So, comedienne Kathy Griffin’s head appears to be on the chopping block. That’s a metaphor, of course, and as of now it is even inaccurate, since CNN has already parted ways with Griffin (she co-hosted their New Year’s Eve show with Anderson Cooper, one of the most bizarre television matchups since Al Franken and Arianna Huffington appeared “in bed” together, doing their version of election coverage in 1996). Since CNN’s announcement, the proper metaphor becomes: “Kathy Griffin axed by CNN.” Or, perhaps: “her head has already rolled.” These aren’t really political metaphors, they’re instead business-related. Speaking of getting “axed” rather than getting fired is merely poetic hyperbole, and who among us hasn’t ever used the “heads are going to roll” or “on the chopping block” line ourselves? Does this kind of conflation cross a moral or ethical line? Or is it merely what used to be called “gallows humor” ― attempting to make light of the worst of situations?
Having said all of that, I am not going to defend Griffin today. This is not really a column about free speech or artistic license. It could have been, but I prefer to leave commentary on artists and comedians to those who know what they’re talking about. While an occasional consumer of both art and comedy, I am certainly no expert and thus don’t have anything interesting to add to the conversation of comedic propriety surrounding Griffin’s shocking photo with the (fake) bloody, severed head of Donald Trump. But I did want to begin with a reminder that while most of us have never posed for such a photo, the decapitation concept isn’t completely out of bounds in polite society, otherwise you wouldn’t even recognize what a metaphor such as “heads are going to roll” even means.
There are no hard and fast lines separating pure comedy from two fields I do have more experience commenting about: politics and political theater. Griffin was, by her own account, attempting to make a comedic (and political) point about Donald Trump, using his “blood coming out of her wherever” comment during the campaign as a launching point. This crosses over into (at the very least) political comedy or, perhaps, theatrical political protest.
For politicians themselves, it is never acceptable to joke (or suggest, or even hope for) the death of a United States president (or even a presidential candidate). That’s my own ethical bright line, and I regularly take exception when any politician crosses it, no matter how coyly. One prominent reaction to the Griffin controversy came from Chelsea Clinton, who tweeted: “This is vile and wrong. It is never funny to joke about killing a president.” I found this somewhat hypocritical, since I remember the 2008 campaign her mother ran. In late May, when the Democratic nomination was slipping away from her for good, Hillary Clinton was interviewed in South Dakota, and attempted to make the case that anything could still happen in the race. Her choice of words was pretty shocking though: “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.” She wasn’t exactly joking, but it certainly did sound a whole lot like wishful thinking, at the very least. Raising the possibility of the first viable black candidate’s assassination during a very tight race definitely crossed the line, for me.
I condemned this comment when it was made, and later revisited the issue in 2016 when Clinton’s campaign was calling on Bernie Sanders to drop out of the race. Writing about her 2008 campaign, I took her to task for her previous tactics (which you’ll note now could easily describe Donald Trump’s favorite tactic): “Make a provocative statement, immediately deny that it means what it seems to mean on the face of it, attack the Obama camp for pointing out that these words actually came from her mouth, and then jump all over the media for drawing attention to such a non-issue and demanding the benefit of the doubt for what she said.” The R.F.K. assassination remark was not an isolated incident, in other words.
The Clinton family aside, however, at some point even presidential assassinations become acceptable for both jokes and lighthearted political commentary. Otherwise, we wouldn’t immediately recognize the following: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?” But a lot of time has to pass before this becomes even marginally acceptable. Tragedy plus time equals comedy, as the comedians say, but when the tragedy is so great (assassination of a president), then it demands a rather large chunk of time before you can get away with such a remark in polite company.
When it comes to political theater and political protest, assassination metaphors actually have a long history. People in Great Britain have been burning effigies of Guy Fawkes for over 400 years, for instance. There’s an even-older Christian tradition (from at least one sect) of burning a Judas effigy right before Easter. This tradition continues in many forms in the modern age ― although it’s not exactly politically-based, Burning Man is nothing more than a glorified effigy-burning festival. On a less personal level, fierce political debates still occasionally rage over the constitutionally-protected right to burn an American flag in protest. More common are giant caricature puppets of political leaders paraded through the streets, which serve as objects of hate and derision for the protesters.
Direct calls for assassination reside in a grey area of constitutionally-protected free speech, however. Political speech is the entire reason for the First Amendment, but free speech does not include the right to utter calls to commit violence or other crimes ― both of which easily apply to assassination. But then there’s another form of constitutionally-protected speech to consider: satire. Was that call from the stage to be taken literally or in jest? It is left for the courts to decide.
Personally, one of the more brilliant pieces of political doggerel I ever came across I saw written on a bathroom wall of an ultra-liberal college campus (no matter how cliché it sounds, that is indeed where I saw it), in the early 1980s. It was so poignant that I can still remember it word-for-word, over three decades later:
Hinckley, Hinckley, what did you do? Why did you use a .22? Hinckley, Hinckley, try once more Next time, use a .44
This, obviously, crosses all kinds of lines. It clearly approves of John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan (which had only just happened ― I saw this in 1983, if memory serves ― so not much time had passed). It goes even further, though, pleading with Hinckley not just to try again but to do a better job next time. That’s not just crossing a line, that’s doubling down on the other side of it. But, you have to admit, it is a clever poem, just on a “doggerel written on a bathroom wall” level.
Of course, the anonymous poet who wrote this wasn’t a nationally-known celebrity or anything. Kathy Griffin is. Her attempt at political comedy was widely seen (and widely condemned). She offered up a sincere and unequivocal apology, but lost her biggest gig of the year anyway. On a personal level, two things struck me about the photo in question. The first is that it wasn’t very good political comedy, and the second is that the photo is incredibly realistic. Griffin could have offered up a much more relevant commentary with the photo (the “blood coming out of her wherever” quote happened a long time ago). Perhaps something about Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia? There, political protesters do indeed still face the penalty of decapitation. With a sword. It’d be hard to make that funny (to me, not being a comedian), but at least it would be a lot more up-to-date.
I think what set off the most outrage, though, was the realism of the photo. That didn’t look like some fake prop Trump head, it really did look like Trump’s severed and bloody head. If it had been more cartoonish, perhaps Griffin could have gotten away with it. After all, Ted Nugent made comments about lynching Barack Obama, and he wound up getting invited to the White House after Trump took office.
Death in politics, in art, and in comedy is a powerful subject matter. But it’s also one that spans the spectrum from children’s stories to clear incitement to assassinate. That’s a pretty wide spectrum, you have to admit. From cartoonish portrayals of the Grim Reaper (see: Saturday Night Live, Steve Bannon spoof) to cartoons of Mohammed that cause violence throughout the Muslim world, the impact varies greatly. So I cannot join in the widespread condemnation of Kathy Griffin, because I think it’s pretty murky where her photo falls on this spectrum. She’s a comedienne who regularly uses shock value to get a laugh. That’s always dangerous territory, and she regularly risks her own livelihood by treading on it. As far as CNN was concerned, it was enough to drop the axe and make her own professional head roll. That’s their decision, and I can’t condemn it in any way, either. It’s their network, so they get to set the standards. Free speech does not include any guarantee of a free national soapbox, for commenters and comedians on both the left and right.
But while the realism of the photo was indeed shocking, the concept is something we still read about to children, as both political commentary and as humor. Don’t believe me? Well, I don’t believe you ― because I already know you immediately recognized the title I chose for this column. Which is as good a place as any to end this on. From the chapter “The Queen’s Croquet Ground,” from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, here are just a few examples of lighthearted children’s fare on the subject of beheading ― in a book not only written for children, but also written as scathing contemporary political commentary that adults would recognize:
The players all played at once without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while, and fighting for the hedgehogs; and in a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting “Off with his head!” or “Off with her head!” about once in a minute. . . . The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. “Off with his head!” she said, without even looking round. “I’ll fetch the executioner myself,” said the King eagerly, and he hurried off.
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