Here we come a-waffling

(This was on my website ( last week—it’ s reproduced here with some edits and additions.)

The recent murders at the Charlie Hebdo publishing site in Paris have sparked a good deal of controversy about satire and its functions. It has also provoked a lot of absurd comments—like “journalists should not be murdered for what they print.”

Good call there.

Unfortunately, that’s the easy part. A more important question is this: within what restrictions should responsible journalists operate? And this: is a newspaper like the New York Times wise or cowardly for opting not to reprint the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoons? First though, I thought it might be a good time to underscore the distinction between the two basic types of satire—Horacian and Juvenalian. It’s more of an academic distinction, I guess, but it is a distinction.

Horacian satire, so named after the Roman satirist Horace, is tolerant, amused, witty. It gently ridicules human foibles without anger or contempt. We’ve all read Huckleberry Finn and enjoyed Twain’s skewering of the mores of society. Yes, he was brutally honest, even indignant, but Twain generally attacked the conventions and not the individuals. Like all good Horacian satirists, he preferred to make us smile at how foolish we are than make us angry at the weaknesses or beliefs of others.

Juvenalian satire, however, is always on the attack, and though it may at times make us laugh, wit and humor constitute only a small part of it. The Juvenalian often addresses social evil through scorn, outrage, and ridicule. When we read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we don’t smile very much as we witness the savagery of human nature and the young boys’ willingness to turn away from goodness and compassion. (For contrast, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 does make us laugh—just as television’s M*A*S*H did, even though the overriding theme comprises the horror and absurdity of war.)

Most people would place Charlie Hebdo in the second category. Some would say it’s out of bounds entirely. I hate to be a waffler, but I am one on this issue. First off I hold with those who say if you don’t like it, don’t read it (or watch it, or listen to it, etc.) But by the same token, are the publishers going after religion in general or have they centered their attacks on the founder? To me there’s a difference. Comedians have gotten plenty of mileage out of satirizing different faiths; to wit how many jokes (tasteful or not) have been made about Catholic priests and their sexual preferences this past decade? But very few have been made about the founder of Catholicism. Is Jesus off limits then? And if so, shouldn’t Mohammad be in the same category? And Martin Luther? And Buddha?

And the other matter is that innocent people died, and though I did not see the entire post-massacre edition of the magazine, I’m not aware of any regrets being expressed within its pages. I could be wrong—I hope so. No matter what, there will be blowback. After 9/11 there were was nothing but sympathy for the United States—every country seemed ready to come to our defense. And what did we do? We took that goodwill and used it to start a decade of wars: who loves us now? I expect similar results in France, especially when the world begins to read about the living conditions many Muslims face in the shadows of the big cities. ( see We’ve heard so many times this past week how these terrorists were French—lived and grew up in France. But there’s the France of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and there’s the France of the banlieues. They might as well be on different planets.

I’m waffling—sorry—but I will say this. Journalistically right or wrong, it would have been wise for Charlie Hebdo and all such publications to be just a bit circumspect for a while—to let the anger diminish a little. I know that sounds like censorship and capitulation; others might say it sounds like responsible journalism.

This is going to require a lot more waffling.

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