It has been a bitter time for satire these past few weeks. In November, the North Korean government hacked into Sony’s databases and released thousands of confidential records in retaliation for the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy, The Interview, in which the assassination of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Un is a major plot point. Last month, in fact, the movie’s release was cancelled when the hackers threatened a 9/11-like terrorist attacks at cinemas which showed the movie.
In cancelling the release, President Obama said, the company had made a mistake. We cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship in the United States. I wish they’d spoken to me first. I would have told them: do not get into the pattern in which you are intimidated. For Sony, though, issues of liabilty trumped those of liberty. But when The Interview was finally released on-line on Christmas Eve, the political editor of the Canadian news-magazine Macleans, Paul Wells, watched it and was amused by the film’s “gleeful disdain.” As he writes, A regime that can’t take a joke doesn’t deserve to live. This one won’t, not forever, and when it falls, the horrors it reveals will make us glad we were able to have a laugh or two before it was done.
A triumph, then, at the end of the year for freedom over tyranny, for the prancing jester over the vengeful dictator. The New Year has brought more bitter news, however, when yesterday in Paris, the office of the satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by three men carrying AK-47s and shouting, Allahu Akbar, “God is great!” Eleven people were murdered–eight Charlie Hebdo employees, a visitor, and two policemen– in what French President François Hollande called a terrorist attack of exceptionnelle barbarie. The apparent cause of the attack was the paper’s unrelenting satire of Islamic culture, including naked cartoons of Mohammad.
It is not that Islam was especially targeted–Charlie ridiculed everybody mercilessly. But there are some who cannot bear to be ridiculed and who put their beliefs beyond criticism even of the silliest kind. Such people truly are the enemies of free speech, and of every other freedom by extension, as satirists know full well. In an essay for the New Yorker today, Philip Gourevitch writes, But those dead French cartoonists were braver by far than most of us in going up against the deadly foes of our civilization, armed only with a great talent for bilious ridicule. On any given day, we might have scoffed at the seeming crudeness of their jokes, rather than laughing at their jokes on crudity. But the killers proved the cartoonists’ point with ghastly finality: theirs was a necessary, freedom-sustaining, and therefore life-giving, form of defiance. Without it, they knew, we—humankind—are less.
The quotation with which I begin is from Juvenal’s first Satire, a long poem written sometime around 100 AD. Juvenal’s Rome was certainly a dangerous place for critiquing the powerful: Kim Jong-Un would have been comfortable enough with the tactics employed by Nero or Domitian, no doubt. The passage above is a short inner dialogue between Juvenal’s satiric persona and his more cautious self. “Whose name do I not dare to say?” asks he former. “What does it matter if Mucius [a pseudonym of sorts for a powerful politician] forgives what I say or not?” It is a brave stance the satirist stakes out, but one which the imagined interlocutor confronts. “Send up Tigellinus [the ruthless head of Nero’s Praetorian Guard, who at this point, however, had been dead for a few decades] and you will burn on the very stake where other men have stood smoking with their throats pierced. …”
At the end of the poem, Juvenal backs away from his initial stance, all too aware of the deadly implications of being too successful s satirist. The victim all too likely will be angered and retaliate, he imagines, though the poet puts this much better than I ever could. Inde ira et lacrimae, he writes, “From this comes wrath and tears.” Only too well do we understand what Juvenal means today, as US authories continue to investigate the hackers who took down Sony and police actively track down the gunmen still at large somewhere in France.