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The courage of 18-century English caricaturist James Gillray was celebrated after he lampooned the future King George IV as bloated and out of it.

"Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own," said Jonathan Swift, the gifted 18th-century lasher of human hypocrisy. "Which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it."

If Swift's observation is a satirist's rule for survival, then Charlie Hebdo broke with the code. It meant to give serious and obvious offence (for instance, by publishing naked images of Mohammed in mocking sexual poses), gloried in its ability to provoke anger, and never backed down when it became clear that the hurt it kept causing among Muslims was profound and widespread, bordering on the universal. Its refusal to target the bad guys with a focused precision that was more defensible and less stereotypical left it open to animosity and attack.

"I'd rather die standing than live on my knees," the newspaper's editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, proclaimed in 2012, a year after the paper's offices were firebombed. And now, the headlong, high-minded death wish of Charlie Hebdo has been fulfilled by the Kalashnikov-wielding enemies of satire, and turned into a postmortem justification of artistic integrity.

But as the freedom-of-speech protesters fight back against the forces of suppression and silence, satire's power and its purpose and its methods are being distorted to serve a broader political cause. Satire is intrinsically dangerous and glories in that fact: As its history shows, its provocations have to be handled with care as well as cleverness, and claim no right to absolute truth or goodness.

"Hebdo doesn't fit the tradition of satire in its highest form," says Feisal Mohamed, a Canadian-born professor of 17th-century English literature at the University of Illinois. "Satire at the top of the hierarchy strives to be art with all the associated complexity and intellectual ambition. This is satire of the nose-thumbing variety, a kind of sensationalist journalism intended to stir up a hornet's nest. They knew they were winding up a situation in Paris, let alone the world at large, that was already very tense. Ultimately the perpetrators of violence are responsible for the violence. But this does remind us that free speech is always a balancing act, and one should take the likely consequences into consideration."

Balance doesn't come naturally to satire. It is an exaggeration for effect, a caricature that purports to be a heightened, clarified reality but may just as easily be a narrow-minded distortion. If there is a kind of precarious balance, it is often of the Swiftian kind – most people don't see themselves as the targets, either because the satire is specific to a ludicrous, contemptible individual (often veiled with see-through anonymity in 18th-century satirical poetry), abstracted into a generalized vice (gluttony, say – and none of us could be a glutton) or separated off into mockery of an outside group (Catholics in Anglican England, the French during the Napoleonic wars, clerics in secularizing, post-Enlightenment France, jihadi Muslims today). Or, simply, because humans by nature are disinclined to see themselves as complicit in the misdeeds of others.

Bigots deploy satire just as readily as frustrated idealists. Look at the history of caricature and you will see many racial stereotypes that appall modernists but worked fine in the quick-to-identify, ready-made xenophobia of previous eras – the grasping hook-nosed Jew, the buck-toothed coolie Chinaman, the wide-eyed, simple-minded, naturally rhythmic Negro. If we can summon up disgust for these failures of pre-enlightened satire, it shouldn't be hard to empathize with those who see the same forces at work in contemporary caricatures of Muslims.

Satire, more than many genres in literature and devices in politics, thrives on its lack of boring and reasonable moderation. But far from being an undeniably good thing, satire is often nasty, harmful and grotesquely abusive, an acquired taste that's not for one and all.

"Satire is negative," says John Mullan, professor of English at University College London. "And that's the point. … Great satire wouldn't get written if there wasn't something wrong to write about. In his first satire, the great Roman poet Juvenal claims he's not going to write satirically, but then he goes out into the streets of the city and bubbles over with disgust and fury."

Anyone who studies the long and bracing history of satire knows that it's as rife with hate, snobbery and injustice as it is with the finer, higher virtues of hypocrisy-bashing. In fact the two components often go together, which makes satire a challenge to defend.

The satirical English caricaturists of the late 18th and early 19th century, James Gillray and George Cruikshank, are often celebrated for their fearless courage in mocking the high and mighty – Gillray depicts the Prince of Wales as a bloated out-of-it voluptuary, Cruikshank shows him casually farting in the face of earnest petitioners to the Crown. And yet, notes Prof. Mullan, "to the modern sensibility, they were incredibly un-PC. They satirized aristocrats, but they were also particularly nasty toward women. They weren't political radicals at all – they'd go after lefties as much as the idle rich. Revolu- tionaries got a terrible going-over."

In fact, the less-than-noble case can be made that they simply were targeting the well known, the celebrity culture of their era. The features of the famous would be easily recognized even in the grotesque exaggeration of a caricature, meaning their targets didn't have to be identified – a handy defence in the event a wounded celebrity wanted to sue. In any case, says Vic Gatrell, fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and author of City of Laughter, Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, "in jury-tried law, it's very difficult to prosecute a joke."

Going too far in journalism may seem like a great thing to champion in the days after a horrible massacre, particularly for those, like Swift's beholders, who never see themselves in the satirist's distorting mirror. But (understandably, given the level of offensiveness being deployed) observing certain boundaries has always been a key to satire's idea of allowable transgression, and thus to its survival: It's not about you, it's about him, or them, or no one in particular.

For much of its history, satire has been anonymous – the risk of exposure was too great, the consequences from repressive regimes too life-extinguishing. And yet the need for repressed peoples to find a public outlet that would give voice to their frustrations and honour their basic humanity remained powerful. Hence the famous "talking statues" in Rome, the ancient street-corner sculptures on which disenchanted citizens would leave satirical poetry critical of the Church and its leadership.

In totalitarian Soviet regimes, the elements of satire were appropriated by the state to serve its needs – communists continued to portray themselves as satirical avengers against capitalist fat cats, even as they seized power and metamorphosed from outsiders to oppressors.

"These were countries with absolute censorship, where satire turned into an instrument of propaganda, and you got these crude Daddy Warbucks images of American capitalism," says Paul Wilson, the translator of Vaclav Havel who lived in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s. "It was all designed to make you think in a certain way – the style of the Hebdo cartoons is much like the socialist realist cartoons in that they're so very obvious. The purpose is not to create social change but to prevent it."

True satire in the Soviet bloc, Mr. Wilson says, "became verbal. People shared jokes as a way of venting, to get a private laugh." So when you met a friend and reflexively asked "How are you?" the wry, life-affirming response became: "According to the papers, I am fine."

Satire needs independence to thrive. But it also needs an audience that is primed to understand. And that's where satirical cartoons about Muslims and the Prophet run into a historical and devastating problem with their call and response.

The modern form of Western satire that developed through the late 18th-century, Mr. Gatrell says, depends on "a sense of relativity in all things, a refusal to bow down before anything." It is based on installing individual and individualist sensibilities at the centre of political thought.

Absolute systems don't respond well to satire, whether it's a repressive ruler looking out for subversives, an all-knowing church torturing dissenters or a hardline Islamist tracking down the insults of infidels. We're not going to persuade them that we're just teasing.

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