Fr0m Ross Douthat’s column in the NYT:
Checking Charlie Hebdo’s Privilege
APRIL 18, 2015
A LIVING cartoonist lecturing his murdered peers makes for a curious spectacle, but that’s what transpired at journalism’s George Polk Awards a week ago. The lecturer was Garry Trudeau, of “Doonesbury” fame; his subject was the cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian satire rag, who were gunned down by fanatics because of their mockery of Muhammad and Islam.
Trudeau did not exactly say they had it coming, but he passed judgment on their sins — not the sin of blasphemy, but the sin of picking a politically unsuitable target for their jabs. By mocking things sacred to Europe’s Muslim immigrants, Trudeau lamented, the Hebdo cartoonists were “punching downward … attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” This was both a moral and an aesthetic failing, because “ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”
Garry Trudeau, of course, is our living leading expert on what’s funny.
By the way, in contrast to Trudeau, who has milked this cartoonist gig thing in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s. 20002, and 2010s, the great Bill Watterson got Calvin and Hobbes into syndication in 1985 and stopped in 1995.
Trudeau is hardly the first writer to accuse the Hebdo cartoonists of “punching down.” That phrase, and the critique it implies of “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity, has circulated on the Western left ever since the massacre. And understandably, because it reflects a moral theory popular among our intelligentsia, one that The Atlantic’s David Frum, in a response to Trudeau, distilled as follows: In any given conflict, first “identify the bearer of privilege,” then “hold the privilege-bearer responsible.”
As Frum notes, at its roots (both liberal and biblical) this is an admirable idea. Better to live in a society that favors underdogs than one that just lets victors have their way.
For example, President Barack Obama gets to unilaterally rewrite Congress’s immigration legislation because he’s
a victor disprivileged. After all, the Constitution was written by the Privileged to protect their privileges, so of course a President who is a member of the Disprivileged gets to rape and pillage it in the interest of his party being victorious in future elections by electing a new people.
But on the contemporary left, the theory’s simplicity is becoming a kind of intellectual straitjacket. The Hebdo massacre is just one of many cases in which today’s progressives, in the name of overthrowing hierarchies, end up assuming that lines of power are predictable, permanent and clear.
Which they are not, for several reasons.
First, while power flows from pre-existing privilege, it also grows from the barrel of a gun, and the willingness to deal out violence changes power dynamics, even when it doesn’t have a truly revolutionary outcome. The terrorist’s veto on portrayals of Islam is itself a very real form of power, and as long as journalists who challenge it end up dead, the idea that they are “up” and their targets are “down” reflects a denial of life-and-death reality. Or, to take a related example, the hundreds of white women recently raped by Pakistani gangs in England’s industrial north were theoretically higher on a ladder of privilege than their assailants. But the gangs’ actual power over their victims was only enhanced by that notional ladder, because multicultural pieties were part of what induced the authorities to look the other way. …
The same point applies to many cases beyond Islam. Christianity is both a historically privileged faith (from the perspective of the West) and arguably the planet’s most persecuted religion (from the perspective of Africa or Asia). The gay rights movement has gained extraordinary influence (especially at the elite level) in the United States, yet gay people are still treated brutally around the world. …
Third and finally, almost every official hierarchy of victimhood tends toward some kind of blindness or partiality. Frum’s response to Trudeau raises one obvious example: the way that many idealistic and progressive-minded figures in the past took racial hierarchies for granted, arguing for white economic uplift while ignoring the more fundamental victimization of African-Americans.
Maybe contemporary progressives have entirely eliminated these sorts of blind spots. On the other hand, if you take the red pill I occasionally offer to readers of this column, you’ll see today’s progressivism as a force that has consistently liberated adults at the expense of children’s basic rights and that depends on a great deal of hidden violence — millions upon millions of abortions, above all — to sustain its particular vision of equality.
That pill can be spat out or left untasted. But progressivism’s present confidence (even in the face of murder) in its prescribed hierarchies of power and victimhood is of a piece with its constant invocation of history’s “arc” and winning “side.” Both deny history’s true complexity: Rather than a clear arc, it offers what T. S. Eliot called “many cunning passages” — in which persecutors and persecuted can trade places, and even the well-meaning can lose their way entirely.