

There is a certainly debate to be had about Charlie Hebdo, and about the character of its cartoons. Part of the problem is that many people fail to understand the context of the cartoons; they ignore the fact, for instance, that many of the cartoons they find offensive are actually parodying the claims of the far right, and instead take them at face value as straightforwardly racist caricatures. Whether they are successful as parodies is a legitimate question. There is, however, a certain irony in so many liberals reading the cartoons so literally.

Malik also takes issue with the idea that attacking Islam is actually “punching down,” pointing out the numerous writers and cartoonists within Muslim societies who have been jailed or killed for making anti-Islamic remarks. Finally, he outlines the very real danger of Western societies repeatedly capitulating—as Trudeau would have us do—to fear of Muslim outrage, leading to self-censorship:

In confusing criticism of Islam with hatred of Muslims, in assuming that those angered by Charlie Hebdoare in some way representative of Muslim communities, in claiming that Charlie Hebdo had ‘incited’ violence, in suggesting that as ‘hate speech’ the cartoons should not have been published, Trudeau is betraying such artists and cartoonists. Again, as I [Malik] wrote in my original Charlie Hebdo article:

“What nurtures the reactionaries, both within Muslim communities and outside it, is the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within minority communities. On the one hand, this allows Muslim extremists the room to operate. The more that society gives licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. And the more deadly they will become in expressing their outrage. There will always be extremists who respond as the Charlie Hebdo killers did. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious moral legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it unacceptable to give offence.

Liberal pusillanimity also helps nurture anti-Muslim sentiment. It feeds the racist idea that all Muslims are reactionary, that Muslims themselves are the problem, that Muslim immigration should be stemmed, and the Muslim communities should be more harshly policed. It creates the room for organizations such as the Front National to spread its poison.”

Finally, Malik ends his piece on a powerful note:

Let me give the last word, or the last thought, to the Lebanese artist Mazen Kerbaj who, in a response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, brilliantly summed up what is at stake:


Translation:  “I think, therefore I no longer am.”


At The Atlantic, which is becoming my favorite liberal magazine, writer David Frum also takes Trudeau to task in a piece called “Why Garry Trudeau is wrong about Charlie Hebdo. Frum is especially concerned with the “punching down” business:

To fix the blame for the killing on the murdered journalists, rather than the gunmen, Trudeau invoked the underdog status of the latter:

“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.”

Had the gunmen been “privileged,” then presumably the cartoons would have been commendable satire. The cartoonists would then have been martyrs to free speech. But since the gunmen were “non-privileged,” the responsibility for their actions shifts to the people they targeted, robbing them of agency. It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better.

On first reading, then, Trudeau is presenting us with a clear and executable moral theory:

1. Identify the bearer of privilege.

2. Hold the privilege-bearer responsible.

. . . But here’s the trouble: There are many dogs in any fight, and the task of identifying which one is the underdog is not so easy.

Frum then gives a historical analysis of how sympathizing with the underdogs can lead one badly astray. I’d add that there are many “oppressed” minorities whose views are regularly satirized, including religious believers like Scientologists and Mormons. Is that “punching down”?  And of course there are the Jews, and if ever there was a historically oppressed minority, it’s that one. Yet, as Frum suggests, this led Trudeau to adopt a double standard:

To support his preferred identification that the most violent are the most oppressed, Trudeau is led to equate the practitioners of the violence with their targets:

“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.”

Again, Garry Trudeau is not the first person to insinuate that France and Europe are guilty of over-concern for the sensibilities of Jews at the expense of the sensibilities of Muslims. Glenn Greenwald made the same point on the Intercept, by posting some prize specimens from his collection of anti-Semitic cartoons. The rulers of Iran likewise have organized a festival of Holocaust denial cartoons. (This is actually the second such festival in Iran; a prior festival was staged in 2006.) [JAC: have a look at that second link.]

But Trudeau is the first prominent person identified with the mainstream of American liberalism to advance the point, and that represents a milestone of sorts. But a milestone toward what?

I would hope that some day Trudeau would see how misguided his speech really was. One must be careful to distinguish between mocking ideas and reviling the people who hold them, but Trudeau, who I thought was a savvy guy, apparently can’t (or won’t) make that distinction. He’s almost enlisted in the Social Justice Warrior camp, one of whose tenets is that the oppressed are always right. Well, they’re oppressed, and we should fight against all forms of unjust oppression. But that doesn’t mean that the ideas of those groups are always commendable or at least should be immune to satire.

38 thoughts on “Two writers criticize Garry Trudeau’s view of the Charlie Hebdo affair

  1. Every wife beater on earth has used the excuse, “She just infuriated me so much I couldn’t help it.” L

  2. The David From article is great. I check The Atlantic every day, and it too is one of my favorite magazines.

    I used to read Alternet, but stopped due to the rampant stupidity. One of the new SJW memes is that allies of the oppressed can’t ask the oppressed *how* they would like to be treated, because answering questions as an oppressed person = more oppression.

    I wish that I was joking.

  3. So, when a person suggests that a college girl ought not to go out to a party alone where she doesn’t know anyone and get blackout drunk and get raped by some creepy frat boy perv, that’s “blaming the victim”, but when you say to a cartoonist you shouldn’t draw that because it might hurt a muslim’s feelings and that will force them to have to kill you, that’s ok? (an imperfect analogy, to be sure)

    This sounds similar to what I was reading in Ali’s book, Heretic, when in Dallas Tx, an Egyptian-born taxi driver shot his two daughters for dating non-muslim boys, and at their vigil their own brother blamed them and said that “They pulled the trigger, not my dad!” (p. 167-168, “Social Control Begins At Home”) Who was “punching up” or “punching down” this time? The father armed with the koran and the gun, or the two girls who dared date someone of whom their faith and their father did not approve? Are we to apply this powerful vs disenfranchised paradigm to every criminal case now, or is it only available to muslims? I’m quite poor, can I harm a rich person who offends me? I’m or Irish descent, can I attack the English with impunity? to mix my first tow examples, since we know that in muslim countries the way a woman dresses means she “asks” to be raped, if a muslim man rapes a western woman in a western country, then is that ok because her immodesty was offending his religiosity? where does the stupidity stop?

    1. These examples echo a sort of moral relativism that shadows so many liberals. And that self-converts them away from liberal thought to moderate view which is in many ways functionally equivalent to how reformed Protestants behave.

      Trudeau is a victim of his own self-moderation. He seeks not to harm anyone’s feelings, but neglects reason by not wanting to step on anyone’s feet. He is also generally infatuated with political theatre…which next to things that matter to humans most, is a fixed distant second (yawn). One Calvin&Hobbes is comparable to the sum of Trudeau.

      1. yes, liberals do tend to tie themselves in knots over this sort of thing, and there have been plenty of recent examples of liberals doing exactly this with free speech and the like. Let us not forget however that it is not just the liberals who make such errors in application and judgement based on their ideology. the conservatives, ever flag-waving and holding up the US Constitution never seem to be aware of their own trampling of it, willing to trade the freedoms they claim to uphold for security or banging on about how bad “big government” is while trying to pass laws telling people who they can marry or have sex with. ignorance and cognitive dissonance; the human condition.

        1. Yesterday, I watched a segment on Fox’s ‘The Five’ that criticized Trudeau for all the same reasons most of us, Jerry, Malik and Frum have.

          The religious right is not the entire Republican party, although in recent years they’ve become a dominant voice. It’s just like these safe speech people are not the whole left, although they have become dominant in recent years, especially with a President who seems to largely agree with them.

          Traditionally, Republicans are actually quite good at supporting free speech, and it’s almost the only thing I agree with libertarians on.

          I think an issue like this is one that should unite people across the political divide – freedom of speech is too important a concept to mess with, and the basis of true democracy.

          (We do though need to push back on the view of most Republicans and many others that it’s a God-given right!)

          1. While that may be true of the libertarian wing of the republicans or of some of the libertarian-leaning members, just as often the right attempt to limit what everyone else reads in books, magazines, and newspapers, views on tv or movies, or listens to on radio. During the Bush admin, we saw a huge push towards stricter censorship and the heavy-handed use of the FCC, not to mention how we heard constantly from the right that we should not criticize Bush because “he’s the president”, yet they can’t say anything positive about Obama, even though he is the current president. They alter their views on freedom to fit the circumstances and suit their needs. It’s a reminder that politics isn’t a spectrum, but as I’ve said before, overlapping circles in a venn diagram, where despite all logic, the right and the left find common ground in repressing people’s rights, albeit for different reasons.

          2. ‘Traditionally, Republicans are actually quite good at supporting free speech…’

            Really? What “tradition” is this? Because the traditions I associate with the GOP include the Red Scares (first one and the second one), attempts to silence the Wobblies and other union activists; the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs; the prosecution of Emma Goldman; the executions of Joe Hill and Sacco & Vanzetti; the expulsion of socialists from the NY Assembly; “Palmer Raid” seizures of radical literature; anti-Syndicalism laws and the Espionage and Sedition Acts; HUAC, McCarthyism, loyalty oaths, and the Hollywood Ten — and the bluenoses that gave us Comstock laws; banned Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer; hounded Lenny Bruce to an early death; gave us the Hayes Code; sought to jail the distributors of Mike Nichols’ movie Carnal Knowledge; and tried to shut Margaret Sanger up from talking about birth control her whole damned career. To the extent they’re elephants-come-lately to the cause of free speech, Republicans carry the banner only for speech they approve of; it’s largely an anti-PC pose.

            Libertarians are another matter. I can make common cause with them on free-speech issues — indeed, on issues across the civil-liberties spectrum. (It’s only on economic issues that their suckiness shines through.)

            1. “It’s only on economic issues that their suckiness shines through.”

              And any social issue. They reject any notion of a social contract. These people are not the neighbors you want.

              I listened to Ron Paul (Rand’s Dad) at a press conference when he was running in, I think, 2012. A reporter asked Paul the hard question (he was opposed to the ACA (“Obamacare”)): “If an indigent 20-something young man, who chose not to have health insurance came to a hospital mortally ill, should he be treated even though he can’t pay?”

              Paul hemmed and hawed and would not answer the question.

              One of his supporters in the crowd did it for him though. He shouted out, “Let him die!”

              Not the kind of people I would willing throw in my lot with.

              1. I agree with you, but for libertarians (especially the capital-L kind), these social issues all boil down to economics, driven by their doctrinaire commitment to laissez faire capitalism.

                Old man Paul is touted as a “libertarian,” and I suppose in some respects he is, but he brings a lot less brio to the civil-liberty side than to the economic side. (And you can’t fault libertarianism for the racist crud that went out over his name in the “Ron Paul Newsletter” a couple decades ago. That had to do with the efforts of Ron Paul’s Cardinal Richelieu — Murray Rothbard — to lure an ugly paleo-conservative element to the economic-libertarian side. Jerry’s new favorite liberal magazine, The Atlantic, did a pretty good piece on it a few years ago here.)

                As to ever “throwing your lot in” with libertarians on free-speech issues — we don’t, we consign ourselves to permanent minority status, maintaining our purity at the peril of political suicide. For better or worse (and, given the alternatives, I think, for better) coalition building is how business gets done in a representative democracy. Sure, doing so may, as here, be repugnant, but so is making sausage. And, as John Travolta observed in the diner scene in Pulp Fiction, the end result there “tastes good” (though I’m more in tune with Samuel Jackson when it comes to actually eating the stuff).

      2. I know I’m repeating myself a this point, but I think its important to hammer home this distinction.

        You’re talking about left-wing ideologues, not liberals.

        1. Brilliant start to a new dialogue. Applying critical thinking should be the goal of everyone, regardless of what they label themselves.

  4. Trudeau: “Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds”.
    I think weapons in the hands of murderers is a kind of authority.

  5. When Trudeau warns against “punching down” against muslims, what he is admitting is that he finds them to be beneath him.

    The “little people argument” of free speech.

  6. No one has a right to not be offended.
    No one is immune from criticism.
    Full stop.

    Free speech is the freedom that permits all others. Curtail it and oppression is not far behind.

    Trudeau doesn’t know what incitement means. It does not mean criticizing the ideas of certain unstable people (or drawing cartoons of them). It means exhorting people to do violence. CH did not do that. Full stop.

    Sam Harris said it very well: People were murdered over cartoons. That is the end of the moral discussion.

    I can support protecting minor children from offensive behavior (bullying). But adults? No, you adults have to grow up and get over it!. And, for Hank’s sake, don’t buy the magazine, switch the channel, whatever. No one is holding a gun to your head making you read the stuff or watch it or listen to it! This nonsense reminds me of (one satirical) definition of Puritanism: The fear that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.

  7. Trudeau’s logic failed big time in his speech. Everyone else has pointed out how in many ways.

    However, the one that gets me the most is how he conflates the right to be offended with the right to murder those who offend you. Further, it seems to be a right he gives particularly to the world’s 1.6 billion strong Muslim community.

    I remember Jerry putting a Doonesbury (I think) cartoon mocking creationists. Perhaps people only count as a minority when Trudeau himself has no sympathy for their views.

  8. Wow, that second link… It may be progress of a sort that Iran is now encouraging response by cartoon instead of bloodshed, but I don’t believe what they’re doing qualifies as “satirizing the genocide of the Jews” as they try to call it. More like celebrating.

    Relevant Inigo Montoya quote:

  9. I think there’s a misunderstanding about the punching up/punching down, afflict-the-comfortable trope here. As I understand it, that admonition was intended to be limited to satire. (That’s how Finley Peter Dunne, the turn-of-the-last-century Chicago journalist and satirist of “Mr. Dooley” fame, who appears to be the trope-starter, meant it.)

    Satire is a specialized tool. It makes fun of its intended target — often seeking, at times slyly, to hold its target up to public ridicule. It has traditionally been employed against the powerful by those then without power — indeed, in some times and places it has been one of the few tools the powerless have available to level their criticism.

    But it is generally a feckless tool for the powerful to employ against the powerless. First, when employed by the truly powerful against the truly powerless — when the rich and mighty hold the poor and dispossessed up to public ridicule — it tends to be plain mean, even crass. (Think, for example, wealthy conservatives putting on a blackface show to satirize affirmative action.)

    Second, when so used, satire tends to be entirely inapt to its purposes. Members of the Muslim underclass in France, for example, tend not to be habitués of Rive Gauche cafés, sitting around smoking Gauloises and reading Cahiers du Cinéma, while discussing recherché points of politics, philosophy, and theatre. (Merde, the French don’t even seem to breed the type of Left-Bank lumpenprole intelligentsia anymore that produced Céline and Genet.)

    One of the goals of satire is to spur its intended target to self-reflection. Among the immigrant underclass, such self-reflection tends to be a luxury, infrequently indulged; keeping body and soul together at the interstitial opportunities presented in foreign society generally siphons off too much time and energy.

    (In this regard, I do not understand the Charlie Hebdo satire to be targeted primarily at the workaday Muslim community in France. I think it was meant, in part, to provoke them, and for good purpose: to desensitize them to criticism — to put some democratic callous on their cultural tender spots. But its main satirical targets appear to be its enemies on the old Le Penist Right (including its most recent and ugly permutation, the National Front), as well as the current French government and the francophone version of the PC-left.)

    Moreover, where the powerful wish to get a message across to the powerless, they have a much more efficacious method at their disposal — one that that the powerful have employed to this end since the dawn of history. It’s called law enforcement. Certainly, where the powerless (or anyone else) resort to lawlessness and violence (and are, therefore, no longer properly classified as powerless), it — not satire, parody, or farce — should be society’s first line of defense. Please, if terrorists storm the office, or rioters run wild in the street, defend me with riot gear and SWAT teams — not a staging of Molière’s Tartuffe.

    One final point is crucial: The afflict-the-comfortable admonition being limited to satire, no one is arguing — not even Gary Trudeau, and most certainly not me — that the non-privileged should be immune from being “punched down” at with criticism. The privileged, or anyone else with a legitimate grievance — be it lawlessness in the street or an immigrant group’s refusal to assimilate into the host society — are indisputably entitled to employ criticism, or any other tool legitimately at their disposal, to seek redress. That’s how a democratic Republic works. So go ahead, aim down and punch away.

    1. I don’t think the limitation to satire saves this execrable distinction. Satire is a form of criticism which is appropriate when there is something ridiculous about the thing you’re criticising, and you wish this ridiculousness to be more easily recognised – by the target of the satire, by other onlookers, or by to-whom-it-may-concern – who the intended audience happens to be is beside the point.

      Now maybe it’s more easy for the rich than the poor, the powerful rather than the powerless, to be ridiculous – I suspect it is – but it’s not unknown for the poor and powerless to be ridiculous. Anyone can be ridiculous. And the satire will avoid looking crass if you simply succeed in hitting your target, whoever they are, and whoever you are.

      That’s what’s wrong with the blackface. It’s lousy satire, simply because it’s not ridiculous to have dark skin.

      1. I don’t really disagree with you in principle. But I don’t think I would ever undertake to write a rich-on-poor satire — and not just because it goes against my root-for-the-underdog grain — but because it seems like folly. Where the non-privileged are guilty of untoward behavior deserving criticism, it seems there will always be a more utile tool at hand, one that better registers with the intended audience. I can’t recall a single historical example of the powerful using satire to effectively send up the powerless, can you?

        1. Satire is often about demonization, in which case the examples of using satire against the powerless should be legion because it turns a hated subculture into a popular chew toy. Racial, gender, national, and religious stereotypes are just the most obvious examples, but to be more concrete in using examples: in the UK, the chav stereotype has gone some way towards promoting the idea that the less well-off – the “lower” classes – are tackily dressed benefit fraudsters with antisocial personality disorders, who’d swear at and mug you at the first opportunity. And just because we find the blackface crass now, doesn’t mean it was always viewed that way.

          1. Yes, but it is effective?

            Since you’ve mentioned the chav stereotype, do you think “Ali G” is meant as a satire of that culture — or, as Sacha Baron Cohen maintains, as a send-up of that culture’s mindless epigones in the British middle classes? I’m no maven on matters British, but suspect Baron Cohen has been slaloming between the two.

            A different situation obtained when Baron Cohen took his “Ali G” show on the road to the U.S. Here, the satire was plainly directed at his establishment-figure interviewees, including the PC concerns that bade them consent to an interview by the likes of him, then to feign seriousness and interest at the idiotic — and, for the audience, idiotically hilarious — questions he posed. (It was different with Baron Cohen’s “Borat” and “Brüno” characters, where he interacted with more common folk — prompting some criticism that he was, in essence, “punching down.” Even then, however, he never, as I recall, picked on anyone truly “powerless.”)

            In any event, satire directed by the powerful at the powerless seems otiose; the powerful have so many other tools available to bend the powerless to their will. Like, for instance, the exercise of power itself — political, economic, even martial. Where these are ineffectual, it signals some deep societal rift — one not usually amenable to melioration by the satirist’s bag-of-tricks. I offer as canonical example, France and Algeria in the 1960s.

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