Fighting Terror with Laughter

Jon Stewart isn’t the usual go-to for reasoned analysis of politically tinged events, primarily because his general bias makes him nearly incoherent sometimes. But he got the events in Paris right when he said “there is no sense to be made of this”:

It takes a lot for an apologist to acknowledge that, for some things, there simply is no apology. Things like not being able to take a joke to the point that 12 people had to die. Perhaps that assessment will offend some who see more to the fanaticism of the Islamist wing of Islam. But ultimately, that’s what the massacre of the 12 in Paris yesterday was all about. There is no satirizing the sacred and profane for these guys. But we’ve known that for a while. As Jeffrey Goldberg writing in The Atlantic notes:

The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo falls into the category of events that are shocking in their intensity and brutality, but not at all surprising. This attack, which killed at least 12 people, including journalists and two police officers, was utterly, completely predictable. The brittle, peevish, and often-violent campaign to defend the honor of Allah and his prophet (both of whom, one might think, are capable of defending themselves with lightning bolts and cataclysmic floods and such, should they choose to be offended by cartoons) has been pursued in earnest since the 1989 Iranian-led crusade (I use the word advisedly) to have Salman Rushdie murdered for writing a book. In 2011, of course, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed—the equivalent of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, an attack that should have told us more about long-term jihadist intentions than it unfortunately did.

Initially it seemed the message was aimed toward journalists, specifically those who choose to arm themselves with a razor sharp knife of satire. But it’s no accident that Stewart and other comedians like Tina Fey have taken a vocal stance on what happened yesterday. They know that laughter is at stake. As Fey noted in an interview following the horror in Paris:

“Even if it’s just dumb jokes in ‘The Interview,’ we have the right to make them.”

Because at the heart of free speech, that guarantee of the First Amendment that has recently been questioned by (as my fried ‘Puter, one of the leaders of The Gormogons), likes to call “our intellectual betters”, is the ability to “take the piss out of” something. Laugh at it. Break it apart. Analyze it. Can this be done respectfully? Of course. Were the guys at Charlie Hebdo respectful? No. And, frankly, not all that funny (at least to me). But here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter if they were funny or respectful. It doesn’t matter if they were effective, or funny, or brilliant satirists. They were free. And could be any or all of those things. And the fact that they were not allowed to be any or all of those things — were not protected — is all part of the tragedy.

This is not an idea shared by Islamist thought-leader Anjem Choudary:

Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.

And the goal, as Choudary says there at the end — “It is time that the sanctity of a Prophet revered by up to one-quarter of the world’s population was protected.” — is to force that submission. Force reverence for a prophet that 1/4 — leaving of course 3/4 that doesn’t — believes holds the truth to this great mystery we call life. That’s called the Caliphate. And we know what it looks like. From a piece that appeared in The Economist in 1924:

Under ‘Abdu’l Hamid—and, indeed, for a full century before that skilful exploiter of the Caliphate ascended the throne—the Ottoman Government had ruled over broad lands, both in Europe and in Asia, and over numerous peoples, both Muslim and Christian, outside the Turkish territories and the Turkish population which were the foundations of its power; and at the same time its rule was everywhere ineffective, its sovereignty imperfect, and its power a shadow.

Between these two phenomena, the Turkish Nationalists are now convinced that there was a profound logical connection. The Ottoman Empire, they maintain, was top-heavy, and the Turkish nation was attempting an impossible task in trying to support it, like Atlas, on its unaided shoulders. The nation was bowed down, and its vitality was exhausted, while the Empire continued to crumple and crack. What is the use of sacrificing oneself for an unattainable object? The Turkish nation will only be able to stand erect and to exercise its limbs when it has flung the useless burden of empire from it, and it should therefore divest itself of Sultanate and Caliphate, and should thank its enemies for having relieved it already of the Arab provinces and Macedonia.

You can see attempts to create it in places like, not surprisingly, France, where some civic services like fire and police don’t serve neighborhoods where Islamists have been granted power to lead. And increasingly, our 4th Estate has become complicit in the dangerous seriousness because we have become afraid to defend ourselves using one of the most powerful things we have as free people: our ability to openly disagree. And with a smile.

And this power is sacred precisely because of its rarity, as this Federalist piece brilliantly points out.

Sometime in the Paleolithic past, one guy said to his friends, “Hey, have you ever noticed how small Steve the Chief’s brow is? Look at me, I’m Steve No-Brow.” Everyone laughed, then Steve the Chief caved the guy’s head in with a rock. Human affairs with regards to unauthorized satire remained the same for the next 100,000 years or so, with the only difference being who was holding the biggest rock.

Wednesday’s terrorist attack on the office of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo is a grim reminder that the last couple hundred years of increased tolerance for unfettered speech is largely an anomaly. Viewed over the course of history, freedom of speech as an ideal can only be seen as a bizarre fetish, propagated by a few lone cranks and out of step with humanity’s preference for order, deference to raw power, and violence as a means of achieving those preferences.

So we live under a system that is not unlike a pearl in a sea of empty oyster shells. And it is precious and should be cherished and protected, despite the fear of the serious men who seem unable to laugh at themselves. But even as I believe it should be cherished and revered, I won’t be threatening to behead any innocent who can’t take a joke.

JK Rowling had a brilliant idea when she wrote about the “bogart” in her Harry Potter series. The “bogart” is an evil entity that hides in the dark spaces in our homes and is, by definition, the scariest thing your subconscious mind can manufacture and manifest to jump out of that dark closet to scare and possibly kill you. You defeat it by laughing at it. But, of course in that series, there came a time to do real battle, too. Laughter was just part of the arsenal. And it was an advantage because it was a weapon the other side didn’t have.


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