When Cheap Laughs Cost Too Much

When Cheap Laughs Cost Too Much

Some people unfortunately think that the best way to respond to the intolerance of Muslim fanatics is to insult all Muslims.

That’s the twisted thinking behind professional Muslim baiter Pamela Geller’s ill-advised contest in Garland, Texas. Her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, offered a $10,000 prize to a cartoonist deemed to have drawn the best mocking picture of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.

Most Muslims quite sensibly ignored the stunt. But when you bait enough people, somebody will rise to the provocation. Two heavily armed and armored Muslim men from Phoenix arrived to shoot up the contest, authorities say, but were blocked by the Garland police force. A traffic cop fatally shot both — and Geller succeeded in making her own organization sound no less reckless than the fanatics she baited.

Oh, sure, there are some people who buy into Geller’s insistence that she is only defending free speech. But that does not excuse her from criticism for expressing reckless speech.

As you probably know, Geller’s contest is just one of the more bizarre reactions to the murderous January assault on the Paris offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by two French Islamic extremists who were offended by the magazine’s depiction of Muhammad.

For the record, Charlie Hebdo cartoonists Jean-Baptiste Thoret and Gerard Biard declared there was “no comparison” between the “equal-opportunity offense” in their criticism of all religions and the Islamaphobic slant of Geller’s stunt.

Yet Charlie Hebdo also has been sharply criticized by many who affirm their right to print what they print but sharply dislike some of what they’re printing.

For example, after the writers’ organization PEN announced that it was giving an award to Charlie Hebdo, six writers who had earlier agreed to be “table hosts” at the gala backed out. While deploring censorship and violence, a letter signed by dissenting PEN members said in part, “(In) an unequal society, equal-opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.”

The letter echoed a criticism of Charlie Hebdo‘s humor in a speech by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau at journalism’s prestigious George Polk Awards: “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.”

Trudeau probes a central question in this debate: What is satire for? It is meant to be humorous, but it isn’t always. It should aim to “punch up, not down,” as the old saying goes, but sometimes even a seemingly disempowered minority group can exercise oppressive, lethal power when it runs amok with murderous fanaticism.

With this debate bubbling through the media community, I was not surprised to hear it pop up in a question to Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, editorial cartoonist at The Economist and the Baltimore Sun. As he accepted the 2015 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning at the Library of Congress in Washington, he was asked, “Would he enter the Texas contest?”

No, Kal said, and he would not encourage any of his fellow cartoonists to do it, either. “It seemed to me to be a bit of a stunt.” Whatever the contest was trying to prove about freedom of expression, he said, it ended up “bordering on hate speech.”

As a board member of the Herb Block Foundation, which sponsors the prize, I have been in numerous discussions like this centering on an almost mystical question: “What would Herb do?”

Block, perhaps better known by his pen name Herblock, was a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post. Even as a student, I idolized the Chicago-born artist for his ability to reduce the powerful and pompous through the fine art of ridicule. His cartoons branded red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy with the term “McCarthyism.” He wore his place on President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” like a badge of honor.

Yet, as much as he championed speech and press freedoms, his work is worth our admiration because, among other distinctions, he’d rather sacrifice humor in a cartoon than paint his adversaries with too broad of a brush. Sometimes a cheap laugh isn’t worth the price.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is off today.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.) 

Photo: Fede Falces via Flickr

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