THE OFFICE — Look to the left of that tree. It’s another tree, or so I’m supposed to think. That bush was not there last night. Here comes the postman. What do you think he really has in that bag? By the way, do I know you? No, I am not paranoid. I am a journalist who once engaged in satire. That means there is a big target on my back. Tomorrow morning when I go out to get the newspaper, cover me.
I should be perfectly safe here in my home-office in Running Rats Acres where the only crime against mankind is that flock of pink, plastic flamingoes on the Gutwalks’ front yard. But a group of cartoonists, writers and editors should have been safe at a Wednesday morning meeting on the second-floor of an office building in downtown Paris. Suddenly the door was flung open by two angry readers. When that letter to the editor was finished, 12 people were dead, more were wounded, three critically, plus a policeman was killed coming to their rescue. Collateral damage included freedom of writership, readership and, most important, my own safety.
By now the civilized world even unto Oklahoma knows the story of how gunmen mowed down much of the staff and Stephane Charbonnier, editor-in-chief of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, (Charlie Weekly), which I had never heard of before. The journalists’ crime was lampooning the Muslim religion, along with every other faith, politician, the media itself and a lot of French society. Poking fun at some people means they poke back, with NRA-approved AK-47 semi-automatics. Let’s discuss this situation in a civilized and intelligent manner, so put down that epithet.
First, for the press these are dangerous days (that’s why we call them “deadlines”) and the situation is getting worse. More than 700 journalists have been killed worldwide since 2005. Last year alone, 119 journalists were kidnapped, 178 were imprisoned and 66 were killed, according to the nonprofit group Reporters Without Borders. Incidentally, this is the only civilian organization that keeps tabs on how many of its members meet violent deaths each year pursuing their profession – the only group that does so, or needs to. Don’t you love the couch commandos who harrumph about the American press while James Foley and Steven Sotloff were having their heads cut off? Missed those beheadings? No problem, they were videotaped. ISIS has instant re-play.
In the past I have urged, on your next trip to Washington to visit your money, you make a brief tour of the Newseum, a sobering yet sometimes lighthearted museum dedicated to the Fourth Estate. One exhibit I like contains the eyeglasses, pencil and notebook of Mark Kellogg. He was an AP reporter assigned to cover Custer at Littlebig Horn, and, no, he didn’t side with the Indians. There is also a wall containing a growing list of the names of American journalists killed in the line of duty. But the name of William Cowper Brann isn’t there. He was a Texas newspaper editor. In 1898 he was gunned down on a Waco street corner by an irate reader. A journalist’s life has its drawbacks. So does his death. After Brann was buried, someone fired a bullet into his tombstone. As we reporters say, update my obit.
Working in the field of occasional satire and lampooning, I have found over and over that hard-right wingers have no sense of humor which, of course, makes them a much easier target. To laugh at yourself requires self-confidence. The only funny comedian on the right is Dennis Miller. He worked “Monday Night Football” one season and it didn’t fly, but he’s still funny. Hard-left wingers can laugh at themselves, except for Stalin and Castro, and today write most of the comedies on television and the movies. Compare the shrillness of Pat Buchanan to the sophisticated wit of Jon Stewart.
My own beginning in this endeavor was while a student at The University of Texas when I took an English course on satire, since I was one of maybe three students in the entire UT enrollment writing satire for a student humor magazine, the Texas Ranger. In the midst of the course, in the midst of a class, I was thrown out by the professor. “Get out!” he said, satirically. The man had no sense of humor. For a time I thought of going into more dangerous work, such as a fact checker for “Morning Joe” or become Al Sharpton’s food taster. Maybe work for Obamacare, seeing if I could keep my own doctor.
“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” said George S. Kaufman, after his play, “Strike Up the Band,” closed in Philadelphia before it could even make it to Broadway. For satire is a delicate art form, and appeals only to smart people like you, who understand the basis before you understand the twists, ridicule and balloons being popped. In America we have yet to experience blood-letting of the Paris persuasion, but do not fool yourself for a moment. The constant drum beat of us-versus-them, the anger of KTRH hate radio and others, are sowing evil thoughts in sick minds. Just wait.
Journalists like to trot out the French writer, philosopher and deep thinker Voltaire who is often quoted as writing: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As usual, the press got it wrong. The quote was written in 1906 by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who simply wrote those words to reflect Voltaire’s attitude. No matter, Voltaire wasn’t even his real name. It was François-Marie Arouet, but he changed his name after everyone disapproved of what he said. Still, we need to update that quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to death.”
Come look out this window. Notice those three garbage cans on my curb? I only have two. Update my obit.
Ashby is hiding at email@example.com