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The reactions to the attack on Charlie Hebdo which Matthew Schmitz noted last week are significant for much more than the specific incident in Paris. Schmitz’s examples are not isolated aberrations but are symptomatic of the illiberal attitudes and ad hoc morality of political convenience that now typify many of those on the left. True satire (and I mean real anti-Establishment satire, not the anodyne Hollywood insider jokes of Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart, and company) challenges human pretension and presumption and reminds us of our limits and our fallibility. It is thus not surprising that it is detested by those who seek top-down utopias, whether religious or secular, because they will always fear the challenge to their political visions which freedom of speech allows and which satire exemplifies. This is why both the secular left and the religious jihadis seek, in their different ways, to police speech.

Where speech is policed, satire becomes important because it challenges those with power, both right and left, by refusing to believe the stories they tell about themselves. Whether it is Isaiah the prophet poking fun at those who worship wood and stone, Blaise Pascal parodying the Jesuits in The Provincial Letters, Jonathan Swift pillorying the Church in Gulliver’s Travels, Karl Kraus picking on just about everybody in Vienna, or Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont puncturing the pretensions of postmodernism, the satirist confronts the powerful and calls them to account. This is one reason that I have been a loyal reader of Britain’s premier satirical magazine, Private Eye, since my early teens, a habit which has crossed the Atlantic with me: Half satire, half investigative journalism, it has been a stalwart opponent of abuses of power in a way unmatched by any other British newspaper or magazine.

Satire can be dangerous and harmful. It can breed a dehumanizing cynicism which becomes an end in itself. Indeed, Swift approaches this position in the final chapter of Gulliver’s Travels, when the hero, recently returned from the country of the Houyhnhnms, prefers the company of horses to that of his wife. I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo until last week but what I have seen since indicates that it is hardly an example of sophisticated humor in the service of a better philosophy of life. But the abuse of a tool does not negate the tool’s usefulness or importance.  

As with Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly or Pascal’s Provinical Letters, the best satire is that which fits into a larger moral vision. In some senses, it should be the classic Augustinian medium, rooted in an acute sense of human finitude and fallibility. It mocks human arrogance and offers whispers of mortality. It injects a little modesty and a touch of pessimism into our ambitions. It questions all aspirations to earthly paradises and helps prevent what Roger Scruton rightly calls the Utopian Fallacy. It can be a means of keeping us all humble. That is why I enjoy the satire Father Ted. Yes, it pokes and prods at Christianity but it is not blasphemous. It simply points out the absurdities, corruptions, and failings of Christian institutions in a way that should provoke thoughtful reflection. Yes, there are dangers with satire, but there are much, much greater dangers—social and personal—involved in its suppression.

Despite the risks, satire is vital to healthy democracy. Where it exists, it is a sign that power is being resisted. Where it is permitted, it is a sign of freedom and a gauge of the ability of those in charge to allow criticism. Where it is done well, it is a means of reminding us all of the absurdity of so many human pretensions. It is not simply the mocking of Mohammed that threatens the Muslim jihadis. Nor is it merely the “hate speech” involved in mocking the Prophet of an ethnic religion which threatens the left. The fact is that neither group can tolerate the challenge to their utopian visions which the very existence of satire represents.

You can have good satirists without healthy democracy: Erasmus, Pascal, Swift, and the early Kraus did not live in democracies. But I do not think that you can have healthy democracy without good satirists. That is why the choice of a satirical magazine, even a crude, childish and mediocre one, as a target for a terror attack makes perfect sense, as (sadly) do the ambivalent reactions to the attack of some on the left. 

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.

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