Provocative. Irreverent. Satirical.
Obscene, offensive, blasphemous.
These words could describe Lenny Bruce and George Carlin.
It could also be a description of the French weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
On Wednesday, three gunmen interrupted an editorial meeting at the magazine’s offices. They opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 11. As of this writing, the editor, four cartoonists and an economist have been declared dead.
Charlie Hebdo had a history of making people angry. Described by NBC News as left-libertarian, it was an equal opportunity offender. One of its most recent issues, right before Christmas, featured baby Jesus with a pig nose. Another cover showed an Orthodox Jewish person kissing a Nazi.
But the magazine made world headlines when they satirized the Prophet Muhammad by publishing caricatures and spoof articles. Not only were some of these cartoons pornographic, they offended some sects of Islam that prohibited depictions of Islamic prophets.
Charlie Hebdo’s editorial offices were firebombed in November 2011. The editor received death threats and was under police protection. Their website was hacked. After a particularly controversial 2012 issue was published, riot police guarded their editorial offices.
After that 2012 edition, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, “In France, there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined. In the present context… strong emotions have been awakened in many Muslim countries. Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”
Our job is not to defend freedom of speech but without it we’re dead. We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat,” Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier told ABC News.
The White House also denounced the magazine. According to the New York Times, press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that while the magazine had the right to publish the cartoons, “We just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”
While watching media coverage of the shooting, it’s hard not to reflect on the American tradition of satire. Comedian Lenny Bruce spent a portion of his career getting arrested in cities around the country. In 1962, he said the word “cocksucker” during one of his San Francisco performances, violating Section 311.6 of the Penal code of the State of California. The code states “Every person who knowingly sings or speaks any obscene song, ballad, or any other words in a public place is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Later that year, Bruce would once again be charged with obscenity for a Chicago performance. Variety notes how the prosecutor was concerned about the comic’s indictments against religion, along with his sexual content.
Within a few years, Bruce would become a pauper. Legal harassment prevented the popular comedian from making a living on his art. He died in 1966.
In 1972, George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee for his famous routine, “Seven Dirty Words.” These days, it seems impossible to imagine words like shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits would get you into trouble during a live performance.
Generation Xers will likely remember Mad magazine, which could be quite subversive. And in 1973, Harvard Lampoon magazine featured a gun pointed at a dog’s head.
Could that be published today without a huge outcry and apologies? No.
And Charlie Hebdo could not exist in today’s America. At the very least it would be called racist. There would be a huge outcry against the publisher along with economic pressure. The Twitter backlash alone would generate media coverage. Cartoonists would probably find themselves unable to generate an income from their art. They would find themselves on an informal blacklist.
In an interview with Frank Rich at New York magazine, comedian Chris Rock lamented about today’s college students. They don’t vote Republican, but they are socially conservative. He said, “Well, I love Bill (Maher), but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative… Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”
The fear of offending anyone — at all — ever is what drives American culture. Our culture has become oppressive, authoritarian, and backwards. Rather than genuine social change, we settle for an informal, constantly updated list of forbidden words that could possibly be considered offensive to someone, somewhere. Politically correct terms.
How many artists and writers are self-censoring for fear of…. What? Being bullied. Having your name become mud on the net. Being shunned or maybe informally blacklisted. Perhaps being fired from your job.
We must never make mistakes, or as Rock puts it, “be offensive on the way to being inoffensive.”
How many times have I seen notices informing me that art must fit some kind of political parameters, i.e. The Bechtel Test. Got something to say? It better fit into the political ideals of the self-appointed kingmakers.
I’m intolerant of your intolerance is the rallying cry. I’m sure those mass murderers at Charlie Hebdo’s editorial office in Paris felt the same way.
Those of us in Generation X remember how culture could be vibrant, challenging, colorful, dynamic and diverse. That kind of art requires questions, safety, risk, and true tolerance. It needs artists to be loyal to their vision, which may not coincide with the tastemakers of today.
To live in this kind of suffocating, rigid political correctness is death to art. Again, as the now late Stephane Charbonnier said, “We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I’d prefer to die than live like a rat.”