It better be Muhammad Ali, or you’re in trouble.
That isn’t funny. But then, knock-knock jokes are never particularly funny. They’re more about wordplay (“Lettuce in, it’s cold out here”) and bad puns that cause 6-year-olds to spurt milk out of their noses.
Although, as jokes sometimes do, the one above, which was written by Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune (psst, non-potential terrorists: the joke as-way eally-ray itten-wray by e-may), illustrates a truth that might jar if stated plainly:
For all the “Not Afraid” bluster that came in the wake of the slaughter of 12 staffers at the Charlie Hebdo satiric weekly in Paris, there is a chilling effect. There has to be. “Will this get me killed?” is not a question conducive to humor. Even the Onion, in its typically spot-on response to the Paris massacre, sounded a note more somber than hilarious, under the headline: It Sadly Unclear Whether This Article Will Put Lives at Risk, written in an intentionally unattributed, vague, will-we-die-if-we-say-this? fashion:
Today’s horrific events only reinforce the idea that we cannot and will not let extremist zealots dictate what we can and cannot say, is a comment that we will quote, but one that we do with a legitimate sense of uncertainty over whether it could incite an attack against the speaker or their loved ones, a sense of uncertainty that feels awful, grotesque, and wholly unnecessary in this day and age.
That isn’t funny, or rather, is funny in a dry, puff-cheeks-and-sigh-kind of way. If you compare that piece to the flat-out hysterical one the Onion ran immediately after the 9/11 attacks, with the 19 hijackers shocked to find themselves roasting in hell, you can almost think that Western society has slid backward in 13 years, that our freewheeling freedoms have lost a step in the face of a constant stream of videos of journalist beheadings and bus bombings and the like.
Myself, I never worry about that kind of thing, because I sincerely believe I’m not important enough to kill. Plus, at 54, I’ve already had the good part of my life and now comes the dismal denouement of failing body, failing finances and descent into utter obscurity. Maybe having it all end in a white flash might not be such a horrible thing.
No, I don’t believe in mocking God for a variety of reasons. First, He isn’t there. Second — and this is why I capitalized the “He” in the previous sentence — belief in Him makes life, which is so unrelentingly dull or horrible for so many people, more bearable, more meaningful. And who am I to denigrate that? Everyone needs to claim false significance for something, and whether it’s opera or football or a loving deity is merely a matter of personal style. If God is imaginary, so is Carmen, and I wouldn’t want anybody claiming that makes the whole pageant a waste of time.
Yes, one is tempted to blaspheme the prophet just on general principles, to show that we can. Eric Zorn, of the Chicago Tribune, has coined a variety of colorful, sexually explicit jokes about Muhammad that I would share, except that I sincerely believe doing so is wrong. Muslims in this country are members of an extreme minority whose position is only undercut by brutal acts such as we saw this week. The irony is that the attackers are in silent conspiracy with haters everywhere. A fringe statistical zero commits a crime, and others claim it somehow represents the whole. Arguing that the crime in Paris reflects on Islam is like insisting that Bernie Madoff indicts Jews.
And no, Zorn hasn’t really done any of that. He’s actually a good friend of mine, or was, before I dragged him unknowingly into this. I just think the notion of projecting these dangerous, imaginary insults upon him is funny.
But that would change if somebody threw a brick at his house. Or mine. We have to hold, on faith, that that isn’t going to happen, that we haven’t passed some kind of tipping point where jokes are not allowed. None of this is new. I don’t want to pretend that Islamic radicals invented terrorizing those who disagree with their dogma. We in the United States have a long, rich history of doing just that, from John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to bring the weight of government down on the necks of those who opposed his Federalist Party, to the 1960s South, where supporting voting rights could and did get you killed. I know many people who think the Wikileaks case is an example of our country oppressing those who pull the curtain back on the truth.
One of the dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers killed was Stephane Charbonnier, editor and cartoonist. The magazine had been threatened and firebombed before, and in 2012 he said something worth repeating:
“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me. I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.”
Charbonnier said something else worth remembering:
“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
This is a moment of truth, where we decide whether to cower in fear or stand up. I admire Zorn for standing up and boldly insulting Islamic terrorists everywhere, almost daring them to come after him. I only wish I had his courage.