I had my life threatened once. Clearly, it wasn't serious, but for a few minutes it seemed possible. Piss off the wrong American and who knows?
I'd written an editorial in New York Perspectives, a Manhattan weekly I edited, titled "Sinead Eats Pope!" I defended Sinead O'Connor who, on the most recent SNL, ripped in half a picture of Pope John Paul II, adding "Fight the real enemy."
Partly a parody of NYC's tabloid press, rabidly fueled by Sinead's stunt, the editorial was also autobiographical. I shared some of my Catholic upbringing, my early disillusionment and eventual exit from what felt like an ancient death cult. This proved too much for a troubled young man.
He said he was calling from a phone booth down the block. As a Catholic, he was appalled by my editorial and couldn't believe I had the nerve to write it. He calmly informed me that he had a gun, and if I didn't explain myself to his satisfaction, he was coming up to kill me.
I was brasher then, pushing whatever buttons I could find. But here I spoke softly, confessed that perhaps I was wrong. I was trying to make sense of a confusing childhood, and besides, wasn't God in favor of free speech?
The guy backed off and began weeping for the Church. It hurt him that so many people mocked his faith. I suggested that perhaps his faith was being tested, that shooting writers was no way to honor God.
"Maybe you're right," he sniffled, and hung up.
I mentioned this to Christopher Hitchens who said, "It's the ones who don't call that you worry about."
Perhaps the killers in Paris didn't phone Charlie Hebdo to warn of an impending massacre, but the cartoonists and editors there knew that was a possibility every time they went to work. They literally played with fire.
By now, countless writers, pundits, bloggers, and Tweeters have scoured the scene, picking through racism, fanaticism, heroism, hypocrisy, and martyrdom. Previously unknown to most Americans, Charlie Hebdo instantly became the measure of creative freedom. Call yourself Charlie and march with the civilized.
I'm not going to argue whether or not Charlie Hebdo is racist; its humor does little for me. (Then again, I'm not its target audience, despite being of French descent.) What happened was obviously horrific and indefensible. The world is filled with bad images and even worse people. Communication is bound to get fucked up.
I'm more interested in the limits of satire, something I've thought about long before the Paris killings. How truly effective is satire? How far can you take it before it loses meaning? Is it a tool, a weapon, or a glamorized pose?
Dave Chappelle's case is instructive. Not since Richard Pryor has a comedian tackled race with such organic fury. Chappelle's Comedy Central show cut so close to the racist bone that Chappelle lost sight of the joke; all he could see was the pain and humiliation. He reached his satirical limit. That's when he checked out.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert dance further from the fire, extending their satirical lines while softening their jokes (Colbert's White House Correspondents Dinner set notwithstanding). A necessary trade off if one is to survive in corporate comedy. Stewart gets solemn when the heat comes too close, but otherwise he plays the reliable jester who gives his fans what they expect.
Bill Maher has more or less moved toward direct advocacy, primarily against Islam. Indeed, it's all he seems to think about, though not too deeply. A nuanced understanding of religion and history isn't as much fun as making wild generalizations. Maybe Maher's playing a character, a Muslim-bashing Tony Clifton. But I doubt we're that lucky.
The Onion chugs along, churning out fake news that at times seems indistinguishable from the real thing. And the less said about Weekend Update, the better.
The problem may be that America isn't really built for satire, especially in this distracted age. Context and meaning can't keep pace with accelerated media, so the stage belongs to the loud, the literal, and the obvious. Satire requires reflection, not selfies. Education and knowledge help, too, but let's not get greedy.
Satire is an extension of will; it doesn't exist the way popular comedy does. Space must be carved out, grain gone against. In the wake of the Paris massacre, some say that satire is a universal right. In a corrupt, violent world, no right is guaranteed, something that earlier satirists recognized, and Charlie Hebdo's staff presumably understands.
Satire is not medicine, it's mockery; and when you mock those who deserve it, reaction is possible, though ideally not via bullets. Depends on who you're mocking. The smart response is none at all, leaving the jokes to wither. Corporate co-optation works as well. Ask a few SNL alums.
Attacking the powerless while calling it satire is perhaps the crudest approach. In many cases it's educated, fairly privileged humorists who find marginalization hilarious. The upside, I suppose, is that few of those under attack have any idea that they're being mocked. They're not part of the same, smart crowds. I've been in both worlds. Different oxygen.
In closing, I leave you with the only Muslim joke I've written, which was delivered by (surprise!) Bill Maher. It dealt with Mike Tyson's prison conversion, and it received laughter, a few stray claps and groans. My favorite combo:
"Mike Tyson was released from prison this week, and as you know, he is now a Muslim. Tyson is considering two opportunities: he's either going to fight Riddick Bowe, or kill Salman Rushdie."
That's my time. I'll be here all week, not answering my phone.