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The Dangerous Lives of Satirists

Gibbons, right, helped honor Havel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Gibbons, right, helped honor Havel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Foreigners are sometimes amazed at the suffering that we are willing to undergo here, and at the same time they are amazed at the things we are still able to laugh at. It’s difficult to explain, but without the laughter we would simply be unable to do the serious things. If one were required to increase the dramatic seriousness of his face in relation to the seriousness of the problems he had to confront, he would quickly petrify and become his own statue .”

— Vaclav Havel, “Disturbing The Peace”

Back in November, some people were confused to see ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons performing at the Statuary Hall ceremony to unveil the bust of Havel. Why would one of the guys behind “Tush,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “Tube Snake Boogie” be present to honor the late Czech dissident and president?  

Because Havel, an absurdist playwright, loved rock ‘n’ roll and he particularly loved tunes that had a sense of humor and ribaldry. For him, laughing at one’s self, others, and particularly the Soviet puppet state in Communist-era Czechoslovakia was an essential part of not just dissent — it was what made him and his countrymen human. Havel’s legacy comes to mind as Western values of freedom of expression are under assault. First came the unlikely reminder of the power of cinema in the hullabaloo surrounding “The Interview,” the Seth Rogen-James Franco satire of an assassination attempt on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.  

Then came the horrific assassination of 10 journalists and two policemen at the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Those murders, and the carnage that followed during the manhunt for the perpetrators, were vivid demonstrations of the power of political cartoons. Islamist terrorists were willing to kill. And journalists were willing to die.  

Amid such depressing news, it’s important to continue celebrating freedom of expression. Watch “The Interview” online, on video on demand or at The West End Cinema. Check out political cartoons, in the pages of Roll Call with our own RJ Matson’s work, in other publications and at places such as the Library of Congress, the Newseum and the National Portrait Gallery. Go rub Havel’s mustache in Statuary Hall.  

And, most importantly: laugh.  


Je Suis Charlie

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