Editor’s Note: J.J. McCullough is an editorial cartoonist and writer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Though we’re told to regard the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris as a story with relevance that transcends national boundaries, from a North American perspective, it’s hard to understand its context as anything but impenetrably foreign.
We can certainly empathize with the tragedy, and the monstrous, senseless slaughter of a dozen inspiring lives, but as an episode of political and cultural significance? Its characteristics are decidedly exotic.
Part of this is due to the fact that the United States and Canada possess no Muslim population comparable to that of Europe. The rising European impulse to “push back” against Islam – in this case, through vulgar cartoons that incessantly insulted the faith, its followers and prophet – can appear weirdly chauvinistic, even petty.
North America also lacks a satirical culture of the sort Charlie Hebdo embodied, in which vulgar insults are understood to be the appropriate language of comedic commentary.
Cartoonists in North America increasingly do not see themselves as avant-garde provocateurs for whom no subject is beyond reproach, but rather, as cautious advocates for a particular strain of progressive tolerance. The cartoonists I know fret endlessly about committing sins of sexism, racism, and various other -isms of intolerance in their art and stories. They worry about drawing Obama’s lips too big and female characters’ waists too narrow – not who they can get to hate them.
The Paris killing raises an uneasy question: To what extent proponents of a free press should continue to needle an unpopular but vindictive minority? It’s a question increasingly irrelevant to an American culture ever more prone to aggressive self-censorship in the name of preserving the delicate sensibilities of the easily outraged.
I do not think much of those on this side of the Atlantic who are posturing so heroically in support of a right they’ve shown little interest in exercising themselves.
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