(Image: Dave Brown/The Independent)
When I began writing online in the Spring of 2006, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I had spent the better portion of my life gleefully pissing down the leg of polite society and mouthing off to anyone I considered an authority figure, usually without much concern for my own well-being. This is because I was an idiot. But here’s the thing: nine times out of ten I did it in the name of getting a laugh. There was rarely any ill-will pressuring the geyser of amusing wise-assery my mouth intermittently acted as, but it didn’t mean the silly smirk plastered on my face and “no scared cows” approach to humor didn’t rub a few people the wrong way. The problem, of course, was that if someone dared to express outrage or try to scold me into silence — warning me that there are some things that are simply off-limits to humor — the more thrilling it was to push past that boundary and the more likely I was to do exactly that. This is because I was an asshole. With that in mind, I named the blog I started Deus Ex Malcontent and made its motto “making a mockery of mockery.” I spent the next seven years doing just that, riffing on the high and mighty within politics, the media and pop culture without a concern in the world for who might be offended. The Daily Banter has given me the freedom to continue doing that, just on a wider platform. Everyone else here has that same freedom. It’s a freedom that matters, now more than ever.
In his book, Letters To a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens summed up the immense power of humor, specifically satire. “The literal mind is baffled by the ironic one,” he said. “The sharp aside and the witty nuance… are the one thing that pomp and power can do nothing about.” It’s difficult to think of drawing funny cartoons and writing snarky commentary as a dangerous, revolutionary act, but they absolutely can be. Today, in fact, they absolutely are. This was proven by three masked gunmen who stormed the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed ten people, including publisher Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, for the crime of drawing cartoons. Let me repeat that because no matter how many times you hear it today or in the coming days and weeks it needs to really be hammered home: ten people, and then two police officers who tried to stop the massacre, were killed because of a bunch of cartoons. The artists and editors of Charlie Hebdo were executed simply because they dared to draw and write something deemed offensive and therefore off-limits by a lunatic culture they were under no obligation to show deference. They had made jokes at the expense of everyone, had giddily reveled in their willingness to push boundaries and ignore decorum, but it wasn’t until they made jokes at the expense of Islam that they supposedly deserved to die violently. They were murdered over jokes.
It’s surreal that what happened in Paris so closely follows a massive hack of Sony Pictures that brought the company to its knees and nearly cratered the release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview. Surreal, but maybe not unexpected. In many ways, both events are the same as both represent an attack by thin-skinned tyrants against perceived insults and the West’s freedom of expression that allowed for them. It’s the specific kind of insult, though, that stands out here. What Charlie Hebdo does and what The Interview did is something tyrannical forces fear more than anything: they laughed at them, made them the butt of a joke. To stand passionately and even violently against something like Islamic extremism is infuriating to those who adhere to its principles, but to treat it as though it isn’t even worth taking seriously is one of the most powerful acts of defiance there is. The necessity of satire becomes clear when you realize that it’s always held a funhouse mirror up to power and oppression and has the unique ability to pop arrogant certitude and naked hypocrisy like a balloon. It can slyly land punches on challenging targets that direct criticism can’t and it can make those punches sting. Satire, like all comedy, is the language of not being afraid. It dares us to confront our fears by laughing in their faces.
And maybe that’s why humor is so important, so absolutely fucking important to us: because it’s an expression of freedom from fear and intimidation. To make a joke is often to knock something daunting down to size so that even for a little while we can deal with it. Rise above it. Become superior to it. The murdered writers and editors of Charlie Hebdo understood this. Two years ago, in an interview with Le Monde, Charb was asked about living under the specter of retaliation from fundamentalist Islam and whether he ever worried about thumbing his nose at killers. His answer: “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” This wasn’t a soldier or the traditional patriot uttering these words, it was a cartoonist at a newspaper whose goal was to make people laugh. Maybe Charb and the rest of the Charlie Hebdo staff never saw themselves as heroes — more than likely they simply saw themselves as relentlessly mocking the absurdity of the powerful because they could — but today they are. Today, they are heroes. And they become heroes by doing one of the simplest things imaginable: laughing and making others do the same.
We’re about to be tested as a free society and how we respond matters immensely. Our very freedom to express ourselves as we see fit is being challenged and this includes our freedom to joke — no matter how pointedly — about whatever we choose. Today in an editorial posted at MSNBC.com, former editor of The Onion Joe Randazzo said about our reaction to what happened in Paris, “You cannot kill an idea by murdering innocent people — though you can nudge it toward suicide.” He’s right in so many ways. If we choose in the wake of this massacre to censor ourselves then we acknowledge not only that the terrorists who committed this atrocity won, but that they were right — that jokes about their faith and its prophet are simply too incendiary, disrespectful and dangerous to be permitted. If we force ourselves to remain quiet then we admit that the staff of Charlie Hebdo crossed a line that should not have been crossed. We’re saying that there are some things you truly can’t joke about. You know what? Fuck that. Under no circumstances can we allow that to happen. Under no circumstances should we be submitting to those who attempt to intimidate us through threats or outright acts of violence. We should, in fact, be doing exactly the opposite. We should be laughing out loud at them.
Hitch said something else about comedy. He said, “Nothing condemns a regime so much as a fear of laughter.” If you’re told that you’re expressly forbidden to laugh at something, that’s when you laugh harder. So do it. Honor those taken from us by laughing at what they laughed at. Joke about what they had the guts to. Laugh at fundamentalist Islam and any other form of oppression because it’s the best, most powerfully defiant “fuck you” there is. Do it because it pisses them off and if everyone’s doing it there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it since they can’t kill all of us. They’re powerless against it.
After all this time, I’m still an idiot. I’m still an asshole. And I still think anything is fair game when laughter is the goal.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.