Tuesday, January 20, 2015


In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo situation, many commentators have chosen to use the adjective "satirical" to describe the publication, and the noun "satire" to describe what the magazine does. Indeed, the word "satire" materializes many times when items are published and printed or displayed or telecast. The word may  be one of those words which have become overused or even incorrectly used in our strange little society. Again, I have not seen an issue of Charlie Hebdo, and don't really care to. Charlie Hebdo may indeed be satire. I suspect it isn't. But if any readers of this blog have actually read an issue, please feel free to use my definition of satire contained here in this piece and retort. I need the education.

Most definitions of "satire" suggest that it is a publication or visual display that lampoons, uses sarcasm and irony, criticises, pokes fun at, and calls into question things that are established, that rule or control, that dominate, or are seen to be somehow not right or acceptable. The main effect of satire is to embarrass or shame the established order, to expose the negative or immoral aspects of the established order in order to bring about positive change. Please note the italics here: they are mine, but if you check any accepted definition of "satire", you'll see that sentiment expressed.

Arguably the greatest literary example of satire is Jonathan Swift's treatise entitled "A Modest Proposal ..."  The long form of the title is displayed at left. I loved to have my students read this piece: they needed help with the language, of course, but when we came to the "good part" I loved watching their eyes widen and their facial expressions register complete and utter surprise and even horror. Of course, a discussion ensued, and the concept of satire began to sink in. To be fair, satire is a rather difficult literary genre to teach and to learn. Good satire requires irony and a certain historical context in order to be fully appreciated. When one learns of the abuses of the largely English absentee landlords and the effect that their policy of land use and management was having on the native population of Ireland, Swift's outrageous proposal began to "make sense". What is at the heart of this piece, however, is Swift's intention of having the situation changed and improved for the Irish people. He tried to shame the English land owning class to change their policies: eventually, those policies were changed, and mass poverty and starvation started to be reduced.

In film, arguably one of the best examples of "satire" is "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" by Stanley Kubrick. The film is also often called a "black comedy", but "satire" works here too. The film is absurd and extremely funny in spots, but, when taken in context with the time it was made, the "satire" becomes apparent. It was released at the height of the Cold War, when people were either terrified at the prospect of nuclear destruction, or had become complacent to it, or actually advocated it in the hope that one side could survive it if the side struck first and hardest before the other side could retaliate. The realization that there was no possibility of survival of a nuclear strike is shown in the image at left with Slim Pickins, a good ol' redneck boy who believes in America and is part of the war machine, riding a bomb down to his ultimate destruction on the Russian landscape below. The film, as mentioned above, was absurdly funny, but also helped people to understand that nuclear war was unwinnable and that only Mutually Assured Destruction kept the two superpowers from unleashing their nuclear arsenals, despite the best efforts of war mongers to do just that. Again, a positive outcome from a satirical work of art.

So, now we come to modern satire. Indeed, there are many examples of good modern satire. But too often, "satire" is invoked for something else. The "something else" can be low-brow, boorish, sophomoric, insulting, degrading, humiliating, offensive, and repugnant. What's missing is the intent to bring about positive change. A debate could ensue as to what constitutes positive change, but most reasonable people know what that means. Unfortunately, we have too many examples of what passes for "satire" that is actually an excuse to crassly mock something that they just  don't like. Facebook uncovers a particularly nasty example I would like to share.

Behold, the facebook page entitled "Breaking Obama." If you look closely at the cover page, on the left, you'll see the word "satire" appear. I invite you to peruse the rest of the page. I did and I wanted to throw up. One could argue that the page is a free expression of people who happen to disagree with the current US President. If it were only that, I could accept it. But go farther on the page, and other things begin to appear. I won't describe what those things are: they are apparent to most reasonable people. What I wish to show is that this is NOT "satire".  It is, quite simply, trash. There is no effort to use the irony or even mockery to bring about positive change. If the people who post on this page want to disagree with President Obama, that's one thing, and that's quite acceptable and even desirable for the sake of democracy. Those people would see a positive change in the electoral defeat of Obama. Fair enough. But that ship has sailed: Obama is the legally and duly elected President of the United States. These people do not accept this and choose to vent their displeasure in rather vile ways. Folks, this is NOT "satire".

I re-assert my position in the preceeding blog entitled "The Trouble With Charlie". If we want to use free speech properly, we need to be responsible about it. And we constantly have to examine the intent of speech that is critical, ironic, sarcastic, and mocking. If the intent is to bring about positive change , then I am on board fully and completely. But if the intent is otherwise, then I reserve the right to call it what it is.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, I refuse to look. I think I know enough about it to defend my case. If there are readers of mine out there who have examined Charlie Hebdo, and can prove that it is indeed "satire", please let me know. And we can continue the debate.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


The images and sounds are not soon forgotten. Masked men emerging from a car, a lone policeman, already wounded, pleading for his life, as a gunman runs up to him and abruptly ends the policeman's life : sporadic gunfire is heard. Muffled noises fly up to the rooftop. Confusion, chaos and death in the afternoon. All because of some cartoons.

In the time after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, there have been world wide words of condemnation, mass rallies and demonstrations, endless commentaries from TV talking heads who make their living from calamity, and world leaders walking arm in arm down the Champs Elysee.  Those who see this as an assault on free speech have had a field day.

That would be scanned.

Up until last week, I had not heard of Charlie Hebdo. I assume that you had not either. What I have learned about Charlie Hebdo since the massacre hasn't made me shed any tears. I have not posted "Je suis Charlie" on my facebook page, nor have I walked the streets in my town brandishing a pen over my head. There's just something not quite right with all the hand wringing and wailing over this.

To be clear, and to cut off any knee jerk criticism of what I've just written, let me say, in the strongest terms I can, that I deplore the violence on that day. No person deserves to be shot in the street or in an office building just because of cartoons. Just as I believe that no person deserves to be shot in a school, a shopping mall, a movie theatre, in their home, in a market, or any place else.  I believe no person deserves to die in a rocket attack, a drone strike or from a home-made bomb placed in a public place by some deranged extremist.

So, now that I have made that declaration, a reader may be wondering why I haven't taken up the cause of Charlie Hebdo. The answer is because those at Charlie Hebdo, by constantly publishing those cartoons, were, in effect, taunting the extremists and daring them to so something. In other words, they were partially responsible for their own demise. Permit me to explain.

Those who have been claiming "Je suis Charlie" have done so in the name of free speech. They claim that the magazine had the right to publish what they wanted, no matter how satirical, because France, like all western countries, has a tradition of tolerating free speech as an expression of the democratic rights we all claim to enjoy. They claim that the attack was, therefore, not just an attack on the magazine, but on all of us.

They are only partially correct. Indeed, we have the right of free speech, just as we enjoy so many other rights in our society. But what "Je suis Charlie" conveniently neglects to consider is this: with rights comes responsibility. If a person or magazine or any other institution insists on exercising their rights, be it free speech or any other, they must take into account their responsibility to others in exercising that right. And they must recognize that, if they act or speak irresponsibly, there are consequences.

Let me once again state that I do not, nor ever will, claim that Charlie Hebdo "got what they deserved" or "got what was coming to them".  No act of violence can ever be condoned.

But Charlie Hebdo had to have known that continuous satire, designed to inflame, irritate, taunt, ridicule and insult, would have consequences. Had Charlie Hebdo been content to make its point, do it once or twice, and leave it alone, the massacre may never have happened. We will never know for certain.  But, we do know that they were warned constantly about reprisals and must have known that radicals and fanatics would try to get back at them. Yet, they continued to mock and give the middle finger. They continued to defy those who suggested that they tone down the rhetoric or stop using the images that were a red flag to others. They insisted that they had the right to express themselves. Some say that Charlie Hebdo was courageous. I say that they showed no responsibility with their right. I say that they were either stupid or arrogant with their apparent unassailability. I say that they were more tragic than inspiring. With their hubris came a terrible nemesis that is sad and not surprising.

One has to ask: what was the intent of Charlie Hebdo's campaign of satire? To educate? Educate whom? Most reasonable people understand the situation involving extremism. The only education available here was to those who enjoy the mockery and insult: Charlie Hebdo was providing them a shield for their mockery, the shield of free speech. So, what other purpose could there have been for the continuous mockery? To promote greater harmony or understanding among people? Hardly likely. To get people to laugh at themselves? Some people weren't laughing, obviously. Those who were laughing did so with derision and hurtful intent. Was it to sell magazines? No doubt about this. Or maybe the purpose was to deliberately provoke those who took offense. To degrade, dehumanize, insult and demonstrate hatred of a group of people. If this is true, the right to free speech seems more a sham, more of an excuse to bully and intimidate. The only surprise is that the retaliation took as long as it did.

Free speech as a defense for improper or inappropriate words or actions is a slippery slope. In our country, we have had examples of those who attempted to spread hatred, venom and suspicion against others, all under the banner of free speech. I urge you to google and research the names of Ernst Zundle and James Keegstra as examples. It is possible that Charlie Hebdo might fall under the same category as those infamous men.

Voltaire once famously said "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."  Inspiring words, aren't they? And we should all follow the principal behind them. But missing from this is the notion that the person speaking the words of which Voltaire disapproved must exercise responsibility for those words. Otherwise, all bets are off.