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Garry Trudeau Sides With Power Against Real Dissenters

04/16/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

Here's one piece of self-deception that must stop: If you believe that people should not mock or make fun of religion -- even Islam -- you are not on the side of the "powerless."

If you believe in hate speech or blasphemy laws that would stop people from "defaming" religion, you are empowering those who enforce religious orthodoxies to oppress dissenting voices. Blasphemy laws, hate speech laws, or really any mechanism that prevents people from questioning a religious status quo side with the powerful, with the majority, and against truly powerless individuals. In Islamic countries, the powerless often include gays, potential religious reformers, and closeted atheists.

Garry Trudeau perfectly encapsulated this self-deception recently in a speech he gave after receiving the "George Polk Career Award" for his comic strip Doonesbury. In his remarks, Trudeau criticized the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and the Danish editor who published the Mohammed cartoons back in 2005. He likened the cartoons to "graffiti," said they had "wandered into the realm of hate speech," and implied that they should have been prosecuted for the deaths that they "caused" in the Muslim world.

I suspect many Muslims are offended that Garry Trudeau believes members of their faith have little choice but to murder over cartoons. David Frum highlights the offensiveness of Trudeau's insinuation: "It's almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs... we don't blame the dog. The dog can't help itself."

And as for the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, I strongly urge Trudeau and frankly everyone else to read Flemming Rose's (the Danish editor Trudeau wrongly identifies as a woman) powerful and important recent book, Tyranny of Silence. Perhaps the most disturbing part of his book is his explanation of the worldwide push, coming mostly from Islamic countries, for international "defamation of religion" laws. Such laws would permanently empower religious majorities to silence their dissenters. (As I have already written, I think the decision by western media to not show the cartoons that people were killing in the name of was a fateful mistake and unwittingly incentivized further violence. )

Trudeau further criticized Hebdo by arguing that satire is supposed to "punch up," and representing the prophet Mohammed in unflattering ways was "punching down" and "attacking the powerless." In so doing, Trudeau ignored the long satirical tradition of illustrating the danger of mobs and conventional wisdom. (The Simpsons provides perfect examples.)

Trudeau also relied on a self-serving narrative, like the one diagnosed by Jon Ronson in his excellent new book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, in which those on social media too often view themselves as a "magnificent hero" battling a "sickening villain." The real world is rarely that simple.

And most importantly, to portray an institution that mocks any religion's sacred cows as villainously "punching down" ignores that religious institutions are very much part of the power structure and have been throughout history.

When you're challenging the gods, and those who claim to speak for the gods, you are always punching up.

While Trudeau never explicitly mentions blasphemy laws, if you believe the cartoons poking fun at religion constitute "hate speech," you join the ranks of American professors like Anthea Butler, who thought the producers of the Innocence of Muslims film should have been prosecuted, and Eric Posner, who likes to dismiss as "fundamentalists" those of us who believe that speech poking fun at religion should be protected. Few of these thinkers understand that in essence they are supporting a return to the bad old days of blasphemy laws.

As John Stuart Mill pointed out in his 1859 classic On Liberty, both Socrates and Jesus were victims of blasphemy laws. Trudeau probably would never imagine himself taking the side of the Pope against Galileo or Bruno, or the Inquisition against witches, but blasphemy restrictions have always been a tool of forced conformity.

By condemning Charlie Hebdo, Trudeau is taking the side of theocrats across the Islamic world, of imams who believe they know what's best for their community, and of some self-appointed leaders of Muslim communities in the West. He is siding against the true powerless minority: individuals who might have a spark of doubt in their heart or even just the desire to live in a truly secular society. As Eugene Volokh notes, Islam, the true "target" of Charlie Hebdo's satire, is a religion that claims over 1.6 billion followers and wields substantial power to do some "punching down" of its own--and regularly does.

It's particularly shocking that Trudeau thought this was an important point to make just weeks after two Bangladeshi religious dissenters, Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy, were hacked to death with machetes in the streets for their lack of faith. As recently as 2013, 13 countries made atheism punishable by death, while homosexuals faced the death penalty in ten countries last year. But this is nothing particularly new. Ken White over at Popehat surveyed the impact of "blasphemy" and its laws for two years, reaching a similar conclusion (forgone to anyone who has paid attention to the course of human history): laws and norms opposing blasphemy "are a tool of oppression of people who are powerless, even by the finicky standards of Trudeau[.]" Blasphemy laws protect the power structure, not those who have the misfortune of finding themselves outside it. Trudeau's failure to grasp this historical and practical truth is, White notes, ironically privileged.

Those of us who care about the rights of oppressed minorities should do everything in our power to fight this kind of religiously motivated oppression. The world is not free until it is safe to be an atheist, gay, or a religious reformer in every country of the world. On Monday at a 'Freedom Day" conference at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center I even suggested a "global First Amendment." As I explained, I was not proposing "the passage of some one-world government globo-law. Instead, I mean that we [in the U.S.] should not be afraid to preach what we practice." I argued "Free speech is the best invention civilization has come up with for minority rights, scientific discovery, social progress, peaceful resolution of differences, and for genuine pluralism." And anyone who claims that they "value free speech but support blasphemy laws" is utterly deluding themselves. There is no way to have both.

Meanwhile, powerful people like Trudeau prefer to point fingers at the cartoonists--people who might just help the currently powerless understand that dissent is okay, even when it challenges "unquestionable" truths imposed by their leaders. And, for the final insult, Trudeau dismisses free speech advocates who support Hebdo as "childish." He claims they engaged in their "own kind of fanaticism." So, in Trudeau's world, men executing staff members at a satirical magazines are powerless, and those of us who defend the rights of people like Trudeau to challenge the status quo with their cartoons are the real fanatics.

If they offered an award for siding with the powerful and the violent or for rationalizing his own world view, Trudeau should have won that award instead.