Unethical Quote Of The Week: Cartoonist Garry Trudeau

The exquisitely rendered artwork of Gary Trudeau, circa 1970.

The exquisitely rendered artwork of Gary Trudeau, circa 1970.

“At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.”

—-Doonesbury cartoonist and relentless critic of the Right, Garry Trudeau, in a speech delivered on April 10 at the Long Island University’s George Polk Awards ceremony, where he received the George Polk Career Award.

Trudeau is a Yale grad, so perhaps we should cut him some slack muddled thinking. (Kidding!) However, in making his weak case that legitimate and socially acceptable satire only consists of “punching up,” he appeared to be advocating government prohibition of certain kinds of speech, to be designated by Trudeau and his ideological allies, who, of course, know best.

In doing this, Trudeau came very close to aping the popular theme from activists on the Left, especially on campuses, that “hate speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment.” “Hate speech” is an invention of progressives, and is generally defined as political or social criticism of members in good standing of their club, or groups and individuals they sympathize with or approve of.  Saying that you hope Rush Limbaugh’s kidneys fail is funny and deserved;  saying Mike Brown engineered his own demise by attacking a cop is hate speech. It’s easy when you get the hang of it: just look at the world like Gary Trudeau.

Earlier in his speech, he talked about “red lines” in satire, and blurrily–that is, inarticulately enough that he has plausible deniability, called for restrictions on “hateful” cartoons like those that prompted Islamic assassinations in Paris:

“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.”

As with his Unethical Quote of the Week, there is a an amusing lack of self-awareness in Trudeau’s pronouncements. His early comics, which brought him to fame as a student at Yale, were drawn as crudely as “Kilroy was here.” Lack of self-awareness is what triggers the hypocrisy imbedded in this rich celebrity cartoonist’s insistence that there should be a “red line” responsible satirists must observe  against “punching down.” Who will decide what’s up, and thus legal and permissible, and down, and thus irresponsible for “absolutists” to defend? Why, Gary Trudeau, his progressive pals, and a government they supportof course! (At the end of his screed, Trudeau offers that ultimate test of satire—one that his earlier comments render irrelevant—as whether anyone laughs. “Doonesbury” has been bitter, angry and unfunny for decades. I think what Gary means is that the test is whether he laughs.)

This is the heart of his argument:

The White House took a lot of hits for not sending a high-level representative to the pro-Charlie solidarity march, but that oversight is now starting to look smart. 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.

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism….Writing satire is a privilege I’ve never taken lightly.  And I’m still trying to get it right. Doonesbury remains a work in progress, an imperfect chronicle of human imperfection. It is work, though, that only exists because of the remarkable license that commentators enjoy in this country. That license has been stretched beyond recognition in the digital age. It’s not easy figuring out where the red line is for satire anymore. But it’s always worth asking this question: Is anyone, anyone at all, laughing? If not, maybe you crossed it.


1. Count the contradictions. Breathtaking!

2. Does Trudeau understand the difference between government restrictions on speech and private standards? Not on the evidence of this passage.

3. Gary’s argument rests on a straw man: “Free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.” That’s also a lie. They not only acknowledge that, they emphasize it.

And I emphasize it.

4. Criticizing Muslims and Islam isn’t “punching down.” This is a poisonous culture that gestates violent fanatics like rotten meat nourishes maggots. Somehow, Trudeau and his compatriots have decreed that a doctrinaire and backward worldwide religion that intimidates U.S. entertainment companies and news organizations into disgraceful  self-censorship is too weak to be joked about. Trudeau and his compatriots are nuts. That may not be funny, but it is true.

5. Satire isn’t a “privilege,” Garry. It’s a right.

Finally, someone needs to remind Gary that the freedom of speech pioneered by the Founders in the Bill of Rights was and is radical. Madison, Jefferson, Mason, Franklin and the rest of the geniuses, heroes, patriots, eccentrics, philosophers and scholars who invented this unique nation were fanatic about liberty and free speech. It is astounding that a professional political cartoonist doesn’t understand that, and apparently doesn’t cherish it. Absolute freedom of speech is the Constitution’s firewall against well-meaning government tyranny by people like Garry Trudeau; political correctness and restrictions on “hate speech” weaken that protection.

14 thoughts on “Unethical Quote Of The Week: Cartoonist Garry Trudeau

  1. Bravo for an intelligent, thoughtful, CORRECT piece. Free speech is free speech, and as you say, once we in the US start to decide what kind of speech is really free (aside from screaming “fire” in a crowded theater), we’ve lost our First Amendment and a bedrock of our democracy and political process.

  2. I’m not sure that the statement itself is inherently problematic. In fact, I believe it to be completely true: taken to an extreme, unfettered free expression is indeed “childish and unserious”; depending on one’s definition of “absolutism,” it can be unethical, even dangerous.

    What we’re talking about, then, are not the precise words you cite, but rather the context of the remarks and the implications to be drawn from that line of reasoning. Do I think that many of the manifestations of free expression are puerile, pseudo-intellectual, and more often than not generative of more heat than light? Of course. Do I, especially as a scholar and an artist, think that means we should enforce restrictions on such expression beyond those already in place? No. No, I do not. Silly and stupid aren’t, and shouldn’t be, illegal.

    If, as you suggest, Trudeau is calling for tighter restrictions, then I think he’s wrong. But that’s not what I get from his piece. Rather, I see him railing against the hypocrisy that allows one group but not another to be parodied, that embraces derogatory (“hateful”?) cartoons but condemns even peaceful protests against those cartoons. I don’t see a call for more governmental intrusion, only for intellectual and moral consistency. Still, if it’s balance he seeks, there are two ways of getting there, and I may be giving him too much of the benefit of the doubt… or you may be giving him too little.

    One place I do disagree with him, profoundly, is in his apparent definition of incitement: he seems to want to grant a heckler’s veto—if X says something about Y that makes Y angry to the point of violence, it’s inherently X’s fault. I we ought to be confining our discussion to scenaria in which X says something about Y that would reasonably lead to X’s supporters being violent against Y.

    Punching up vs. punching down… again, I think I’m with him that “punching down” is “just mean.” Whereas you make a good point about global Islam, Jack, I think it’s fair to say that ridiculing Muslims in France is indeed “punching down.” Of course, satire in general—regardless of the victim—is often mean-spirited, and I will continue to defend its right to be so.

    Finally, there are a lot of places in the world in which engaging in satire is truly an act of courage. It is therefore a “privilege” to live in a place where satire is a right. Trudeau is privileged to be privileged, and he knows it. I find no fault with him on that score.

    Full disclosure: I was an avid Doonesbury fan from my late teens into my mid-30s or so. I haven’t read it in many years because, well, it ceased to be funny.

    Oh, and pssssst… *Garry, not Gary.

    • What kind of a name is “Garry”?

      His statement only gets by me if I accept his straw man premise that such absolutists think that because one has a right to say something, one should. On the other hand, when people like Trudeau say that you can’t say something, that’s a good time for an absolutist to say it to make the point that such prior restraint is wrong.

      The heckler’s veto is exactly what he’s endorsing.

    • It’s worth noting that Garry’s characterization of Hebdo isn’t quite that accurate either, if this article by a Frenchman is any indication: http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/olivier-tonneau/110115/charlie-hebdo-letter-my-british-friends

      Basically, Hebdo’s most consistent enemy has generally been the French right and the National Front (and they’ve actually been sued more by the Church than by Muslims),and Orthodox Jews weren’t off-limits either.

      • On that note, the Left’s amazing ability to turn on itself out of sheer idiocy is another reason I don’t care to affiliate as such, despite some of my ideological sympathies.

  3. [scratching my head, as others commenting seem also to be]
    I wonder – is anyone going to challenge Trudeau with a question asking him if, assuming he does not agree, WHY he does not agree that restraining “free speech absolutism” also, at some point, becomes childish, unserious, and its own fanaticism?

  4. And he gave the speech at Long Island University? That was the place where, some years past, the graduation commencement speaker was (believe it or not) Kermit the Frog! Judging from Trudeau’s invitation, Kermit might have been one of their more prestigious (and relevant) guests.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.