One year after the slaughter of its staff, Charlie Hebdo still stands accused of committing what liberals have decreed to be the worst crime in comedy: “punching down.” Satire is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, chants every Charlie-phobic cartoonist, novelist, and hack, seemingly having confused drawing vulgar pictures for a living with being a Pope Francis–style warrior against injustice. The problem with Charlie Hebdo, they say, is that it mauls the marginalized — it obsessively pokes fun at Muslims. In a shameless act of victim-blaming and back-stabbing, Doonesbury drawer Garry Trudeau wrote in The Atlantic magazine, in April 2015, that the scabrous French mag committed “the abuse of satire” and was always “punching downward.”
It’s time to put this myth of punching down to bed. For two reasons. First: If Charlie Hebdo does sometimes punch down, then it’s far from alone. Many of the American and European liberals who clutch their pearls over Charlie’s mocking of Mohammed frequently engage in a punching-down of their own, ridiculing what they view as the Neanderthal white trash who lurk in the dark heart of America or in run-down bits of Europe. And second: It simply isn’t true that Charlie’s assault on Islam (the thing it’s most famous for) is “punching down.” In fact, its ridicule of Mohammed is a clear case of punching up — up against Europe’s vast system of censorship that seeks to strangle “hate speech” against belief systems.
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Apologists for Islamism were accusing Charlie Hebdo of “punching down” just days after the assault on its offices last January. This month, the apologists trotted out the punching-down critique again after CH published a cartoon featuring Alyan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who washed up dead on a beach in Turkey in September. Next to an image of Kurdi face-down on the sand, we see the question: “What would he have become if he’d grown up?” Below, we see an image of adult men lasciviously reaching for women’s derrieres, beneath which is written the answer to the question: “A bum groper in Germany.” Clearly, CH is referring to the mass sexual assaults in Cologne and elsewhere in Germany on New Year’s Eve.
Charlie Hebdo is punching up against Europe’s vast system of censorship that seeks to strangle ‘hate speech’ against belief systems.
Cue the outrage. Commentators declared, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.” Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland condemned the cartoon, sniffing: “Charlie Hebdo’s refugee cartoon isn’t satirical. It’s inflammatory.” There is a “time-honoured maxim that the comic should always be punching up, not down,” he finger-wagged. “Laughing at the weak is never funny.” Let’s leave to one side the fact that a lot of great comedy makes fun of marginalized sections of society — think of British comic Harry Enfield’s grotesque caricatures of the fat poor or Chris Rock’s hilarious screed against “niggers.” The real problem with the tut-tutting was that it simply misread the cartoon.
Anyone who understands CH’s very French leftiness, and its loathing of far-right parties, will know that its Kurdi cartoon was in fact a satirical stab at fatalists who fear that every Syrian arriving in Europe will become a molester. It wasn’t mocking migrants, but the post-Cologne debate about migrants. The joke is on left-leaning Charlie-bashers, who failed to realize that CH was making a point that should sit well with their worldview.
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The misinterpretation of the Kurdi cartoon to depict Charlie as a racist rag that loves to punch down was much in evidence at a debate at the University of California, Irvine, last Friday. At the conference “Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said,” a panel of cartoonists shifted nervously in their seats as they were asked if Charlie’s cartoons were legit satire or crude bullying of minority groups. Some of the panelists denounced Charlie, adopting the Garry Trudeau line that it insults the vulnerable more than the powerful. (Full disclosure: I also spoke at the conference, about campus censorship.)
#share#Then something unwittingly hilarious happened. One of the cartoonists — Lalo Alcaraz, who draws for LA Weekly — showed some of his own cartoons. One depicted last year’s Confederate-flag controversy. It showed two fat white-trash guys, with grotesque beer bellies, tombstone teeth, and hairy, animalistic arms. The audience of liberals chortled. Isn’t this a case of “punching down,” I asked? Doesn’t this cartoon, drawn by a man who had just called out Charlie for targeting the weak, constitute elitist mockery of a marginalized section of society: dumb southerners, the butt of barbs from every decent West and East Coast liberal? Alcaraz was peeved. American progressives don’t like to be reminded of their hypocrisies — that they fume against Charlie for punching down while laughing in the face of poor whites and various other favored punching bags of the snooty liberal elite.
The fact is, everyone punches down. Including, sometimes, Charlie Hebdo. But here’s the thing: Its so-called Islamophobic cartoons, which consist primarily of rough caricatures of Mohammed, are not punching down. Mohammed is the figurehead and prophet of a major world religion, and if we cannot ridicule religions, then we might as well pack up Enlightenment and liberty and head back to the 1400s. Further, Charlie’s aim in mocking Mohammed is to rebel against powerful laws and codes that demonize and even criminalize the mocking of people’s beliefs.
Hate-speech laws have spread across Europe like a plague. They curb everything from racist and homophobic speech to Holocaust denial and expressions of “religious hatred.” They punish not only vile racist statements — which would be bad enough as censorship goes — but also expressions of genuine moral conviction. In Britain, Sweden, and elsewhere, Christians have been arrested for saying homosexuality is evil; that is, they’ve been arrested for stating deeply held, Bible-derived beliefs (wrong beliefs, in my view.)
If we cannot ridicule religions, then we might as well pack up Enlightenment and liberty and head back to the 1400s.
Such laws are rife in France. Ridiculing Islam can get you into serious trouble there. The actress turned animal-rights activist Brigitte Bardot has been fined 30,000 euros for slamming the “barbaric” butchering methods of halal meat. The novelist Michel Houellebecq was dragged to court in the early 2000s for describing Islam as “the stupidest religion.” (He was acquitted.) Charlie Hebdo itself was taken to court, in 2007, accused of “insulting Muslims.” Neo-blasphemy laws are on the rise all over Europe. Sure, we’ve done away with the dusty, medieval laws that made it an offense to question the divinity of Christ. But we have replaced them with new strictures that prohibit Europeans from undermining the self-esteem of people of faith, especially minority faiths, and other social groups. These neo-blasphemy laws don’t only punish hatred; they punish frank debate about moral and religious issues.
And it’s exactly this that Charlie Hebdo is poking in the eye. Against the new top-down culture of “You Can’t Say That!” it says: “We can say it, and we will.” Charlie has been taken to court, denounced by President Obama, firebombed, shot up, seen its staffers slaughtered, and then — for its crimes — sneered at by the powerful literary elite. After all this, to depict it as a cowardly mocker of the marginalized is surreal. The critics accuse Charlie Hebdo of “punching down” even as they punch down at Charlie Hebdo; as they side with the powerful to decree that this magazine “abuses satire” and thus must be cast out. Powerful political and media players bullying a small magazine for allegedly bullying Muslims — it’s positively Orwellian.
— Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and a writer for The Spectator.