Publisher's Note — January 15, 2015, 3:58 pm

America’s Peculiar Political Correctness

“I don’t see how you can properly cover a news story without showing the reader or viewer one of the key elements that made the story a story ”

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on January 15, 2015.

While making the rounds of U.S., French, and Canadian television news shows last week, I realized that the French journalists and cartoonists who were murdered, in theory, could have been me or some of my American colleagues. But it wasn’t so much fear that stressed me in the 72 hours following the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. After all, I was being interviewed about familiar subjects that have been fundamental to me for most of my working life — principles of freedom that I’ve talked and written about for many years.

Yet in my interviews I found myself facing a contradiction that divides American journalism at a time when there is an urgent need for worldwide solidarity against censorship enforced by violence. Although some magazines and websites showed the covers of Charlie Hebdo that had given offense — The New Yorker and The Huffington Post were quick to do so, while the Washington Post obscured one cover before deciding to print another — many other news outlets, notably the New York Times and the Associated Press, did not. Meanwhile, television news networks like CNN and MSNBC absolutely declined to show the images that provoked the bloodshed.

In such situations, journalism bosses obviously have to consider the safety of their employees, the traditions of their company, and the current political climate. But at Harper’s Magazine, which has a history of defending writers and satirists confronted by the anger of Islamic fundamentalists, we didn’t really have a choice to duck. 

In December 1988, we published an excerpt of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (“Untime of the Imam,” Fiction). After Khomeini’s fatwa was declared, we led a counter protest that resulted in a public reading of the novel in New York by prominent authors.

In June 2006, Harper’s published an essay by Art Spiegelman (“Drawing Blood,” Criticism) that critiqued the famous Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad and ruminated on the purpose of satiric cartooning. To accompany the essay we printed the caricatures along with several others, including some sponsored by Iranian and Israeli anti-Semitic contests that portrayed Jews in an unflattering light. The point Spiegelman wanted to make was that “offense” often depends on whose ox is being gored and by whom.

Spiegelman, who is Jewish, and a graphic chronicler of the Holocaust, took pains to note that having grown up “with two parents who survived Auschwitz, I had to reconcile myself long ago to the occasionally painful consequences of supporting free speech.” Thus did he quote Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice on the U.S. Supreme Court: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Self-censorship, whether on the grounds of security or taste, is no remedy to violence by fanatics. I know that the editors at the Times and the Associated Press would argue that not publishing the Charlie Hebdo covers constitutes editorial and managerial judgment, not fear-induced timidity, and that there were plenty of other places one could examine these blasphemies against Islam. 

Still, I don’t see how you can properly cover a news story without showing the reader or viewer one of the key elements that made the story a story — just as Art Spiegelman couldn’t review the Danish caricatures without presenting them, so that the readers of Harper’s could make an informed analysis. I don’t believe in provocation for its own sake, but I respect the point of view of the thoughtful provocateur. The goal of satire is to provoke a reaction, even to wound, in order to make a political point and, as Brandeis hoped, to advance understanding. If we don’t defend the provocation by showing what it is, we can’t adequately justify the principle that permits the provocation to take place.

The U.S. news media’s reaction to the murders at Charlie Hebdo reveals a peculiar form of American political correctness. I heard it during the Rushdie crisis when, shortly before our protest reading began, Susan Sontag, then president of PEN, tried unsuccessfully to persuade me that the writers should read from sources other than the novel itself, so as to be more polite to Muslims. It’s this make-nice sensibility, as much as raw fear, that in 2012 caused former White House spokesman Jay Carney to say of another Charlie Hebdo blowup, “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published — we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.” That excuse may be why no Cabinet-level U.S. official marched in Sunday’s huge Paris rally. 

Some are trying to make the Charlie Hebdo massacre into the “French 9/11.” As a dual citizen, I don’t agree with the comparison. Sunday, on French TV, cartoonists were shown live, drawing new satires for all to see. The French view freedom of expression as something to be used, not just something to be protected.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note February 14, 2020, 9:28 pm

The “Affair”

“I was immediately struck by the fundamental difference between the ‘seventh art’ and literature.”

Publisher's Note February 12, 2020, 10:47 am

On Book Events

Publisher's Note December 13, 2019, 5:40 pm

The Art of Persuasion

“Making fun of the negative interest rates offered by some European banks, Trump sniggered, ‘Give me some of that…I want some of that money.’ In my corner of the hall, around table 121, several merry-faced brokers and accountants applauded.”

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Americans evacuated from Wuhan did Zumba.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today