Opinion

Wrong, Mr Trudeau!

Wrong, Mr Trudeau!

On April 10 the satirical cartoonist Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury, gave a speech at the George Polk Awards in Journalism ceremony where he received a lifetime achievement award. In that speech he spat in the eye of satirical cartoons as a genre and satirical cartoonists as colleagues and comrades. I’ve been a fan of Doonesbury for decades; it’s the story of my g-g-generation; but that was then.

He eased into the betrayal gently, as a matter of “discussion”:

I, and most of my colleagues, have spent a lot of time discussing red lines since the tragedy in Paris. As you know, the Muhammad cartoon controversy began eight years ago in Denmark, as a protest against ‘self-censorship’, one editor’s call to arms against what she felt was a suffocating political correctness. The idea behind the original drawings was not to entertain or to enlighten or to challenge authority.

Not to challenge authority? Of course the idea behind the cartoons was to challenge authority: to challenge religious authority, clerical authority, theocratic authority, the authority of public opinion and taboo. The idea was to challenge a silly taboo on drawing the purported “prophet” Mohammed, and to challenge the underlying idea that something that is taboo for some believers of one religion is a taboo on everyone. That’s authority with a vengeance: imposing the petty rules of one religion on all people: atheists and secularists, Buddhists and Christians, Jews and Sikhs.

— her charge to the cartoonists was specifically to provoke, and in that they were exceedingly successful. Not only was one cartoonist gunned down, but riots erupted around the world, resulting in the deaths of scores.

That’s another error: no cartoonist was gunned down. And riots didn’t “erupt around the world” until three Danish imams went on a road trip to work up anger about the cartoons months after they were published. The imams also added three fake “cartoons” to the twelve real ones, to spice things up more. The fake that most infuriated the crowds wasn’t a cartoon at all, much less anything to do with Islam: it was a photograph of a man wearing a pig mask at an agricultural fair in France. Yet Garry Trudeau, a cartoonist himself, and a very political one with plenty of experience with controversy, blames the cartoonists for the riots.

Ironically, Charlie Hebdo,which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. This is a bitter harvest.

Really. What if some evangelical sect in the US took a turn for the violent, and murdered some staff at a newspaper because it published a Doonesbury strip that was satirical about religious zealotry? That’s hardly impossible. A country that can spawn a Jim Jones, a David Koresh, a Timothy McVeigh, a Scott Roeder could certainly also produce its own version of the Kouachi brothers. If that happened would Garry Trudeau say that he had succeeded in provoking the murderer? Would he put the blame on himself?

Anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters

Anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters

I don’t know, but I hope not, and it certainly seems unlikely. I think he would recognize religious fanaticism when he saw it, and scorn to sympathize with it.

But what if the murderous zealots were recent immigrants, part of a despised minority? What if they were Catholics of Mexican or Colombian background, enraged by mockery of Vatican politics or priestly rapes? Then would he decide the murders were his fault?

He might, judging by what he went on to say:

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.

But that of course assumes that Charlie Hebdo was satirizing the little guy and not the powerful, and that assumption is wrong. It’s obvious enough how he got there, because so many people do it: he treated Islam and Muslims as basically the same, and thus a satire on any aspect of Islam as a satire on Muslims. That, clearly, is absurd. It’s like treating a satire on rich bankers profiting from the destruction of the global economy as if it were a satire on the people who mop the bank’s floors.

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, voila – the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.

He’s saying the Tout est pardonné edition of Charlie, with the weeping Mo on the front holding a sign saying  Je suis Charlie – I have a copy right here beside me, living on the corner of my desk – he’s saying that edition of Charlie “triggered” violent protests. He’s saying it was blameworthy to publish that edition to memorialize the cartoonists who were murdered by religious fanatics. He’s a satirical cartoonist himself, and a good one, and he’s saying that! Et tu, dude.

It’s all the more baffling and depressing given the fact that he did an affectionate tribute to Charlie in a strip last month. I imagine scenarios in which confused friends of his rebuke him for the tribute and explain about “punching down,” and that’s why he said such terrible things at that award ceremony. If that’s what happened, he needs a better quality of friend.

Editor’s note: You can read Trudeau’s speech in full here.

6 responses to “Wrong, Mr Trudeau!”

  1. Jeffrey Jones says:

    The editor of the Danish magazine that published the Mo cartoons was a “he”, not a “she”as Trudeau states.

  2. Yup. Trudeau made such an abundance of mistakes, I had the luxury of ignoring the more minor ones.

  3. Cali Ron says:

    Thank you Ophelia for the enlightening article. Well written.

    Sadly, Trudeau has been living on past deeds for years now. His cartoons have lost most of their satirical bite and he seems to just be rehashing the same old, worn out humor points. He has apparently gone soft and sold out as he ages, collecting the income, but not producing anything pertinent or relevant enough to generate any attention anymore. I remember a time when his cartoons were regularly making the news and being pulled from conservative papers for his controversial content. He is now just a caricature of himself and his contradictory, inaccurate statement, essentially throwing Charlie Hebdo under the bus for doing what he used to do is hypocritical and doesn’t deserve publication. To bad, I used to love his cartoons, but I don’t bother with them anymore.

  4. Philip Smeeton says:

    The death threat makes cowards of us all. But if we want to keep our freedom then we have to take the chance, and say in as many ways as possible that Islam is vile. Not just Islam, we have to be allowed to speak out against everything that we consider wrong. Right now the greatest threat to freedom and democracy is Islam, and the cowardice of those that should have been condemning the wicked ideology of Mohammed.

  5. A Hermit says:

    Sorry Mr, Trudeau. When the people you’re satirizing will kill you for what you say I don’t think the satire be considered “punching down.”

  6. […] And I have the honor of writing a column for that same The Freethinker. Last month’s was about Garry Trudeau and Charlie Hebdo. […]