When I was young in the Sixties and Seventies, the Spirit of the Age was all about satire and disrespecting sacred cows. A lot of youngish people emerged triumphant from that era and many of them are still around. Perhaps not so surprisingly, from their august positions today they lecture us on the dangers of satire and comedy unrestrained by respect for proper thoughts.
For example, consider Garry Trudeau. He was a scion of old money liberal Protestant good blood good bone folks (his mother went to Miss Porter’s School, for example) who rapidly triumphed as a representative of the rising generation of the educated and sophisticated. Trudeau started the predecessor to his Doonesbury cartoon strip at Yale in the late 1960s and quickly became the Jon Stewart of his generation.
Today, however, Trudeau writes in The Atlantic:
Garry Trudeau on Charlie Hebdo, free-speech fanaticism, and the problem with “punching downward”
GARRY TRUDEAU APR 11 2015, 1:12 PM ET
My career—I guess I can officially call it that now—was not my idea. When my editor, Jim Andrews, recruited me out during my junior year in college and gave me the job I still hold, it wasn’t clear to me what he was up to. Inexplicably, he didn’t seem concerned that I was short on the technical skills normally associated with creating a comic strip—it was my perspective he was interested in, my generational identity. He saw the sloppy draftsmanship as a kind of cartoon vérité, dispatches from the front, raw and subversive.
Why were they so subversive? Well, mostly because I didn’t know any better. My years in college had given me the completely false impression that there were no constraints, that it was safe for an artist to comment on volatile cultural and political issues in public. In college, there’s no down side. In the real world, there is, but in the euphoria of being recognized for anything, you don’t notice it at first. Indeed, one of the nicer things about youthful cluelessness is that it’s so frequently confused with courage.
In fact, it’s just flawed risk assessment. …
The strip was forever being banned. And more often than not, word would come back that it was not the editor but the stuffy, out of touch owner/publisher who was hostile to the feature.
For a while, I thought we had an insurmountable generational problem, but one night after losing three papers, my boss, John McMeel, took me out for a steak and explained his strategy. The 34-year-old syndicate head looked at his 22-year-old discovery over the rim of his martini glass, smiled, and said, “Don’t worry. Sooner or later, these guys die.”
Well, damned if he wasn’t right. A year later, the beloved patriarch of those three papers passed on, leaving them to his intemperate son, whose first official act, naturally, was to restore Doonesbury. And in the years that followed, a happy pattern emerged: All across the country, publishers who had vowed that Doonesbury would appear in their papers over their dead bodies were getting their wish. …
I, and most of my colleagues, have spent a lot of time discussing red lines since the tragedy in Paris. …
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
How can you tell who are the non-privileged? The answer is actually very simple: By definition, the non-privileged are those who have the privilege of not being ridiculed.
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. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.
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.
That would be kind of an interesting topic for Doonesbury to explore, no? But would that be punching up or punching down? Muslims or Jews: which group is punching up and which group is punching down?
Or is the bigger question: Just how hard would Trudeau get punched if he did it? Better not to think about it.
… 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.
We hear an awful lot these days about punching up and punching down, but we sure don’t hear many respectable in-depth explorations of just who is up and who is down and why. It would seem like a topic ripe for satire, but apparently it crosses one of those red lines of unfunniness. You’re not supposed to think, much less laugh, about who is privileged and who is punchable, you’re just supposed to know. Who you can punch and who you can’t is one of those things that go without saying.
If you are still uncertain, well, that’s your problem. If you’d had the good sense to to Yale, you would probably have a more refined sense of discretion and social boundaries. But it’s too late for you now, so if you don’t want to get punched, you’d better just shut up and let your social superiors make all the jokes.