Thursday, January 08, 2015


Political Mayhem Thursday: Killing Cartoonists

Like others, I am still trying to sort out what happened yesterday in Paris.  This much we know:  Muslim extremists, offended by the religious satire of a magazine called Charlie Hebdo, forced their way into the magazine's offices and killed twelve people. 

The best writing on this so far, as has been true before, was by Razor Hero of Writing Bob Darden.  His piece in the Huffington Post, In The Wake of Charlie Hebdo: Why Satire Matters, reflects on his own time running the late, great Wittenburg Door (which I wrote religious satire for under the alias "Phyllis N. Lewis"):

You can be pretty fearless when you have nothing to lose. For the last 12 years of the magazine's life, it was owned and operated by the Trinity Foundation of Dallas, Texas, a non-profit ministry devoted to helping the homeless. They didn't even own the building where the magazine was housed. Our exposés meant that the Trinity Foundation was sued a number of times, which thrilled our publisher, Ole Anthony. Lawsuits meant legal discovery... and no televangelists wanted our pro bono lawyers going through their financial records. Plus, not owning anything meant that, even if we lost the lawsuit, there were no assets to seize. So most suits were quietly dropped. They'd only been meant to scare or silence us.

That's why the brutal, barbaric murders by fanatics at Charlie Hebdo magazine are so disturbing on so many levels. Charlie Hebdo had been fire-bombed once before, following the publication of an editorial cartoon said to depict the Prophet Muhammad. The magazine's editor, who was killed in the assault, already had 24-hour police protection. Four cartoonists were killed. As I write this, several more people were injured, some critically, so the death toll could climb higher still.

According to reports, witnesses said the masked gunmen opened fire during the editorial meeting, screaming that they had now "avenged the Prophet Muhammad!"

Leaders of every civilized nation on the planet, regardless of that nation's prevailing religious traditions, should swiftly, vigorously, and angrily condemn this cowardly attack. It is an assault on the freedom of speech and the core tenets of democracy. The demarcation line between civilization and bloody chaos blurs dangerously when something like this happens.

This is because, in part, the use of printed (and now digital) satire is an old and honorable response to the excesses of government and religion. When the people have no other voice, when the main media outlets are controlled by the state (or too fearful to challenge the state), satire flourishes. One of the few ways the citizen can hold the rich and powerful accountable is to employ humor and satire.

While we were proud of our exposés in The Wittenburg Door, where we made the most difference, I believe, was when we got people laughing at the pompous priests and pastors and politicians and para-church leaders who used Christianity to make a buck. Martin Luther, a fairly dour fellow himself, once said that what Satan hates most is to be laughed at. It's hard to take the pious pronouncements of a televangelist seriously if you're laughing at him.

But here's the key: It takes a mature religion to handle laughter. The Jews have had an extraordinarily grim history, but one of their greatest survival mechanisms is the ability to laugh both at their circumstances and at themselves.

Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain. Your targets must be the proud and the powerful. If you make fun of people less fortunate than you, even if it is for legitimate satiric effect, then it is not satire. It is bullying. Being a bully is never funny.

Satire, like folk music and freedom songs, works best when it is comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

If Charlie Hebdo were to close because of this senseless, horrific massacre, then we're all lessened by its loss. The magazine stands for a lot more than just a few thousand subscribers and a few uncomfortable French politicians. It stands for the ability of humanity to transcend its darkest impulses.

If you are a believer and you believe that the God Who created the universe loves you, then I believe that you can probably conceive of a God who can handle humor, laughter, teasing, and -- yes -- satire. That's the description of a Big God. A little God gets easily offended by the chattering of minuscule bipeds on a backwater planet at the edge of an insignificant solar system in the quiet suburbs of a very, very big universe.

The ability to understand and appreciate satire, religious or political, is one of the defining, distinctive qualities of an actualized, fully functioning human being, one who is big enough to occasionally laugh at himself or herself, and one who knows that occasionally his or her sacred cow is going to get gored.

Mark, Bob’s Huff piece is spot on. Thanks for sharing it.
I cannot say I am a huge fan of religious satire (or any satire really). I am convinced that one of the problems of the modern world is too much satire. I find it too often facile and distorted and dishonest and a distraction and an excuse to smirk rather than think. However, I support satire in the same way I support flag-burning and pornography and scatological humor. Let Freedom Ring.
Many people [not just Waco Farmer] associate satire with freedom. I don’t think satire requires or even needs freedom… after all satire survived and thrived in historical contexts that banned numerous forms of freedom. I think satire is a tool for human decency survival. Satire is a social weapon. Irreverence and satirical criticism are meant to deflate egos and ground those people who stray into believing they are untouchable, beyond reproach...somehow above all others.
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