January 18, 2015

Islamic Extremists Have No Sense of Humor


On January eighth, the morning after twelve staffers of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered for running a series of controversial cartoons of Mohammed and generally poking their finger in the eye of Islamic extremists everywhere, Morgan noted that it was like launching an attack on MAD magazine or The Onion. She was right, of course, though Charlie Hebdo was far more vicious than Al Jaffe or Don Martin ever were. Ignoring for the moment the ugly little question of history and France’s longstanding brutal treatment of Muslims in general, the more I heard about the events in Paris, the more the story struck close to home, albeit with a very different outcome.

In 2005, I was still a staff writer at the now-defunct NY Press. The editor at the time (the fifth I’d dealt with over the previous three years) was an idealistic youngster named Harry. I liked Harry and all his silly idealism. He was like a miniature version of a gruff, hard-drinking, chain-smoking newspaper editor out of a forties film. He kept a bottle of whiskey on his desk and self-consciously crashed on his office couch a couple of nights a week, greeting me the next morning bleary-eyed and hung over. We may not have seen eye to eye on every issue, but he was two-fisted and unrepentant when it came to freedom of the press.

A few months after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published Kurt Westergaard’s cartoons of Mohammed on September thirtieth, Islamic nations around the world caught wind of it and started going all flippy as only they can. The colorful threats started flying, riots broke out, Westergaard and the newspaper staff were targeted for death, and all the hell what else. In response the American press as per usual turned all candyass the same way bookstores did when The Satanic Verses was released, and the country as a whole did after the WTC was attacked. Contrary to what the press release propaganda would have us believe, the decision not to reprint the cartoons in US papers had nothing at all to do with any respect for Islamic beliefs. Respect for religious beliefs has never stopped anyone from doing anything, ever. You can make fun of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists all you like and no one bats an eye. No, this was simple dumb cow fear—the belief that if you do anything that might possibly offend a Muslim, they’ll blow you right the hell up.

As this story was playing out in the world press, Harry got pissed. He saw it as a moral obligation to run the cartoons on the cover of the NY Press, making us the only paper in the city with the balls to do such a thing (fuck you, New York Times and Village Voice!).

I was all for the idea from the start, but did offer a warning.

I’d been in a similar situation at the paper a year earlier. When the Republican Convention was held at Madison Square Garden in 2004, the editor at the time—a smart and funny iconoclast named Jeff—had a great and deadly idea. He wanted to put out an issue disguised as the New York Post (a simple matter of fonts) with the headline “BUSH SHOT!” The entire issue would be an elaborate (and hilarious) straight-faced ruse complete with pictures and dozens of stories reporting on an attempted assassination inside Madison Square Garden. We had a full mock-up ready, and I gotta admit, it was fucking beautiful.

Of course there were inherent problems with all this. So Jeff and I sat down in my office (I still had a real office at that point) with two others from the editorial staff. We were keeping this thing hush-hush, and the four of us were the only ones who knew about it.

Although I wanted to see this one run, too, because it so reminded me of some of those classic issues of Paul Krassner’s The Realist, they had to know what they were getting into.

“Playing with society is fun and great,” I told them, paraphrasing Boyd Rice. “but you have to remember society plays really, really rough.” Our offices were three blocks due south of the Garden, and about fifteen minutes after that issue hit the streets, the offices would be filled with Secret Service and FBI agents, quite possibly with a SWAT team in tow. These were Republicans we were dealing with, after all. The editorial staff would be taken into custody, all the computers would be grabbed as evidence, and the NY Press would exist no more after that. So long as they were willing to accept what was far more than a simple “risk,” I was with them all the way.

In the end they thought better of the idea, though someplace in the apartment I still have that original mock-up, and it still makes me laugh.

Talking with Harry about the cartoons a year later, I told him that if he went ahead and did it, as I thought he should, he was going to have to be ready for a little splash back. First there were the poor schlubs who went out every Wednesday to distribute the papers to stores, bars, and an awful lot of Muslim-owned bodegas. They were the ones—few of whom ever actually read the paper—who would have to deal with the immediate brunt of it. The threats and protests would follow, but I was less worried about that. The biggest problem, I warned him, were the paper’s owners at the time—a group of dull-witted limpwrists who began weeping and scratching their faces at the very thought of “controversy.”

Jeff, the earlier editor, may have backed off the “Bush Shot” issue, but was canned shortly thereafter when he ran a cover story titled “The 50 Funniest Things About the Impending Death of the Pope.” It wasn’t even a very funny article (which was the real tragedy), but when Hillary Clinton and that fucking Chuck Schumer publicly condemned it (and not for it’s unfunniness) the owners gave him the boot.

So the plan was Harry simply wouldn’t tell the owners what he had in mind for the cover until they were about to go to press. By then it would be too late to do anything about it, right?

The Tuesday night the paper was wrapped up and set to head to the printers complete with the Mohammed cartoons front and center, I went home as per usual, curious to see what would happen the next morning.

Well, about nine that night the phone rang. A very drunk Harry was on the other end. I couldn’t remember him ever having called me at home before. It didn’t bode well, unless it was a victorious drunk I was hearing.

When I picked up the phone, he told me the owners had seen the cover, immediately scrapped it, and that Harry and his entire hand-picked editorial staff (which did not include me) had quit in protest. I admired that, too, even if I didn’t join them.

At the time it was just another blip in the long, weird, and blip-filled saga of the NY Press. At heart what it meant to me was that I was going to have to deal with yet another new editor.

In context now, though, I wonder. What would have been worse—what actually happened to the paper over the next year as it became a spineless unreadable penny saver catering directly to the advertisers, or if we’d run the cartoons as planned and all been gunned down like those French satirists by a group of pea-brained fanatics with no sense of humor? I gotta say it’s kind of a toss-up.


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