“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.