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Category: Big Picture

Punch Out
Garry Trudeau called out the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo recently for the offense of “punching down.” It was particularly tough criticism, especially when you consider that those he charged had already been massacred for their sins.

Trudeau, of course, is a cartoonist himself (or at least a cartoon “creator” — others do the actual inking these days). His comic strip “Doonesbury” has won the Pulitzer for political cartooning along with many other awards. His remarks about the Hebdo cartoons, in fact, were delivered at a ceremony in which he was honored with this year’s George Polk Career Award for Journalism.

Trudeau argued that the cartoons in Hebdo were meant to mock the religious faithful, particularly the Islamic faithful, and that targeting such people amounted to hate speech toward a disenfranchised, less privileged segment of society. That’s the “punching down” he talked about. Satire is more properly used to “punch up” toward the privileged segments and to afflict the comfortable — not those already afflicted. He didn’t say the cartoonists had it coming, exactly, but he seemed to imply that they were asking for it.

There was a flurry of response on the right. David Frum of the Washington Post suggested that delineations between the privileged and underprivileged were not so easy to draw in our complex world. Frum also took his opportunity to trash liberals for their self-congratulatory righteousness. I won’t blame him for that; there are many privileged folk on the left who need to be punched at.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times pointed out that the powerless become powerful when they pick up a gun. That is true, obviously, but that rationalization could be used to justify saying anything to anybody at anytime. I just can’t bring myself to be that much of an absolutist about any right. All rights come with duties attached, and the challenge is to sort out what those duties are.

Of all the topics I have touched in my political cartoons, none has ignited my readers like religion. That, I believe, is because matters of faith are among the most personal, fundamental, and noble of human feelings. Religions, whose main power comes from the harnessing of that faith, are among the most powerful institutions in human society. They can move the hearts and minds of millions almost at will. In that capacity, they can be the most despicable abusers of the powerless. If satire is to be true to itself, these are just the kinds of institutions it should be punching at. The difficulty comes in how to target religion without mocking individual faith at the same time.

Even though I’m not a fan of Charlie Hebdo’s tendency to mock simply for its own sake, I can’t bring myself to side with Trudeau’s over-simplified rejection of their style. Religion is simply too powerful not to have its absurdities called out, frequently and with gusto. The leaders of these institutions, at all levels of church hierarchy, are fair game for lampooning. The possibility that some of the powerless might have their feelings hurt in the process should not deter us.

Even the most disenfranchised individuals make decisions and take actions based on their faith, and those decisions affect all of us. Society and satirists therefore have a right to respond to religion, and no one is entitled to a free pass just because they cry “blasphemy.” The question, I think, should not just be who is privileged and who is not, but whether a cartoon, or any form of satire, is effective. Does it expose hypocrisy and stupidity and vice, does it shame society into improving, does it help? Neither Frum nor Douthat addresses these questions. They’re arguing about politics, not satire.

It is hard to be sure, from what I have seen, in which direction the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are punching. Much of their work seems to be composed of wild haymakers directed at the silliness of whole idea of sacred people or objects — and of sacredness itself. There may be, as Trudeau suggests, an element of meanness in their motivation. Mean-spiritedness tends to undercut the effectiveness of satire, and it always carries with it the possibility of a mean response. It is wise to be careful about that, if only for your own safety.

You can question sacredness, however, without being mean. Perhaps they are just anarchists, taking a whack at what they see as stupid. If that’s that’s case, I say keep punching.
Root Causes
It has been reported that the recent Super Bowl was the most-watched TV show in U.S. history. More than 114 million people tuned in. I confess that I was one of them.

Why “confess”? Well, I don’t care about the Super Bowl ads. I don’t care about the Super Bowl half-time show. Unless the Forty Niners are in it, I don’t really care that much about the game. Indeed, despite the increasing popularity of football, I find myself caring less and less about the sport itself.

I do like the whole nationwide party thing, but we could find any excuse to do that. So why do I watch? Good question. I’m afraid that finding the answer took me on a tour of some of the darkest regions of my psyche. While there, I came face to face with my own brutal nature.

That was disturbing, of course, but not particularly shocking. I’ve learned to coexist with my own brutality. I watch Game of Thrones, after all, and find deep satisfaction in the brutal deaths of the bad guys on that show. The brutality of football will, no doubt, eventually kill off the sport, but it’s not enough to keep me from watching. No, there is a much more insidious force at work in my soul, one that has caused me to re-examine my rooting practices in all sports.

Call it my lust for schadenfreude. I can’t deny that it’s there inside me, just as it is with the villains in Game of Thrones. It is, in fact, one of the very reasons I want those villains to be brutally slain — because they find pleasure in the misfortunes of others. I feel schadenfreude, you see, when people who feel schadenfreude are harmed. That’s the kind of circular emotional logic that resides in the dark regions of my psyche, and it puts me on a path of self-loathing that might, if I’m not careful, lead to feeling schadenfreude over my own misfortunes. Does that sound crazy? Well, yeah!

Fortunately, I have found a ray of hope amidst this gloom. At the end of the Super Bowl this year, there was a play that will become the most remembered event in a memorable game. It will live on, I think, as the most boneheaded instance of hubris in football history. The Seahawks were on the verge of one of the wildest, most heroic last-minute comebacks in any Super Bowl. With twenty seconds left, with the ball on the one-yard line, and with three downs to get the rock into the end zone, coach Pete Carroll inexplicably called for a tricky little pass instead of sending Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch up the gut. Catastrophe! The ball was intercepted by the Patriots, and the game was over.

Now, I have never met Pete Carroll. I can offer no real evidence that he is a bad person. Even so, I seem to dislike him. I know this because I felt a rush of schadenfreude at his self-inflicted humiliation. I am certain that this emotion is a byproduct of my insistence on making things personal when it comes to archrivals. The Seahawks are the blood enemies of the Forty Niners, so it’s easy to dislike their coach. There are other factors involved as well — an adversary’s coaching style can play into it, as well as his clothing choices, hairdo, and the way he holds his mouth. Let’s just say that Pete got bad marks in every category. He needed this misfortune to befall him, according to my rules of rooting.

That is a sad commentary on me, to be sure, but then came that ray of hope. Mixed with my schadenfreude, I detected another feeling: pity. When the enormity of Pete Carroll’s gaffe hit me — this was an ugliness that would cling to him the rest of his days — I felt sorry for the poor guy. I’m sure that pity isn’t the emotion he might want me to feel, but at least it’s not evil. Maybe I’m not such a bad person after all. At least I’m not dancing on his grave.

Of course, I’m not putting flowers on it, either. Go Niners.
A Buddhist friend of mine once gave me some useful advice about killing. “It’s not so much the killing,” he said, “but what you’re feeling when you do it.” You can’t really decide what your feelings will be, of course, but they are reliable barometers of your level of enlightenment. That was my take on what he said, anyway, though I’m never sure about this kind of stuff.

I want to make clear, for the record, that I have never killed anyone, I don’t want to kill anyone, and I hope that I never do kill anyone. On the other hand, I am not one of those people who would never hurt a fly. In fact, I’ve hurt plenty of flies. I’ve also got the deaths of rats, mice, gophers, mosquitoes and many, many other species of insect on my rap sheet.

My friend the Buddhist didn’t elaborate about which emotions I should be concerned about. I assume that taking pleasure in killing, for example, would be a red flag. But what about annoyance, anger, rage? Again, I am uncertain.

Right now, at the end of summer, the issue of killing is coming up more and more. I have killed four flies in the last week — with my bare hands. Well, that’s not precisely correct, now that I think of it. Three of them were dispatched with a rolled-up newspaper. The other was flicked with a fingernail, however, and I think that qualifies as bare-handed killing. Since the flies around here are coming to the end of their lives right now, they tend to be big…and slow. They are also at their most annoying. They are easier to kill, then, at the very time that they seem to be asking for it the most. It’s at times like these that I fear for my own enlightenment.

I should say here that I am not a Buddhist myself. I don’t believe, as some Buddhists do, in reincarnation, so I’m not trying to upgrade the status of my next life. I’m not a Christian, either, so I’m not trying to be good so I can get into heaven. As far as I can tell from where I sit, there is no next life of any kind. If I have any religion at all, it would be about trying to do right. Or maybe trying to try. Something like that, anyway. It’s hard to be sure when you’re making it up as you go along.

So far, my made-up religion includes trying to be someone I could be proud of —someone, for instance, who doesn’t kill thoughtlessly or with cruelty. But then, what if pride itself is one of those red-flag feelings my friend talked about? I confess that when I finger-flicked that fly last week, I did feel a surge of pride in my killing skill. I’m not sure, but that doesn’t feel like a positive indicator for my level of enlightenment.

I like to think that all this uncertainty is actually a strength of my made-up religion. It makes me think twice before acting, and that’s usually a good thing — as long as it doesn’t stop me from doing what I have to do. Those flies carry disease. They are unwelcome intruders in my home. I have to act.

So I will kill them if I can, but I will try to do it in the most enlightened way possible. More likely, however, it will be because they were asking for it.
Black holes! They are among the scariest things in the universe, but as long as you don’t get your spacesuited butt on the wrong side of their event horizon, there’s no reason to let their presence in our galaxy upset your day-to-day life. You will probably not be stretched into a pink string then slammed into a space (approximately) eight billion times too small for you to fit in. So please, stop worrying.

Instead, why not think about white holes? Yes, white holes — with this crazy universe, it’s always something.

Readers of this blog will know that I am something of an expert when it comes to subatomic physics. And by “something of an expert” I mean that I have only the loosest grasp of its basic principles. Fortunately, it’s a free country, so let’s talk loops. These teeny-tiny things are at the very center of this business about white holes. We have Dr. Carlo Rovelli of Aix-Marseille University and his theory of loop quantum gravity to thank for that. He says that the plucky unsquashability of these loops (which are a lot like the memory foam in your Serta Perfect Sleeper) keeps a black hole from collapsing beyond a certain point. Not only that, they would provide a “quantum bounce” that would fling the matter back the way it came — out the black hole and into open space.

Since the effect is roughly the opposite of a black hole, they’re calling this explosive event a “white hole.” (I would have preferred “the universe yodeling groceries,” but the scientific community is notoriously prissy in their naming practices.) It has even been suggested that our Big Bang could have been a mega white hole that spewed the contents of a black hole so big that it had swallowed Everything That There Was.

I find this theory, despite its reliance on cosmic regurgitation, to be very comforting. For one thing, it tends to confirm my own Pulsating Nodes Theory of time and space and everything else (which has never received the attention it deserves). But more importantly, the loop quantum gravity construct seems to indicate that there are limits to how small things can be. Those little sub-subatomic loops are as teensy as it gets, and still they’re resilient enough to repel the impossibly huge weight of a collapsing star — or even of an entire universe! Kinda gives you hope, you know?

Of course, the theory also says that time is an illusion and death can be cheated, even if you’ve somehow gotten yourself stretched into that piece of pink string. That’s a little hard to swallow, even if you’re a black hole.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon