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The Right to Offend

Radical Islam isn't the only threat to satire

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The Charlie Hebdo catastrophe of Jan. 7 has stimulated a lot of conversation and debate here and abroad over the so-called limits of free speech—and raised questions in this country about the state of American satire.

Just how far is "too far," and how much should—how much do—cartoonists engage in self-censorship? And why?

This week I interviewed a quartet of leading American cartoonists who've come out of the alternative media universe and squarely represent the tradition of American political satire in their own way. Each cartoonist has engaged these questions in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo.

Our cover this week also tries to engage this question. With this cover, the Bohemian aims not to shock or offend, but to hold up the sacrosanct role of the alternative media: Do not shy from controversy.

Readers may know by now that Charlie Hebdo takes its name from the beloved pumpkin-headed Charles Schulz character. While the generally benign character of a typical Peanuts strip may not, at first, jibe with an impression of the scabrous and biting cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, perhaps it's the existentialist bent of so many Peanuts strips that makes Charlie Brown a piece of American culture that the French can get with.

Santa Rosa's Schulz Museum didn't want to discuss the fact that the magazine named itself after Charlie Brown. "We don't have a comment on that particular story," says Gina Huntsinger, marketing director at the Santa Rosa–based museum. Pressed, she added, "It's something that's tragic that happened in Paris, and we feel it should stay with those people—not to take away from that tragedy in any way."

Other cartoonists have taken up the Charlie Hebdo cudgel in their own way. Shannon Wheeler is the author of the popular strip Too Much Coffee Man, and was very quickly out of the Charlie Hebdo gate with a strip that we've reprinted here depicting the slain Charlie Hebdo employees ascending to heaven, with some choice commentary. It's a priceless, bittersweet strip.

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Wheeler says he had an initial impulse to not "go there," but realized very quickly that he didn't just want to do a pat comment on free speech, "something corny with pencils," and that he had an obligation to honor the Charlie Hebdo heroes by having a little bit of fun. They'd have wanted it that way, he says.

But the American media—corporatized, sanitized and afraid of "offending" anyone, let alone an advertiser—is a dominant roadblock for American satirical cartoonists these days, Wheeler says. "People are afraid of offending. People are afraid of pushing limits," says Wheeler. And, critically, "people are trying to make money. I think that's what it boils down to a lot, in terms of why the humor is so conservative here."

Cartoonist Danny Hellman identifies a strain of argument that runs "I support free speech, but . . ." as being a particularly insidious cop-out. "It's not free speech if you put the 'but' there," he says, adding that the average American doesn't bother to get under the hood to understand the satire Charlie Hebdo was engaged in. Surface impressions rule the day.

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