On Friday, I wrote a short blog post about cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who in the process of receiving a George Polk journalism award, said the murdered cartoonists at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo "wandered into the realm of hate speech" and that "free speech...... becomes its own kind of fanaticism." I was appalled by Trudeau's remarks and said they were the "free speech equivalent of suggesting [Charlie Hebdo cartoonists] had it coming because they were wearing short skirts."
The man who runs the George Polk awards didn't much like what I had to say. He sent the following letter:
To the Editor:
Sandwiched between a factual error in the first sentence and a factual error in the last sentence, the rant by Mark Hemingway about Garry Trudeau’s remarks on the Charlie Hebdo slaughter shows the pitfall in commenting on something without having read it or heard it. Writing on the basis of a single tweet, which praised Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Hemingway grievously misrepresented the cartoonist’s position. In a well-reasoned, thought-provoking discourse on the nature of satire, Mr. Trudeau said that true satire “punches up,” not down, attacking those in authority and power, not those at the bottom of society. By going after “a powerless, disenfranchised minority,” Charlie Hebdo abandoned genuine satire, embraced provocation for its own sake and “wandered into the realm of hate speech.” As a result, it fed the flames of violence and caused Muslims throughout France to rally around the extremists. As any reasonable person can see, this is a far cry from simply characterizing the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists as “hate-spewing fanatics.”
Mr. Trudeau also pointed out that freedom of speech brings responsibilities. “What free speech absolutions have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.” Granted, this is a nuanced position that can elude a bent-for-hell headline grabber.
And the factual errors? Mr. Hemingway began by saying that Mr. Trudeau was the first cartoonist to ever receive a George Polk Award. In fact, he was the fifth, following Jules Feiffer, David Levine, Jeff MacNelly and Edward Sorel. (He was the first to receive the Career Achievement Award). And Mr. Hemingway ended by saying that Mr. Trudeau’s remarks were made during a panel discussion; in fact, they were delivered during his acceptance speech. The errors of fact pale in comparison with the error of interpretation.
John Darnton, Curator, George Polk Awards
First, let me briefly address the errors. My apologies to the George Polk Awards for the first error; I ended up perpetuating misinformation reported elsewhere. As for the second matter, I never definitively said Trudeau's remarks were made during a panel discussion, I said they "may have been" made during a panel discussion per the description in an AP report saying there was a discussion with another cartoonist and humor writer; I was simply admitting I didn't know the exact context. Finally, if we're going to correct the record, Darnton's letter says I was "writing on the basis of a single tweet." This isn't true for many reasons, not the least of which is that the post clearly references two tweets from people who heard Trudeau's remarks.
The good news is that Mr. Darnton and I agree that these matters "pale in comparison with the error of interpretation." So let me be perfectly clear that I don't think I'm the one guilty of erroneously interpreting Trudeau's remarks. I can only thank Darnton for writing this letter, which both clearly and obliviously reinforces everything I had to say in the first place. Indeed, the notion that it is hateful to satirize people that hold undemocratic beliefs -- up to and including the belief it's justified to massacre the staff of a newspaper you think is guilty of blasphemy -- just because the people that hold such intolerant beliefs are labeled "a powerless, disenfranchised minority" is dangerous nonsense.