Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
Four months ago, a dozen people, mostly cartoonists and journalists, died in an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo because its provocative fare angered religious fanatics.
A week ago, a leading American political cartoonist receiving a top journalism award gave a speech blaming the victims and decrying "free-expression absolutism."
It was a shameful moment for American journalism. But it should also be a moment of truth that reveals how anti-liberal -- and how intellectually hollow -- the modern left has become in its fixation on "privilege" and identity politics.
The cartoonist was Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, chastising his murdered colleagues while speaking at the George Polk Awards at Long Island University. Charlie Hebdo, Trudeau asserted, violated the first rule of satire -- to side with the "non-privileged" against the powerful -- by provoking Muslims with cartoons of Muhammad: "By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings . . . Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech."
Hate speech? The cartoons did not mock or vilify Muslim immigrants but used images of Muhammad to lampoon Islamic extremism.
As attorney and astute commentator Ken White points out on the Popehat blog, the kind of religious authoritarianism Charlie Hebdo assailed is responsible for the oppression of powerless people in country after country -- men and women who are jailed, flogged or killed after being accused of blasphemy.
One might object that Trudeau was talking about the Muslim minority in France. But no: He also rebuked Charlie Hebdo for "triggering violent protests across the Muslim world" by printing seven million copies after the attack.
It's hard to argue with his observation that the satirist's right to free speech does not negate the target's right to feel hurt or outraged. (Channeling those feelings into violence is another matter.) But in the same speech, he also spoke proudly of his controversial cartoons that ridiculed American abortion opponents. Not all hurt feelings are created equal.
Trudeau's biases reflect a common left-wing mindset that sees the world through the lens of "privilege" and "oppression" based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and/or religion: non-privileged good, privileged bad (to paraphrase George Orwell). The result is a bizarre inverse caste system in which right and wrong depend almost entirely on the parties' places in the hierarchy of oppressions -- but only in the traditional Western social order.
From this perspective, because Muslims are a "non-privileged" group in the West, criticism of even the most militant forms of Islam is bigoted "hate speech."
It doesn't matter how many religious minorities, women or gays are disenfranchised under hardline Islamist regimes. On the other hand, socially conservative Christians, a de facto marginalized minority in Western Europe and increasingly in the United States, are not entitled to such deference.
In a brilliant riposte to Trudeau on the Atlantic magazine website, political commentator David Frum argues that it's not always easy to tell which dog is the underdog. An immigrant community that experiences discrimination and prejudice may also have radical elements that harass other ethnic or religious minorities, or bully women who don't conform to traditional norms. For that matter, using violence to suppress speech that offends you is indisputably a form of power.
Identity politics has had a disastrous effect on our public life, encouraging polarization and contests in victimhood. Now, it has led a renowned journalist and artist to condemn those who stand up for free speech against violence and intimidation.
For liberals who have not forgotten what the word means, this should be a wake-up call.