Well, voilà

I started to say I hate to agree with David Frum, but then I paused and decided I don’t, really – I’ve seen or heard him say reasonable things more than once, so it’s fatuous to hate to agree with him just because he’s a conservative.

He wrote about Garry Trudeau v Charlie Hebdo a couple of days ago, starting with a compliment to the Anglo-American liberal instinct to sympathize with the underdog.

This is not a universal human norm. Across much of the modern world, human beings still follow the ancient Roman rule,vae victis—woe to the loser. But the liberal tradition appealingly sees its core task as standing up for the weak against the powerful.

“Hold off, Cuff; don’t bully that child any more; or I’ll—”

“Or you’ll what?” Cuff asked in amazement at this interruption. “Hold out your hand, you little beast.”

“I’ll give you the worst thrashing you ever had in your life,” Dobbin said, in reply to the first part of Cuff’s sentence; and little Osborne, gasping and in tears, looked up with wonder and incredulity at seeing this amazing champion put up suddenly to defend him: while Cuff’s astonishment was scarcely less. Fancy our late monarch George III when he heard of the revolt of the North American colonies: fancy brazen Goliath when little David stepped forward and claimed a meeting; and you have the feelings of Mr. Reginald Cuff …

I wonder if that famous scene from Thackeray’s great novel Vanity Fair echoed in Garry Trudeau’s mind as he stepped forward to deliver his acceptance speech at the Polk Awards last week.

Beautifully put. I certainly hope Trudeau wasn’t thinking of the CH cartoonists as the equivalent of sadistic schoolteachers.

Almost exactly three months have passed since two heavily armed gunmen killed 11 people and wounded 11 more to punish a satirical weekly for publishing images they did not like. At the same time, two associates took hostages in a Parisian kosher supermarket, leading to the deaths of four shoppers. About a month later, a sympathizer with the Charlie Hebdo killers opened fire upon a meeting in Copenhagen attended by another cartoonist. One person was killed; three police officers were wounded. That same killer then proceeded to Copenhagen’s main synagogue, where he murdered a volunteer security guard and wounded two more police. For this long record of death and destruction—and for many other deaths as well—Garry Trudeau blamed the people who drew and published the offending cartoons.

As you know, the Muhammad cartoon controversy began eight years ago in Denmark, as a protest against “self-censorship,” one editor’s call to arms against what she felt was a suffocating political correctness. The idea behind the original drawings was not to entertain or to enlighten or to challenge authority—her charge to the cartoonists was specifically to provoke, and in that they were exceedingly successful. Not only was one cartoonist gunned down, but riots erupted around the world, resulting in the deaths of scores.

In Trudeau’s telling, the members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo were even more culpable than their Danish counterparts. Charlie Hebdo did not miss an issue after the massacre. Some might have seen something heroic in this continued commitment to their work in the aftermath of a slaughter intended to silence. Not Trudeau.

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charliewandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voilà—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.

There it is again – the attribution of agency. The 7 million copies published after much of the staff was murdered triggered violent protests. The protests were Charlie Hebdo’s fault; Charlie Hebdo caused that violence and death.

That’s a revolting thing to say. It would be crappy if CH were in fact a racist xenophobic hate-mongering paper, and since it’s the opposite of that, it’s crappy cubed.

In 2012, Garry Trudeau drew a series of strips about a Texas law requiring an ultrasound before an abortion. Trudeau’s point of view was ferocious: He had one of his characters pronounce, “By the authority invested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape.” Some newspapers found the series objectionable and declined to publish. In an interview with the Washington Post, Trudeau acknowledged the sensitivity of the subject matter. To avoid it, however, would be “comedy malpractice.” But here’s the good news: Nobody attempted to kill him. And because of the absence of threats, those who reported on the incident felt free to reproduceimages from the series in their news accounts.

If people had rioted over those strips, would Trudeau have said he triggered the riots? Would he have blamed himself?

Had the gunmen been “privileged,” then presumably the cartoons would have been commendable satire. The cartoonists would then have been martyrs to free speech. But since the gunmen were “non-privileged,” the responsibility for their actions shifts to the people they targeted, robbing them of agency. It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better.

The gunmen were “non-privileged” in some senses, but they had one massive privilege on that morning they forced their way into the Charlie Hebdo office that the people they killed didn’t have. They had big powerful guns.


  1. says

    2012? I recall sometime back IIRC in the early 80’s some papers refused to run Doonesbury because it was being too provocative. I remember the series “In Search of Reagan’s Brain” which I found mean-spirited and juvenile, notwithstanding that I despised Reagan. But only Trudeau is allowed to be provocative?

  2. says

    I recall (and a brief google confirms) that Frum has fired shots at Palin, the Duckies, and various other Tea Party idols. So: not a whackjob, anyway.

  3. Jenora Feuer says

    True, Frum has long considered himself more of a ‘sane conservative’.

    It’s been getting a lot harder to say that with a straight face of late, and even he seems to be realizing that. Sometimes.

  4. md says

    Frum authored the ‘Axis of Evil’ line. Would not be right to say he authored and is responsible for all the woe in the world that line of thinking has caused, but do not forget his role in that.

  5. johnthedrunkard says

    I wonder if Trudeau hasn’t received a Message from some downtrodden little killer. Rushdie was bullied into a retraction, between Iran and Special Branch. Of course the Ayatollah’s peace offering was a sham.

    Shame on Trudeau. But maybe he’s only reading the Guardian and Salon and doesn’t know any better.

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