What the media can learn from Bill Maher: 1 year after Charlie Hebdo attack, satirists still taking risks news outlets won’t

Irony, snarky comedy and satire still remain our best weapons against political folly and media spectacle

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published January 9, 2016 2:29PM (EST)

Bill Maher   (HBO)
Bill Maher (HBO)

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people, including eight of the magazine’s staff. In typical Hebdo form, the magazine has chosen to mark the event with a provocative cover that features a bearded man representing God with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, accompanied by the text: “One year later: the assassin is still out there.” Their point? Little has changed.

While the cover has already come under fire for crossing the line, including a condemnation from the Vatican, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the fact that the cartoonists are right. Little has, indeed, changed: Charlie Hebdo is still suffering threats because they refuse to stop covering religion; the threat of extremism is still unchecked; and satirical media continues to offer the public a provocative view of the truth that we don’t get from mainstream media.

While millions rallied in support of “Charlie Hebdo” after the attacks, it was also true that in the days following many condemned the satirists for crossing the line and for using humor in ways that were degrading and disrespectful. Their choice to depict the Prophet Mohammed came under fire, as did their grotesquely sexualized cartoons. They were often critiqued for their staunch atheist and secularist views.

While Charlie Hebdo might seem crass to U.S. audiences, it follows the humor genre found in Mad Magazine, South Park, The Onion and "The Simpsons;" and it follows in the tradition of French absurdist humor. It satirizes features of French life but focuses more than half of its humor on politics. According to Le Monde, which analyzed a 10-year breakdown of Charilie Hebdo's cartoons, only 7.3 percent of all of their cartoons ridiculed religion and only 1.3 percent of their cartoons featured Islam.

And yet, one year after some of their cartoonists were murdered for daring to draw the Prophet, they are still under fire for being intolerant of religion. The obsessive critique reveals two key issues: First, despite being attacked by terrorists, the Hebdo artists are still criticized for their worldviews more than the terrorists themselves; and second, leftist politics is caught in a tough bind when it comes to openly debating religion and conflict.

Charlie Hebdo director Laurent Sourisseau, who goes by the name Riss, dives right into this thorny issue in the editorial he wrote to accompany his cartoon on the new cover. He explains that before the attacks he and his colleagues never thought it would be possible to be assassinated for cartoons: “We saw France as a secular haven, in which it was possible to take [a] piss, to lampoon, to have fun without a thought for dogmas or lunatics.” He explains that one of their key mantras was “Fuck everything” — a position that simply means that nothing is sacred, nothing is taboo. The idea was to cross every line in an effort to use irony and satire to question the status quo.

But he points out that he now sees he was wrong about France. Not only were there people plotting to kill him and his friends; but they were also under fire from “embittered intellectuals, insipid columnists and jealous journalists who take the utmost care in making sure not to tread on dangerous ground by writing anything sincere.” They were attacked by the religious for blasphemy and by the media because they dared to raise issues that the media was largely avoiding. One of those issues was the link between religion and terrorist violence.

A weird consequence of this is that the secularism of Hebdo is often treated as more of a social threat than the religious convictions of the terrorists. And the reason for that, as Bill Maher has pointed out, is that we are more comfortable critiquing a group of comedians than we are asking tough questions about the role of Islam in contemporary conflict. As Maher puts it, we need to be able to talk about these issues without being condemned for Islamophobia just as we would want to talk about the religious ideology of the KKK.

At the core of the dilemma is the question of how to square a politics of tolerance and diversity with a commitment to rational thought and critical thinking that derives from secularism.

The Vatican newspaper claims that, “In Charlie Hebdo’s choice, there is the sad paradox of a world which is more and more sensitive about being politically correct, almost to the point of ridicule, yet does not wish to acknowledge or to respect believers’ faith in God, regardless of the religion.”

But here’s the catch. Satirists like Hebdo's cartoonists or Maher don’t care about being politically correct.  They see it is a form of censorship and restriction that cuts off productive and necessary debate. They follow the line of thought that considers religion as the “opiate of the masses.” And for that they are condemned.

It’s worth noting that Donald Trump can threaten to “scare” Pope Francis and get no reply. But Charlie Hebdo draws a provocative, ironic cover and gets chastised by the Vatican.

This all points to the claim made by Riss that nothing has changed. The cartoonists are still attacked while the attackers roam free and the ideologies that buttress them go unchecked.

Meanwhile, as comedian Lee Camp reminds us, we continue drone strikes on terrorists groups that miss their target 90 percent of the time. Just as Hebdo mocks the prevailing atmosphere of conservatism, Camp wonders why policy continues to favor militarism when it has been consistently shown to fail. One year after the attacks on Hebdo there has been no significant policy shift in counter-terrorism; there have just been more civilian casualties.

In a brilliant “Redacted Tonight” bit that asks why the mainstream media missed covering the “drone papers,” Camp reminds us of the many ways that satire news has increasingly come to offer the public a much-needed source of information.

If the comedy of Hebdo is tied to advocating anarchistic secularism, in the U.S. much of our satire has focused on stepping in for a compromised news media. But what all these comedians and satirical artists have in common is a core commitment to using the gutsy edge of satire to shake the public out of complacency.

Here in the United States we have a presidential campaign underway where two top candidates, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, have not had one of their fact-checked statements come back as true. And we have a TV news media dominated by Fox News, which cultivates loyal followers more than it reports meaningful information.

One year after the Hebdo attacks it is still satire that is most likely to help inform the public and encourage critical reflection. And that’s not just conjecture. We have data on how satire helps stimulate critical thinking and how those citizens who consume satire have higher aptitude on current issues.

The catch, though, is that some will focus on whether the humor of the satirists is just mean — as seen in the Vatican critique of Hebdo’s cover. The trick is that satire communicates in the language of irony and sarcasm. It is not a straightforward form of communication and it is always open to interpretation. Those who feel like they are the butt of the joke react aggressively. When someone has interpreted satire as literal and cruel, telling them they didn’t get the joke usually doesn’t help.

Satire strikes a nerve, which is why it was cartoonists listed on the most wanted list for al Qaeda and not journalists. And it’s why satirists get smacked by the Vatican for crossing the line, but politicians get a free pass. It’s why drones can hit their target only 10 percent of the time, but more folks are worried about the political correctness of Charlie Hebdo.

Satirists don’t commit physical violence, but their ideas come under attack all the time. That is why satirists often feel like a greater threat than straight news reporters or loony politicians like Trump. Fox News lies and fosters a community of cult-like followers, but the world worries about comedians. As Riss explains in the new issue of Charlie Hebdo, it’s time to ask whether that makes sense.

Think about it.  It was Stephen Colbert who finally showed the public that Ted Cruz is a fool. It was Bill Maher who dared to ask if we could talk about the ties between Islam and ISIS. It was John Oliver who managed to hamstring the televangelists. It was Lee Camp who dared to reveal the hypocrisy of the World Bank. It was Larry Wilmore and his staff who dared to say “Fuck Trump” and walk off their show in protest of his xenophobia. It is Michael Moore’s new film “Where to Invade Next” that has the guts to reveal that the military solution to political crisis has failed us. And it is “Charlie Hebdo” that is proving that the attack on secular satire is more vicious than the attacks on ideologues of all stripes

Satire doesn’t just speak truth to power; it speaks ironic snark to power -- and that’s part of what can make it so offensive and so provocative. One year after the brutal attacks on Charlie Hebdo nothing has changed: Irony, snarky comedy, and sarcastic satire still remain our best weapons against political folly and media spectacle. And one year later, those same tactics still bother the hell out of those who don’t get the joke.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

MORE FROM Sophia A. McClennen