One of the most attractive features of Anglo-American liberalism is its instinct to sympathize with the underdog. This is not a universal human norm. Across much of the modern world, human beings still follow the ancient Roman rule, vae victis—woe to the loser. But the liberal tradition appealingly sees its core task as standing up for the weak against the powerful.
“Hold off, Cuff; don’t bully that child any more; or I’ll—”
“Or you’ll what?” Cuff asked in amazement at this interruption. “Hold out your hand, you little beast.”
“I’ll give you the worst thrashing you ever had in your life,” Dobbin said, in reply to the first part of Cuff’s sentence; and little Osborne, gasping and in tears, looked up with wonder and incredulity at seeing this amazing champion put up suddenly to defend him: while Cuff’s astonishment was scarcely less. Fancy our late monarch George III when he heard of the revolt of the North American colonies: fancy brazen Goliath when little David stepped forward and claimed a meeting; and you have the feelings of Mr. Reginald Cuff ...
I wonder if that famous scene from Thackeray’s great novel Vanity Fair echoed in Garry Trudeau’s mind as he stepped forward to deliver his acceptance speech at the Polk Awards last week. In thanks for an award honoring his lifetime of achievement as a cartoonist, Trudeau used the occasion to denounce the murdered cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo. The Atlantic posted his remarks. I’m glad we did, because they deserve to be read and carefully considered. They perfectly express and encapsulate a point of view held by many influential people in our society and especially in our media.
Trudeau was not the first to give voice to this point of view by any means. Before the bodies of the Charlie Hebdo staff were buried, the novelist Teju Cole cautioned readers of The New Yorker: "It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try.” He then proceeded to an extended excursion into what is nicely called what-aboutism:
The solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on.
Yet if Trudeau is not the first, he is surely the most emphatic. Even Teju Cole stressed that he did not literally blame cartoonists for their own murder. "Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology,” wrote Cole, and reciprocally one must assume that although he did not condone the ideology of Charlie Hebdo, he did nonetheless condemn the murders.