Charlie Hebdo, Stephen Colbert, and ‘Real Satire’

• January 12, 2015 4:59 pm

Last Friday, THE POLITICO ran an op-ed by Remy M. Maisel expressing a fairly prevalent sentiment—"I condemn the killings in Paris, but…"—in response to the recent terror attacks in France.

The author, who has cowritten a book on satire, argues that while violence and terrorism are bad, the attack on Charlie Hedbo might offer a teachable moment as to what constitutes "real satire" as opposed to "pseudo-satire," and offers some groundbreaking observations such as:

It is, in fact, possible to condemn physical attacks such as the violent one on Charlie Hebdo and the cyberattack on Sony Pictures without also lauding the material that provoked the attacks.

You don’t say.

Charlie Hedbo, the author argues,doesn’t publish "real satire." It traffics in "pseudo-satire," which, unlike the work of satirical geniuses Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, fails to advance the political dialogue or "educate our electorate." In fact, much of the piece reads as an ode to Colbert’s brilliance, especially when compared to the rude, unfocused, and "pure entertainment" satire of other American shows such as Family Guy and … South Park. (Note: Really?)

Then there’s this familiar line, which many others have deployed in their "terrorism is bad, but…" responses to the Charlie Hebdo murders: "True satire never punches down—the target must always be someone in a position above the satirist, not someone less privileged." Or as the author more succinctly puts it: "There’s just nothing brave about secular white men mocking everybody else."

Truly brave satirists, such as Colbert (who is white, btw), are able to "stand just inches from President Bush at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner and criticize the administration during the height of the War on Terror," an episode that was almost universally cited in the fawning liberal eulogies to the Colbert Report, a show that many credited for helping them "survive the Bush years."

This highlights some crucial differences between Colbert and the folks at Charlie Hebdo, who were fairly indiscriminate in their choice of targets. It’s true that appearing next to a sitting president (Bush) and mocking him is one of the purest examples of "punching up" in comedy. But what about during the Obama years?

Colbert became, as Sonny Bunch has discussed previously on this blog, just another liberal purveyor of comedy to comfort the powerful. (Remember that time President Obama went on a "comedy" show to plug That was hilarious.) This unfortunate dynamic most blatantly exemplified by President Obama’s guest appearance on one of The Colbert Report’s final episodes. It wasn’t so much "speaking truth to power" as it was stepping aside while power speaks (and self-satisfied millennials squeal their faces off). Edgy stuff.

But to be fair to Colbert, he was never afraid to EVISCERATE a powerful GOP state representative or county sherrif, or defend a helpless politician like Hillary Clinton from the Free Beacon’s callous smears (and plug her underperforming memoir). Afflicting the comfortable this is not, but it makes sense if your primary goal is to advance liberal politics, or, at the very least, to reassure liberals that they're right about everything before they go to bed each night.

Charlie Hedbo took a different approach, and didn't think twice about attacking the absurd (and obviously powerful, to some) idea that depicting a certain prophet should be punishable by death, and, subsequently, is a perfectly valid excuse for media outlets to self-censor. And despite everything, they’re not backing down. What a bunch of phonies.