- - Tuesday, January 13, 2015


France suffered through a horrifying series of terror attacks last week. Streets rang with the alarming sound of gunshots. Two agonizing hostage situations gripped the nation — and beyond. Blood was shed, and innocent life was lost.

It was certainly a heartwarming gesture to see more than a million people, including world leaders, link arms in Paris during the Jan. 11 “unity rally” to oppose terrorism. It’s also gratifying to hear people vigorously defend free speech and the need for a free press.

At the same time, there’s an important history lesson that many individuals have either ignored, or didn’t realize, during these terrible incidents. It involves the publication at the very heart of this outpouring of public support.

Few Americans had probably ever heard of Charlie Hebdo before last week. This weekly French newspaper originally ran from 1970 to 1981, and was restarted in 1992. It has a small circulation (about 45,000), left-wing political ideology, and loyal legion of readers.

Here’s where it stands out: Charlie Hebdo is a satirical publication. Merriam-Webster defines satire as “a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc.,” and “humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.” Hence, this newspaper uses words and visual images to make a point about religion, politics, important figures and topical theories and movements.

It’s not unique by any stretch of the imagination. There has been a long history and tradition of satire in our world. It dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Age of Enlightenment — and, believe it or not, some Arabic and Persian communities.

Painters and illustrators like William Hogarth (often described as the world’s first cartoonist), James Gillray, Pieter Bruegel, Thomas Rowlandson and Thomas Nast regularly poked fun at royalty, the upper crust and commoners. The musical composers W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan unsettled some audiences in Victorian England with their comic operas. Writers and thinkers like Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin left no stones unturned in describing the unusual and the ridiculous.

Meanwhile, British publications such as Punch, Fun and Private Eye, and U.S. publications like Puck, Judge, Mad and The Onion, successfully used satire to blast away at politicians, celebrities and other puffed-up individuals.

In my view, Charlie Hebdo is a modern example of classic European and American satirists. The humor is rather different, and the temperament can be off-putting at times. Yet the time-honored positions of free speech, free expression and freedom of the press can be easily identified.

That’s why this weekly satirical newspaper isn’t “anti-Muslim,” “anti-Semitic” or “anti-Christian,” as some observers have incorrectly argued. If you look more closely at Charlie Hebdo (and I’ve read a couple of issues in the past), they have always been an equal opportunity offender of religions, groups and individuals. They don’t believe there are sacred cows in society, and they have no fear in setting their sights on a moving target.

In other words, the raison d’etre of this publication is, like Punch and Puck before it, to use words, phrases and cartoons that could be offensive to some people. While it may put smiles on some faces, there will likely be many more frowns to be found in our politically correct society.

Alas, the latter group is missing the whole point of free speech. A democratic society must be willing to defend ideas that are either agreeable or disagreeable. It’s therefore incumbent to support views that appear right to us, and tolerate views that appear wrong to us. We don’t have to agree with an opposing viewpoint, but we must defend an individual’s right to support a particular position in a nonviolent manner.

The same principle applies to a free press, too.

Newspapers, magazines and journals must have the freedom to praise or critique individuals, institutions and ideas. Readers can either accept or reject the publication’s position. In both cases, participants must be allowed to voice their opinions without fear of violence or retribution.

If you truly believe in free speech, and the power of a free press, then you should strongly defend the right to hold, discuss and debate controversial views in a democratic society.

Conversely, if you believe there should be limitations on speech and the written word, then please stop calling yourself a free-speech defender. It’s insulting to people who truly support the mission of satirical publications like Charlie Hebdo. It also dishonors those who truly believe in the phrase, “Je suis Charlie.”

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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