Friday, January 9, 2015

"So these three terrorists walk into a bar..."

     The slaughter at Parisian satiric weekly is an attack against the fraternity of the irreverent.  We who don't accept the world as it is given to them, the way true believers and zealots do, but who scoff, who doubt, who question and criticize and complain.
     That's me. I've been a wisenheimer all my life. Snide, sarcastic. Even as a child. 
     When I grew up, and started writing, poking fun at stuff came naturally. The first piece of writing I sold for money was to National Lampoon in 1980. Since then I've written for Spy, for Esquire's Dubious Achievement Awards, for Rolling Stone. My column at the Sun-Times is not what I would call a beacon of gravitas.  
      Mockery is my business. I'm not of the Charlie Hebdo mold, only because they were so ... what? So French, with all those sloppy kissing cartoons. So European, meaning they slid into an easy xenophobia. They'd reply by saying they made fun of everyone, but you still had to wonder whose side they're on. Not my taste, but not something people should be killed over, either.  
     Friday's column required a balance, and I hope I pulled it off. Basically I wrote what I felt, what struck me as funny and, to my delight, the paper printed it. 
     And if it seems like I'm joking about tragic issues, well, you kind of have to. That's what Charlie Hebdo was all about, and our response should do no less.

     Who's there?
     Muhammad who?
     It better be Muhammad Ali, or you're in trouble.

     That isn't funny. But then, knock knock jokes are never particularly funny. They're more about wordplay ("Lettuce in, it's cold out here") and bad puns that cause 6-year-olds to spurt milk out their noses.
     Although, as jokes sometimes do, the one above, which was written by Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune (psst, non potential terrorists: it as-way eally-ray itten-wray by e-may) , illustrates a truth that might jar if stated plainly:
     Terrorism works.
     For all the "Not Afraid" bluster that came in the wake of the slaughter of 12 staffers at the Charlie Hebdo satiric newspaper in Paris, there is a chilling effect. There has to be.  "Will this get me killed?" is not a question conducive to humor. Even the Onion, in its typically dead-on response to the Paris massacre, sounded a note more somber than hilarious, under the headline: "It Sadly Unclear Whether This Article Will Put Lives at Risk," written in an intentionally unattributed, vague, will-we-die-if-we-say-this? fashion:
     "Today’s horrific events only reinforce the idea that we cannot and will not let extremist zealots dictate what we can and cannot say,” is a comment that we will quote, but one that we do with a legitimate sense of uncertainty over whether it could incite an attack against the speaker or their loved ones, a sense of uncertainty that feels awful, grotesque, and wholly unnecessary in this day and age.
     That isn't funny, or rather, is funny in a dry, puff-cheeks-and-sigh-kind of way. If you compare that piece to the one the Onion ran immediately after the 9/11 attacks, with the 19 hijackers shocked to find themselves roasting in hell, you can almost think that Western society has slid backward in 13 years, that our freewheeling freedoms have lost a step in the face of a constant stream of videos of journalist beheadings and bus bombings and the like.
     Myself, I never worry about that kind of thing, because I sincerely believe I'm not important enough to kill. Plus, at 54, I've already had the good part of my life and now comes the dismal denouemont of failing body, failing finances and descent into utter obscurity. Maybe having it all end in a white flash might not be such a horrible thing.
     No, I don't believe in mocking God for a variety of reasons. Everyone needs to claim false significance for something, and whether it's opera or football or a loving deity is merely a matter of personal style. If God is imaginary, so is Carmen, and I wouldn't want anybody claiming that makes the whole pageant a waste of time.
     Yes, one is tempted to blaspheme the prophet on general principles, to show that we can. The Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn has coined a variety of explicit jokes about Muhammad that I would share, except I believe doing so is wrong. Muslims in this country are members of an extreme minority whose position is only undercut by brutal acts such as we saw this week. The irony is that the attackers are in silent conspiracy with haters everywhere. A fringe zero commits a crime, and others claim it somehow represents the whole. Arguing that the crime in Paris reflects on Islam is like insisting that Bernie Madoff indicts Jews.
     And no, Zorn hasn't really done any of that. He's a good friend of mine, or was, before I dragged him into this. I just think the notion of projecting these dangerous, imaginary insults upon him is funny.
     But that would change if somebody threw a brick at his house. Or mine. We have to hold, on faith, that we haven't passed some kind of tipping point where jokes are not allowed. I don't want to pretend that Islamic radicals invented terrorizing those who disagree with their dogma. We in the U.S. have a long, rich history of doing just that, from John Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts to the 1960s South, where supporting voting rights could and did get you killed.
     One of the dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers killed was Stephane Charbonnier, editor and cartoonist. The magazine had been threatened and firebombed before, and in 2012 he said something worth repeating:
     "Muhammad isn't sacred to me. I don't blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don't live under Quranic law."
     Charbonnier said something else: "I'd rather die standing than live on my knees."
     This is a moment of truth, where we decide whether to cower in fear or stand up. I admire Zorn for standing up and boldly insulting Islamic terrorists everywhere, almost daring them to come after him. I only wish I had his courage.


  1. Unfortunately, none of our local papers & almost no papers anywhere else in this country had the balls to publish the Muhammad cartoons. They're all cowards!
    That's what should have been in every paper in this country today, the original cartoons & the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo that pissed of those lunatics.
    There's a Humphrey Bogart movie from 1952, "Deadline-USA" & at the end, Bogart, who played a crusading reporter, points out to the bad guy when the building starts vibrating from the presses starting up, that's the sound of freedom. He also had this line in the film: "A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger."

    If we don't stand up to this garbage, then we're doomed.
    Je Suis Charlie!

    1. You forgot to sign your name to that.

    2. Neil,

      If I were new to the web, I think I would use an anonymous nickname. People have faced retribution including the loss of their jobs thanks to online posts. However, having been involved in online comments even before the rise of the web, it's far too late for me to cover my tracks. And so, I continue to post using my own name.

  2. You're way too modest, Neil. Though I certainly don't know how you feel inside, your writing consistently displays courage, whether I agree with an opinion or not. And we need even more of Freewheeling Neil -- yesterday Kass came out against murder and in favor of free speech. Go get em!!

    1. The same reason you read Bob Greene, and eviscerated him. Brilliantly. Kass deserves it even more.

  3. Neil: Please don't give up the ship at age 54. I'm exactly 18 years older than you and happy to have lived those years -- my wife mocks me that I told her when we first met that I probably wouldn't make it to 50, given that my father and grandfather both died early. I've slowed down of course, but I was always slow: slow witted, slow footed and slow angered. I can still think however, I can still run, and I still get pissed off from time to time. One thing you have going for you as you age is that you're an organized person -- you'll be better able to compensate for potential lapses by being prepared for them. Here's hoping that both you and I are still kicking (and you're still writing) 18 years from now.

  4. Hope you didn't get Zorn in trouble. wink

    1. but anyhow,good article

    2. Don't worry about Zorn -- you know he always carries a handgun, and a Bowie knife in his Red Wing boot.

    3. And if worse comes to worse, EZ can always pull out his banjo.

      -- MrJM

  5. unfort. ultra rad. apologists still make excuses for muslims or think pat Robertson is just as dangerous, not fair comparison, some just hate on Christianity too much, or worry if it says xmas vacation on a school calendar, no I'm not a born again

    1. The tactic of imagining something stupid and then assigning it to your faceless opponent isn't very convincing. But from your references -- Robertson, "born again"--I'll guess you are elderly, and thank you for your valuable input.

  6. I knew it was coming, and by the end of the column there it was: "Muslims in this country are members of an extreme minority whose position is only undercut by brutal acts such as we saw this week. The irony is that the attackers are in silent conspiracy with haters everywhere. A fringe statistical zero commits a crime, and others claim it somehow represents the whole."

    Technically it's true that only a fringe supports murdering those who "defame" the prophet with cartoons. But it's misleading to leave it at that. A strong majority of Muslims do support criminilzing the cartoonists/satirists. One poll in the U.S. (but not by a polling outfit I was familiar with) had 46% of American Muslims favoring criminalizing such cartoons. In reality the number may not be that high, but I doubt it's a tiny minority either (and it could even be higher - some respondents might have hid their true feelings from the pollster). And from the murdered translators of "The Satanic Verses" to Theo van Gogh, the reaction by the vast majority of Muslims seemed far closer to Bill Donahue of the Catholic League (shouldn't have happened, but they deserved a good share of the blame) than outrage and shame of what their "fringe" was doing. So saying "I don't think the satirists should be killed, but they should be put in jail" may not be directly supporting the fringe that does kill, but doesn't it feel like some kind of enablement?

    That said, terrorism is not a good reason to abandon the Golden Rule (which has roots in Judaism as well as Christianity). If you didn't publish "Piss Christ" there's no reason to publish these. And if you want to protect your employees from being put in mortal danger, I wouldn't blame anyone for that or call it cowardly. But no, American Muslims are not like Russian Jews in the days of the pogroms - if anything, when, for example, Sarah Silverman makes humor with Jesus obscenities but not Mohammed, I think that isolates Muslims more, not less.

    As for anonymous posting, what David said. I do think non-anonymous posters are in a sense more noble than anonymous ones, but it depends on context. But I don't think Mr. Steinberg has cause to get snarky about this: he is paid very well to give his opinions. When he takes a job that doesn't want him posting controversial things under his name AND has loved ones depending on his paycheck AND either posts them under his name or shuts up entirely, I'll readily acknowledge he's a better man than I am.

    1. My paid job has nothing to do with this, Al-Anon. I tolerate your self-justifications for free, as a hobby. I'm sure 48 percent of American Christians would love to make blasphemy illegal. You overlooked that part. But I don't want to be drawn into point-by-point twitting. I had my say, you can have yours, although I'd re-read that last paragraph of yours, deciding that you and people like you are the most noble. An easy trap to fall into, made worse for being so common.

  7. Today you write "I'm sure 48 percent of American Christians would love to make blasphemy illegal. You overlooked that part." I'll remind you that when you challenged my claims about the beliefs of conservatives on immigration reform (claiming I was making them up), I responded with multiple links to established pollsters. Today you not only make up a statistic, you accuse me of believing the gist of it is true and ignoring it! I did neither - I doubt 48% of all American Christians would "love" to make blasphemy illegal - maybe if you limited that to white Sothern Baptists and Catholics who bristle at Pope Francis you'd find something like that. Though note how many conservatives attacked Denesh D'Souza at the time of 9/11 and yesterday attacked Bill Donahue for merely saying such blasphemy should be avoided even if it was legal. And if you added in the question "would you like to make all blasphemy - including mocking the Prophet Mohammed - illegal" since that's what the Constitution would require even if you overturned the first amendment, the number would drop even further.

    Second, please don't twist my words, I said the exact OPPOSITE of "people like me" are more noble. I said in general non-anonymous posting is more noble. I added that I don't think someone who is well paid to write controversial opinions under his or her own name is the same thing, but in now way is that saying it's *less* noble than some anonymous poster.

    I think arguments should fall or rise on their own merits - if a person makes a compelling case for global warming anonymously, how much should it matter that someone responding with "I don't buy it - this was the coldest winter yet" mean?

  8. There's quite a sensible sounding article in today's Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria claiming that there is no Koranic justification for punishing blasphemy. If true, one wishes that prominent Moslem clerics would publish the news. But I expect they are themselves intimidated by the zealots. Christianity, at this stage in history, seems to harbor fewer dangerous fanatics than Islam, but all of the world's religions can probably bring out the worst as well as the best in people. If you are of a mind you can go to Israel and visit a sort of shrine to Baruch Goldstein and read an inscription lauding his defense of the Torah..

    Knowing something about public opinion polling, I wouldn't put too much credence in polls probing religious views. Respondents are perfectly capable of agreeing to mutually antagonistic propositions.

    Tom Evans

    1. And virtually any proposition, no matter how radical, no matter how nonsensical, no matter how cruel and vicious, can be "justified" by citing some sacred text.


  9. Neil on another note, please visit on facebook the Being liberal or Occupy Democrats site. You'll like them. No, I'm not affiliated.

  10. “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”

    Trouble is, these extremists will still kill you either way.


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