Cherish right to make fun of our leaders

February 20, 2006|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- My professional tribe has long followed the motto best expressed by a former editor of mine: "If you have a fish in a barrel, shoot it." Of course, this time the target wasn't a fish, it was a quail - or, to be more precise, a person behind a quail. It also wasn't in a barrel. It was on a Texas ranch. But you get the idea.

After the vice president of the United States shot a hunting companion, it was open season on Dead-Eye Dick. Reporters of print, broadcast and blog, comics of cartoon and late-night TV, released a fusillade of outrage and a barrage of jokes on the man who shot himself in the foot by stifling the story and giving opponents enough ammo to make him a sitting duck for the duration of his time in office.

There is nothing (alas) that infuriates White House reporters more than getting stiffed on a big story for 20 hours, unless, of course, it's getting beaten by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. So the saga of the Vice President Who Couldn't Shoot Straight was fodder for the talk shows, and will remain so until (and unless) Mr. Cheney offers some wonderful self-deprecating one-liners on his hunting disabilities at the annual Gridiron gathering of journalists.

I confess to some guilty pleasure in finding Mr. Cheney the target of this journalistic buckshot.

One reason is the timing. This shooting story comes right in the middle of the cartoon crisis that has ignited outrage across much of the Muslim world.

Many Muslims have taken the sophomoric Danish cartoons - see Muhammad's turban as a bomb - seriously and blasphemously. This has triggered not only riots but also an international shouting match between those crying "free speech" and those crying "hate speech."

Many in the West defend the right to be offensive as a core value. Italy's reform minister has actually had T-shirts made with the offensive cartoons. Many Muslims now insist that we offend only their values. To prove a point, the largest Iranian newspaper called for cartoons making fun of the Holocaust. There you go - tit for tat - anti-Semitic cartoons in return for anti-Muhammad cartoons. That'll show those Christians in Europe!

Years ago, a cartoonist in my office would go over the top from time to time and produce what we privately called a "Pope with a Swastika" cartoon. What it lacked in humor it made up for in offensiveness and never got in the paper. The Danish cartoons weren't funny enough to get over my taste threshold.

But many suggest that the furor over the cartoons was actually ratcheted up by Middle Eastern governments trying to turn the attention of their citizenry from their own ineptitude to the culture wars. In that case, the peppering of Dick Cheney is an international reminder to both sides that the real reason to protect free speech is to criticize the people who govern you. The real reason for satire is to make fun, with impunity, of your leaders.

My uncle, a World War II veteran, tells the classic story of Soviet and American allies in a bar. An American soldier decides to illustrate the difference between the two countries. "In my country" he announces, "I can stand up and call Franklin Roosevelt an --- hole." The Soviet soldier says there's no difference. "In my country, I can also call Franklin Roosevelt an ---hole."

The fundamental difference between us and them isn't who can insult whose sacred cows, but who can criticize whose leaders. For that we tolerate excess.

The other difference, of course, is that in countries with a free press, leaders actually do have to tell the people when they shoot someone. Promptly.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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