The useful idiots of the brutal and the powerful

Ken White also takes on Garry Trudeau, at Popehat.

Last week cartoonist Garry Trudeau received the George Polk award for journalism. It’s an award named in memory of a journalist murdered while covering a war. Trudeau used the opportunity to say that while murdering journalists is sub-optimal, journalists need to rethink offending people:

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

It really is quite staggering that he managed to formulate that thought, and write it down, and say it to an audience, in the context of the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo. The issue is not the right to be outraged or being allowed to feel pain. The issue is murdering cartoonists. The Kouachi brothers were not feeling pain when they murdered all those people. They were feeling powerful and righteous. Let’s not lose sight of literal power like guns and the willingness to fire them.

Trudeau’s complaint received sighs of rapture from Lydia Polgreen, a bureau chief at the New York Times, an institution generally associated — justifiably or not — with freeexpression:


Well, if by “wise” you mean thoughtless and stupid, and if by “nuanced” you mean crude and facts-ignoring.

Ken points out that Trudeau is relying on a parochial and privileged view of blasphemy in saying this – emphasis his, and rightly so. Trudeau has the privilege of not worrying that he will be hacked to death with machetes the way Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were. He has the privilege of not being driven out of his country the way Taslima Nasreen was. He has the privilege of not being threatened with one thousand lashes and imprisoned and fined the way Raif Badawi was and is. And so on; Ken gives other examples. God knows there’s no shortage of them.

The issue is that anti-blasphemy social and legal norms are a tool of oppression of people who are powerless, even by the finicky standards of Trudeau and the New York Times. The concept of blasphemy is used to persecute religious minorities, ethnic minorities, rights activists, and anyone else disfavored by the mullahs and the mob. It is used to protect power — the existing power structure of the mostly conservative, mostly traditional, mostly male-and-religious-dominated societies where the concept holds sway.

Garry Trudeau and Lydia Polgreen are the useful idiots of the brutal and the powerful. By obligingly framing the “blasphemy debate” as an issue of West v. East and journalistic power vs. Islamic powerlessness, they support and advance the blasphemy norms used to murder and oppress the genuinely powerless. They are punching down.

Beautifully said.



  1. moarscienceplz says

    Yeah, and we should be very mindful that we don’t offend cops while we protest killings of unarmed black people. Words can be really hurtful!
    /sarcasm (because there are plenty of people who would say this straight).

  2. quixote says

    Wow. Just wow. Trudeau’s been right on target on some stuff, but most of it was so long ago I stopped reading him at about the turn of the millenium. And now this. How could he, of all people, the cartoonist whose stock in trade is offending (some) people, how could he miss so badly?

  3. RJW says

    (1) “that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must”.

    I don’t understand Trudeau’s argument, he seems to be advocating civility, rather than free speech.

    (2) “Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged”

    Drivel. That’s not implicit in free speech arguments either,

    What the hell does ‘unserious’ mean? Here we go again, are Trudeau and Polgreen advocating a ‘nuanced’ understanding of Islam i.e. some Muslims are dangerous and we should submit on the spurious rationale of cultural relativism?

  4. johnthedrunkard says

    I remember Cleese quoting one of Monty Python’s producers:
    ‘There are people one might wish to offend.’

    The ‘any explanation/rationalization except Islam’ trope has a huge constituency. The Guardian,, and I don’t know how many FaceBook and generic blog idiots.

    And people wonder why Hirsi Ali has drifted under the Right’s umbrella?

  5. RJW says

    @ 5 johnthedrunkard,

    Yes, some elements of the “left”, because of their arrogance and ignorance of Islam, have decided that the problem is due entirely to the bigotry of mainstream society, i.e. ‘it’s all our fault’ and the solution is more multiculturalism. Consequently the Right fills the void.

  6. lorn says




    As guys get older they tend to become risk adverse and defensive.

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