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Yes to Free Press, No to Racism: Why I Am Not Charlie

In the wake of the terrorist murders in Paris, one of the best defenses of the importance of satirists to be free to publish without fear comes from historian Simon Schama. He writes, “Irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom. . . Magazines such as Charlie Hebdo are in the business of taking liberties, even outrageous ones, but they exist so that we never take the gift of disrespect for granted.”

Schama, a scholar of French history, points to the role of graphic satire in leading the attack against bigots and entrenched religious and political power. In 18th century Britain, “caricaturists . . . puncture[d] the pretensions of their enemies, expose[d] their hypocrisies, and [brought] down the mighty in a gale of scornful hilarity.”

Schama concludes, “There was a bloody attempt on Wednesday to wipe the smile from our faces. But though the self-righteous have killed the satirists they will never annihilate satire itself. Just the opposite. From now on, Charlie Hebdo will be the rallying point for all those who cherish life and laughter over the death-cult of sanctimonious gloom. So we owe it to the fallen to remind ourselves amid the blood, grief and rage, that just because the unhinged perpetrators are murderers does not mean they are also not clowns.

I agree with Schama. Satire is part of free speech. As such, it needs to be defended. Because the pen is mightier than the sword, there needs, however, to be restraint in using it.

It is one thing to ridicule those in power, but it is another to stoke hatred by spreading racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or sexism. So it is one thing for a political cartoonist to satirize Barrack and Michelle Obama as Muslim terrorists, as in the controversial New Yorker cover a few years ago, but it is another to portray the president as a monkey.



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