We had thought, until recently, that the monstrous Charlie Hebdo issue had slipped into a forgotten past, like most matters that are urgent only as long as they sell newspapers or enhance TV viewership. But Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, prompted by the need to say something in accepting the George Polk Career Award in early April, said things about Charlie that created no little stir in cartooning circles. The entire speech can be found online; here below we repeat those of his remarks that caused the stir (all in italics):
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies [of the magazine] that were published following the killings [of Charlie staff] did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.
The White House took a lot of hits for not sending a high-level representative to the pro-Charlie solidarity march, but that oversight is now starting to look smart. The French tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace. Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column. Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another. [France has a law prohibiting anti-Semitism.]
What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.
I’m aware that I make these observations from a special position, one of safety. In America, no one goes into cartooning for the adrenaline. As Jon Stewart said in the aftermath of the killings, comedy in a free society shouldn’t take courage.
Writing satire is a privilege I’ve never taken lightly. And I’m still trying to get it right. Doonesbury remains a work in progress, an imperfect chronicle of human imperfection. It is work, though, that only exists because of the remarkable license that commentators enjoy in this country. That license has been stretched beyond recognition in the digital age. It’s not easy figuring out where the red line is for satire anymore. But it’s always worth asking this question: Is anyone, anyone at all, laughing? If not, maybe you crossed it.
What Trudeau clearly believes was a humane and thoughtful re-consideration of the Charlie cartoons—by American standards, unusually gross and vulgar in flinging their satiric barbs—suddenly looked to many as if he were blaming the victims: the Charlie cartoonists brought on their own murders by drawing those outrageously offensive cartoons.
Cartoonists immediately took sides. Some supported Trudeau; others did not. Rueben Bolling was among the latter in his Tom the Dancing Bug.Bolling, who likes and respects Trudeau, was troubled by his impulse to criticize him, as he explained at his blog at GoComics.com:
So why would I draw this cartoon, attacking the position on Charlie Hebdo he presented in his speech accepting the George Polk Award? Well, I'm fascinated with the issue, and when his speech was released, I found that I disagreed with him in a way I thought was interesting. Of course, when America's most prominent cartoon satirist provocatively weighs in on a huge global story about the most important tragedy in cartooning satire history, I'd say it's worthy of our attention.
I wrote a few tweets about his speech. And then, as I thought about it, I came up with this comic, using the example of America's abortion debate to show that it's not always clear whether a satirist is punching up or down, or why that should matter. In Charlie Hebdo's case, poking fun at religious authority, and violent religious fundamentalists, could certainly be seen as punching up.
Anyway, once I had the comic sort-of written, I felt it would be dishonorable or even cowardly to scuttle it because I didn't want to anger Garry Trudeau, or because I wanted to be sure to be in his good graces. We're satirists, and we should be able to disagree with each other through our chosen medium (which doesn't lend itself to nuance or equivocation).
Also, to be honest, once I have a comic I like in mind, it's very hard for me to shift gears and change subjects. As I try to write another comic, my mind will keep wandering back. I'm like a dog with a chew toy; I can't let it go. ...
Well, I will email Garry and explain that while I disagree with him, I do so respectfully, but I suspect he won't be happy about this comic. And that genuinely bothers me. But I guess if I can write satire about newsmakers whom I don't know and respect, it's only fair that I don't back away from writing satire about newsmakers whom I do.
Editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes is another who disagrees with the notion of “red-lining” editorial cartoons. At a presentation at the Library of Congress on April 30 (reported by Sukrana Uddin at Young DC.org), Telnaes said that limiting oneself according to other individuals’ “red line” of comfort would eventually box in a cartoonist’s free speech and creativity. Reported Uddin: “Adhering to stern censorship rules stifles a cartoonist’s job of provoking thought and conversations. Rules would eventually restrict true free speech. She had produced a cartoon as long ago as 2006 that vividly illustrates the dangers of red-lining.”
Telnaes' co-presenter Signe Wilkinson (who, like Telnaes, is a Pulitzer-winning editoonist), agreed: “Each group has something sacred. The question is whether we can let each group decide for everyone else what is sacred. And if we do, we will not be drawing [editorial] cartoons.”
Other cartoonists responded to a ComicRiff survey conducted on April 27 by Michael Cavna, who wanted to know if any of them hold any potential targets as truly, personally taboo. Said Cavna: “In other words: If editorial cartoonists are surgeons of satire, is there anything that is off their operating table? When they cut so incisively, are there any ‘red lines’ each of them prefers not to cross?” Following are some of the responses Cavna received. Please go to the linked article for others.
Nick Anderson (Houston Chronicle): I don’t think in terms of red lines; I tend to think in terms of context, which requires judgment. What is over the line in one context might not be over the line in another. If I’m drawing a really outrageous cartoon, it is probably because I’m trying to employ a fitting metaphor for a situation that I find particularly outrageous.
That being said, I can’t say I’ve ever felt the need to attack or belittle the founder of a religion — Jesus Christ, Muhammad, etc.. I prefer to attack and belittle their followers, who often willfully misinterpret the words of the founders for their own twisted ends. I agree with Trudeau that “because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.” And this does not mean that criticizing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons puts one in league with the Charlie Hebdo murderers. One should be able to cross the line in a free society without fear of violent reprisal. The answer to speech that crosses the line is more speech.
Darrin Bell (Washington Post Writers Group): I won’t blame religion for anything in my cartoons. Fanatics are fair game. People who cherry-pick from their religion in order to justify the denial of equal rights to others are fair game. People who use religion as an excuse for tribal fighting and slaughter are fair game. Holier-than-thou hypocrites are fair game. But so far I’ve never depicted an entire religion as being fundamentally flawed.
I don’t draw that line because I think religions are above reproach; I draw that line because I feel blaming religion itself lets the bigots, the hypocrites and the ignoramuses off the hook. Religion is a tool. Some use it to build discriminatory laws. Others use it to build civil-rights movements. I’d rather focus on the carpenter than on the tool.
Steve Breen (Union-Tribune, San Diego): I thought that what Garry Trudeau said was right on. It seems to me, from what I have read, that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were pushed by their editor to cross red lines…to become, as Trudeau put it, fanatics for free speech.
It seems to me a good editor pushes us [cartoonists] to be as accurate, clever, clear and concise as possible. He or she should help you affect people but not intentionally enrage them. When people are enraged, they hate you — and when they hate you, they’re no longer able to be objective when they consider your point of view.
I don’t operate in terms of specific red lines, but I do rely on the filters in my head, as well as the guidance of my editor to look at something and say: “Whoa, this might be a red zone we should steer away from — why not try making the same point in a powerful but less-inflammatory way?”
Mike Luckovich (Atlanta Journal Constitution): Great question. I view my mission differently than the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. I don’t set out to provoke. My goal is to get my point across. If it upsets one group or another, so be it. I’m nominally Catholic. During the pedophilia scandals, I hit the church repeatedly and was criticized for it. However, my red line is never drawing a cartoon mocking Jesus Christ or any other religious icon to make a point about a particular faith. I won’t negatively caricature Muhammad to slam Islamic radicalism.
Rob Rogers (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): I consider myself a free-speech absolutist in the sense that I don’t believe anyone should be murdered or even jailed for expressing themselves. I don’t think any kind of speech, no matter how offensive or “taboo,” should result in a death sentence. Once we begin to allow certain people or groups to dictate what is okay to say or draw, it is only a matter of time until those exceptions become more and more restrictive. It is a slippery slope to ultimate suppression. By criticizing the content of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and there is certainly plenty to criticize, we run the risk of blaming the victim. If only they hadn’t drawn the prophet Muhammad. ... If only the rape victim hadn’t worn that short skirt. … These kind of arguments only embolden the attackers and those who think their actions were justified.
Also, while I would never draw the kind of shocking images found in Charlie Hebdo, I think it is also a big leap to say that by depicting Muhammad in an unflattering way, those cartoonists were attacking a powerless disenfranchised minority of Muslims. I read it as them attacking a religious taboo, not a group of people.
My own personal moral code is certainly one of not punching downward. My goal is to create satire that champions justice and equality, and I try to avoid images that may undermine that purpose. I believe in going after the oppressors, not the oppressed. I attack the hypocritical and corrupt, the rich and powerful, the cruel and pompous rulers—not their poor followers. While I don’t think I have any red lines, per se, because I would never want to put those kinds of restrictions on my creativity, I probably do have some pink lines. I avoid images that could be seen as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., because they would be antithetical to my intended message.
In 2014, I was called anti-Semitic for a cartoon I drew about Gaza that criticized Israel’s use of military force in the region. My particular cartoon style includes large, bulbous noses on all my characters. I don’t think my depiction was anti-Semitic, but in the future, I will be more sensitive when drawing cartoons about Israel.
Jen Sorensen (Fusion and Austin Chronicle, et al.): I’ve been asked this question a lot over the past year, and I’d suggest that the phrase “red lines I won’t cross” is somewhat flawed. People crave absolutes, but there are no lines — only specific contexts and circumstances. Also, the phrase seems to imply that I’m repressing something I *should* be saying.
I’ve often said that being a political cartoonist is like being a doctor; I try to heed the golden rule of “do no harm.” Will my work contribute to hatred and misunderstanding? Or does it serve to illuminate and defend the less-powerful in society? The only subject I won’t draw about is one about which I have no good cartoon ideas. Rather than follow lines, I follow my conscience. And in the U.S., I’m fortunate to have tremendous freedom to do that.
I may be in the minority among my colleagues, but I greatly admired Garry Trudeau’s speech on Charlie Hebdo. Garry gets it. There are ways to criticize terrorism and religious extremism without humiliating and alienating an entire people at the bottom of the power structure.
Signe Wilkinson (Philly.com; Philadelphia Daily News): Different people have different lines, which is why no ONE person should be able to declare crossing a particular line to be a death-penalty offense. Personally, I work for two newspapers with general-interest audiences with wide tastes. I don’t do nudity, profanity or graphic violence. My line on religion is that when a religious group starts asking for special favors from the state — whether it’s tax privileges for their schools or exemptions from regulations everyone else must abide by — or acting in ways that affect others — abusing kids, cutting off apostates’ heads — they become part of the political process, and should be treated as the political players they are.
As much as I respect Garry Trudeau, I disagree with his argument on Charlie Hebdo. Like Trudeau, I wouldn’t have drawn most of the cartoons they published, and didn’t follow their publication. However, their cartoons did not kill people. Humorless religious fanatics did. It is the assassins we should be worried about, not a bunch of cartoonists whose work was largely being ignored by non-terrorists.
Adam Zyglis (Buffalo News; this year’s Pulitzer winner): As Trudeau mentioned in his speech, I, too, believe my role as a cartoonist is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” My goal is to express an opinion to my readers in a way that’s honest about what I believe to be right and wrong. If in the process I provoke anger or vitriol, then so be it. But to needlessly provoke is to reduce what I do to public shouting. I suppose that’s my red line: Do not be gratuitously offensive.
I don’t have any topics that are off the table in my commentary. I let my editors do the editing, and I’m lucky that in my case, I’m given free rein in terms of message. With imagery, my paper used to be sensitive to depictions of the Pope and the Catholic Church [in light of the abuse scandals], but I still found ways to make my point.
Free speech has its limits, and producing work for a mainstream newspaper means certain images will needlessly provoke. Religious symbols, such as the cross or a depiction of Muhammad, need to be handled with care when crafting cartoons. It doesn’t mean they’re off the table — it just means you must use them responsibly. The same is true for racially charged imagery.
The cartoons of mine that have been the most controversial have been ones immediately following a tragedy. For instance, after a Buffalo plane crash in 2009, I was highly critical of the poorly trained pilot and the sub-par safety standards of the regional airline industry. The cartoons were circulated around the airline industry to many who weren’t regular consumers of satire. The reaction was overwhelming — so many people were offended because they didn’t know cartoons aren’t always like Garfield. But since then, I’m more cognizant of the timing of my cartoons.
Writing on his blog, Daryl Cagle, editoonist and owner of his syndicate, Cagle Cartoons, expounded even more, starting with his observations about Charlie cartoonist Rénald “Luz” Luzier, who drew for the first post-killings issue of Charlie Hebdo the now-famous cover caricature of Muhammad with a tear running down his face, saying“Tout est pardonné,” or “All is forgiven.” Luz decided at the end of April that he would no longer draw Muhammad cartoons. “He no longer interests me,” Luzier told French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. “I am tired of him, just like [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. I am not going to spend my life drawing them.”
To which news Cagle responded (in italics):
I can sympathize with Luz’s choice: since he’s now “typecast” as the premier Muhammad cartoonist, it seems reasonable that Luz wouldn’t want his career to be boiled down to being the “Muhammad cartoon guy.”
I’m an editorial cartoonist; I haven’t drawn a Muhammad cartoon myself, because I haven’t been inspired to do so. I shy away from drawing cartoons that some people would find offensive. I don’t use four letter words, or the “N-word” in my cartoons. I don’t draw sexually explicit cartoons. Offensive subject matter in cartoons can be so loud that it drowns out anything else I might want to say in a cartoon, except, “Look, I have the freedom to draw something offensive.”
Many cartoonists have drawn Muhammad cartoons, and racist cartoons, and dirty cartoons; that’s fine, that’s their business—but drawing offensive stuff just to draw attention to myself, or to prove that I have the right to do so, just looks like lousy cartooning to me. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were doing more than that; they were addressing issues in French culture that were important to them, and rejecting all religions that they felt didn’t fit with their secular society.
I knew three of the five Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered earlier this year and I got to know more of them at French cartoon festivals. They have a genuine passion for their issues and our conversations always turned to a discussion of their religion-bashing cartoons. Here in America we’re not faced with the same social pressures and similar cartoons here should seem out of place.
It doesn’t matter that I personally don’t choose to draw Muhammad cartoons, or that most cartoonists don’t care to draw offensive cartoons, all editorial cartoonists are now being seen as recklessly poking surly Islamic beasts. My profession is being painted with the Muhammad cartoon broad-brush.
I was recently asked to speak at a local college, and I met the college president; the first thing he said to me was, “Now, don’t show any of those Muhammad cartoons.” This is not unusual. Casual conversations with editorial cartoonists often start with, “So, do you draw those Muhammad cartoons too?”
Like Luz was typecast, it seems we’re all typecast now.
A month after giving up drawing Muhammad, Luz announced that he was leaving Charlie Hebdo. According to Inquisitir.com, the stress of being Charlie's only cartoonist combined with media pressure and a need to rebuild his life following the attack have convinced him to part ways with the publication. Said Luz: “The time came when it was just all too much to bear. There was next to nobody to draw the cartoons. I ended up doing three of every four front-pages. … Each issue is torture because the others are gone. Spending sleepless nights summoning the dead, wondering what Charb, Cabu, Honore, Tignous would have done is exhausting.”
Charb, Cabu, Honore and Tignous are the pen names of the cartoonists killed on January 7. As was their custom, they and other staff members were gathered that day around a table, concocting the next issue of the paper through a group dynamic of creative contributions. On that fateful day, Luz was running late—and was therefore not in the Charlie’s Paris office when the murderous Islamic hooligans stormed in. The rest of the survivors now live under police protection, including Luz’s colleagues at other newspapers.
Luz hinted that inspiration has been elusive since the tragedy and that he’s lost interest in “returning to normal life as a news cartoonist.”
“We’re not heroes,” he said, “—we never were and we never wanted to be.” He stuck around, he explained, only because he survived the attack, to “continue in solidarity, to let nobody down. Except that at one point, it was too much to bear.” Leaving Charlie, Luz said, was a “very personal choice” that will help him “to rebuild, to take back control” of himself. “You don’t know anymore which Luz you are speaking for,” he said, “—the one born on Jan. 7, 1972 or the one that was born for France on the 7th of January 2015.”
Editoonists in various venues of the realm pondered Trudeau’s punching and red-lining. At The Nib, the cartooning corner of Medium.com, Kevin Moore conjured up a helpful guide to appropriate targets for punching—at the upper left of the first of the two accompanying visual aids. And James Van Otto, next around the clock, provides a vividly visual interpretation of the red line prohibition. Immediately below, Signe Wilkinson shows the best response to offensive cartoons, a theme continued on the next exhibit.
At the upper left of the second exhibit, Van Otto continues to play with the red line notion, suggesting a way a cartoonist may gauge the offensiveness of his/her cartoons. Next, John Trever offers a memorable image of the knee-jerk response of Islamic hooligans to whatever offends them, in this instance, the classic endorsement of freedom of expression. And Phil Hands’ visual shows us that while many Muslims might be offended by cartoons of the Prophet, only a tiny minority resort to violence to express their objection.
In his response to Cavna’s survey, Rob Rogers alludes to a red-line caution that is probably more to the point than discussions about religious taboos. He said he “avoids images that ... could be antithetical to my intended message.” If an image so outrages readers that they focus only on the cause of their ire and therefore miss on the cartoonist’s message, then the cartoon is rendered useless. To a great extent, this is exactly the problem with Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons when being viewed by people not familiar with either the issues in France or the devices of French cartooning—as we’ll explain at painful length further on.
In the ensuing brouhaha, Trudeau was sufficiently embarrassed to do something he rarely does. He consented (or arranged for) an April 26 interview on TV by NBC’s Meet the Press moderator, a very friendly Chuck Todd, to whom the cartoonist, looking every bit as chagrined as he clearly was, explained that he was “not at all” blaming the victims and that he “should have made it a little clearer” that he was “as outraged as the rest of the world at the time. I mourn them deeply,” he said—a sentiment not apparent in anything he said in his Polk acceptance speech. (He could not have made his feelings “a little clearer” because they weren’t even slightly evident to begin with.)
So affected was he by the Paris tragedy, Trudeau continued, that he produced a special Sunday Doonesbury, memorializing the slaughtered cartoonists. In this March 8 production, Trudeau was on firm ground: he was determinedly respectful of the work of his French colleagues, and he finished with a wry antic flourish, a little self-satire, flagrantly referencing the prohibition against picturing Muhammad that Charlie Hebdo so frequently flouted. But in his Polk speech, he had another agenda.
The “powerless, disenfranchised minority” on whose behalf he spoke are the millions of French Muslims who immigrated to France from northern Africa and the one-time French colony Algiers but who have not yet, for one reason or another, been assimilated into their new home. They live in abject ghettos around the fringes of large cities.
Their separateness and isolation is partly self-imposed: many French Muslims wish to continue Islam’s religious practices in conduct and dress, thereby invading the French public square with religion in a way that the French have rigorously opposed. In freeing itself from centuries of Catholic Church dominance in private and public life, the French have erected an insurmountable wall to keep church separate from state. To the French, then, their Muslim countrymen threaten a hard-won tradition that the French treasure zealously.
It is possible, as Trudeau has demonstrated, to see Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as striking back at a French Muslim population’s insistence on making religion an active and evident part of daily life, something the French tradition and law strictly forbids—despite Charlie’s repeated claim that the magazine was, in Trudeau’s terms, “punching up.”
Charlie Hebdo maintains that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism—an argument some have made about the incursion of religion into American politics. And most, if not all, of Charlie’s cartoons can be understood in that context.
The paper sees itself as an equal-opportunity offender: past covers showed retired Pope Benedict XVI in amorous embrace with a Vatican guard, former French president Sarkozy looking like a sick vampire, and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik described the cover of a special Christmas issue entitled “The True Story of Baby Jesus”; it was “a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child.”
“The aim is to laugh,” said Charlie journalist Laurent Léger (quoted by Megan Gibson at time.com). “We want to laugh at the extremists—every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.”
"We’re a newspaper against religions as soon as they enter into the political and public realm,” editor-in-chief Gerard Biard told the New York Times in 2012, adding that religious leaders, and Islamic leaders in particular, have manipulated their followers for political purposes. As Signe Wilkinson said in Cavna’s survey: once a religious group “becomes part of the political process, they should be treated as the political players they are.”
Trudeau, however, sees it differently. In his Meet the Press interview, he returned to the ideas in his Polk speech. (What follows is quoted from a report at TheNib.com. I could not find these remarks in either the broadcast interview or in the extended version of it streamed at nbc.com; but what I’m quoting seems consistent with those of Trudeau’s remarks I could find. Perhaps the elaboration that appears herewith came during remarks Trudeau made at the Richmond Forum in January.)
“I was as outraged as the rest of the world at the time [of the Paris killing of the Charlie cartoonists]. I mourn them deeply. We’re a very small fraternity of political cartoonists around the globe. ... What I didn’t do is necessarily agree with the decisions they made that brought a world of pain to France. I think that in France the wider Muslim community feels disempowered and disenfranchised in ways I’m sure is also true in this country. And that while I would imagine only a tiny fraction were sympathetic to the acts that were carried out and the killings, I think probably the vast majority shared in the outrage. Certainly that seems to be what people are hearing in the schoolyards in France now. They’re finding common cause at least with the issue if not with the action. I think that’s bad for France, it’s unfortunate. It’s a tragedy that could have been avoided. But everybody has to decide where the red lines are for themselves.”
On the one hand, Trudeau says “no, not at all” does he blame the victims; he blames only “the decisions they made.” In other words—on the other hand— he blames the victims. Writing dialogue for his Amazon Prime political tv show, Alpha House, has evidently equipped Trudeau with all of the argot of equivocation deployed by the pandering politician who is adept at saying one thing and then contradicting himself in the next breath in order to appeal to a different audience—or to cover his/her butt—all the while, failing to see that he/she has reduced communication to blather by committing blatant hypocrisy.
Suddenly, Trudeau the master satirist is guilty of some of the sins he so deftly skewers in politicians.
Then he was rescued as the journalistic spotlight turned to PEN and its hypocrisies—:
The Hypocrisies of PEN
PEN is an international, non-governmental organization for writers and others actively engaged in any branch of literary endeavor; PEN has consultative relations with UNESCO and with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Founded in 1921 in London, its first president was John Galsworthy; among its earliest members were Joseph Conrad, Elizabeth Craig, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. PEN’s stated aims are:
To promote intellectual co-operation and understanding among writers.
To create a world community of writers that would emphasize the central role of literature in the development of world culture.
To defend literature against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses.
Although headquartered in London, PEN has autonomous centers in over 100 countries, one of them, the United States.
Just as Trudeau was digging a deeper hole for himself on “Meet the Press,” members of the American PEN Center were circulating a letter protesting the organization’s plan to honor Charlie Hebdo by presenting it with PEN’s first Free Expression Courage Award during the annual gala on May 5.
It all began when six members of PEN withdrew as table hosts because they believe many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are racist and bigoted, and they don’t want to honor racism and bigotry. Caleb Crain succinctly stated their position at his steamthing.com: “Yes, technically, a cartoonist killed for a racist or bigoted cartoon was being courageous if he drew it knowing that he might be killed for it [which accurately describes the Charlie situation]. But no, it isn’t right to honor him.”
The writer Deborah Eisenberg elaborated on the reasons for the protest in a letter to PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, and Nossel responded—both at great and carefully reasoned length—and Eisenberg replied to Nossel. All three letters appear in their entirety in The Intercept, posted at firstlook.org. Here are a few excerpts—:
From Eisenberg’s first letter:
It is clear and inarguable that the January slaughter of 10 Charlie Hebdo staff members as well as 2 policemen in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly, were used to make that decision. ... I doubt there are many who consider the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be models of wit, but what is at issue is obviously not the value of the cartoons. What is at issue are the various – confused, vague, and sometimes contradictory – symbolic meanings with which the magazine has been freighted in recent months, and exactly which of those symbolic meanings PEN is intending to applaud. ...
I can hardly be alone in considering Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that satirize Islam to be not merely tasteless and brainless but brainlessly reckless as well. To a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized, in large part a devout population that clings to its religion for support, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as intended to cause further humiliation and suffering. ...
Apparently PEN has reasoned that it is the spectacularly offensive nature of Charlie Hebdo’s expression in itself that makes the magazine the ideal recipient for the Courage Award. ... Is there not a difference—a critical difference—between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically awarding such expression? ...
To which, Nossel responded (in part):
We believe that honoring Charlie Hebdo affords us an opportunity to inflect global opinion on an issue of longstanding concern to PEN and to free expression advocates worldwide, including many in the Muslim world: namely, efforts to devalue, ban, or punish acts deemed to constitute the defamation of religion. ... I worked on this issue for more than 18 months as an official of the U.S. State Department during the Obama Administration. At the time, certain delegations, led by Pakistan, were waging a powerful global campaign to try to secure an international treaty banning the so-called defamation of religion. Their efforts, they explained to me, were fueled by a sense of deep grievance by ordinary citizens in their countries toward the West and toward insults against their religion. ...
I heard from officials who admitted that they did not believe that international bans on blasphemy were the right answer to the problems and pressure they were facing. They shared concerns that campaigns for such bans gave a kind of license to those assailants, including rioters in Kabul and assassins in Islamabad, who treated insults to Mohammed as grounds for violent reprisals. In making an award to Charlie Hebdo, we call attention the fact that such policies are abhorrent and extremely dangerous. ...
The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings, which united many governments, religious leaders and civil society organizations in a joint expression of solidarity, drew global attention to the dangers of intolerance for criticism of religion. ... The idea that no words, no matter how offensive or insulting, can ever justify violence seems basic to us here, but is honored in the breach in many parts of the world. We see honoring Charlie Hebdo as a potent way to affirm and elevate that principle at a moment when the world is paying attention. ...
We also believe strongly in upholding and defending the role of satire in free societies. Satire is, by definition, disrespectful and often insulting. Based on Charlie Hebdo’s history, their statements and the accounts of those within PEN who have personally known and worked with the magazine, we believe that it sits firmly within the tradition of French satire. ...
The new editor of Charlie Hebdo has said that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism—an argument some have made about the incursion of religion into American politics. As we look through the cartoons we think most if not all can be understood in that context. In pushing the boundaries of discourse as the best satirists do—American, European, or otherwise— Charlie Hebdo broke taboos, raised questions and sparked debates that expanded the space for expression and the exchange of ideas. They paid a heavy price for doing so, and then pressed on despite heartbreak and devastation. We think that shows a powerful commitment to free expression no matter the costs, and it is that commitment that we wish to honor. ...
In sum, we are honoring Charlie Hebdo not because of the material you find offensive, but because of their fearless defense of their right to express themselves, a defense that has made our spines stiffen here at PEN and throughout the free expression community as we recognize the depth of our obligation to stand firm in the force of powerful and dangerous interests.
Eisenberg, however, was not convinced:
Here is a point [she said] on which we differ. Or at least as I understand it, this is something that you and PEN are asserting: that people who are murdered for expressing themselves are automatically deserving of praise. Really? Why is that? A person who is murdered (or threatened or harassed) for his or her views is by definition a victim – but not by definition a hero. He or she may be a hero or not. Let us say that a man considers his wife to be inferior to him and derides her repeatedly, and that she then murders him in his sleep. I think most of us would agree that it is wrong to murder the husband, but I hope few of us would agree that the husband deserves an award. ... Terrorism seeks to inhibit and control behavior and even ideas through the simple and very effective expedient of violence, so it is critical to respond by maintaining our autonomy, both in refusing to be silenced by threats or acts and also by refusing to let fear and intimidation interfere with our ideas and responses to the world around us—which is of course a subtler, vaguer, and more easily manipulated business.
Like you, I greatly admire the courage of those who retain their autonomy and hold fast to reasoned ideals in the face of intimidation. But by the same token, I do not believe that a repudiation of terrorism obliges me to join forces with prejudices I find repugnant. If I were to follow PEN’s line of thought in this instance – the equating of free expression with offensiveness – to its logical conclusion, I would have to distort my own inclinations and convictions and devote myself to drawing incredibly offensive magazine covers. And that, in my view, would be as much a capitulation to terrorism as silence would be. ...
The Muslim population of France, so much of which feels despised and out of place in their own home, is very aware that the non-Muslim population of France is reading and enjoying mockery of their religion, and they are very unlikely to care what objectives Charlie Hebdo ascribes to itself, however lofty those objectives may be. A person wounded by ridicule is unlikely to much care what the ridiculer intended – to care whether the goal of the ridicule was to stimulate insight or to inflict humiliation. ...
What actually matters most in this instance, in my opinion, is what people believe is being awarded: What does PEN wish to convey by presenting this prestigious award to Charlie Hebdo? And that is still not one bit clear to me. Charlie Hebdo is undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction. But ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.
More PEN Uproar
Among the table hosts who withdrew was a former president of PEN, Francine Prose, who wrote:
The award is for writers and journalists who tell us the truth about the world in which we live, not drawing rude caricatures and mocking religion. ... Let me emphasize how strongly I believe in the ideals of PEN; for two years I was president of the PEN American Center. I believe in the indivisibility of the right to free speech, regardless of what – however racist, blasphemous, or in any way disagreeable – is being said. I was horrified by the tragic murders at the Charlie Hebdo office; I have nothing but sympathy for the victims and survivors. I abhor censorship of every kind and I despise the use of violence as a means of enforcing silence. I believe that Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish whatever they wish.
But that is not the same as feeling that Charlie Hebdo deserves an award. As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor. ...
Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.
Salman Rushdie, the Indian author who spent years in hiding after a fatwa was issued against him for some of the content in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, was appalled by the defections:
“The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character,” Rushdie wrote on Twitter on April 27. “If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” he said.
Others took the decidedly opposite tack. Acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist and author Liza Donnelly (Women on Men) says she cannot salute PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo with an honor.
“I believe in the right of cartoonists around the world to draw freely without fear,” Donnelly told Michael Cavna at his blog at the Washington Post. “As a political cartoonist and supportive member of PEN, I am in solidarity with the signers of the PEN letter. I believe in absolute freedom of speech. We need all voices at the table,” said Donnelly, who is also a political cartoonist at Medium.com, as well as a cartoon editor and creator of WorldInk.org. “Yet as I wrote in my editorial for the New York Times, I believe that cartoonists have a responsibility to use their pens carefully. Because cartoons are visual and thus uniquely universal, they are extremely powerful. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, I believe it’s important to consider the possible global ramifications when wielding such power.”
In other words, Prose and Donnelly and their ilk support freedom of expression but only so long as the expressions are decent and don’t offend anyone. A pretty puny championing of free speech, if you ask me. Those who take this position are as guilty of sniveling hypocrisy as any craven political panderer: they say freedom of speech is absolutely essential (but only some of it).
The "Pen Letter" to which Donnelly refers is a petition that was eventually signed by more than 200 members of PEN. The petitioners oppose giving Charlie the courage award because such an honor necessarily “valorizes” the nasty content of Charlie’s cartoons. Officially, that’s scarcely the case, as President Andrew Solomon explained in an op-ed in the New York Times on May 2:
In offering this award, PEN does not endorse the content or quality of the cartoons, except to say that we do not believe they constitute hate speech. The question for us is not whether the cartoons deserve an award for literary merit, but whether they disqualify Charlie Hebdo from a hard-earned award for courage. Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, said he aimed to ‘banalize’ all areas of discourse that were too fraught to discuss. He maintained that generations of satire of Catholicism had made the lampooning of it — and thereby, the legitimate discussion of it — unobjectionable, and he felt that the same could be achieved with Islam and other topics.
That the cartoons were not intentionally racist does not preclude their being experienced as racist. Cartoons can and do offend. Yet Christiane Taubira, the black French justice minister who was parodied as a monkey in a cringe-worthy cartoon, delivered a poignant elegy at the funeral of one of her supposed tormentors, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, saying that ‘Tignous and his companions were sentinels, lookouts, those who watched over democracy,’ preventing it from being lulled into complacency.
The leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.” Its current editor, Gérard Biard, says it deplores all forms of racism. According to Le Monde, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015, only seven singled out Islam for ridicule (ten were cited as mocking multiple religions); many more mocked Christianity and the racism of the French right.
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons resist religious extremists’ attempts to redraw the boundaries of free speech by using violence. They do so in defense of norms to which free societies subscribe. Anti-Muslim prejudice in the West is a serious matter. So is fundamentalism, Islamist or otherwise. Feeding off one another, both ills threaten civil liberties and tear at social fabrics. But a statement or an award that addresses one problem does not thereby deny or acquiesce to the other. The distressing absence of broad respect toward Muslims in France does not undercut Charlie Hebdo’s bravery in defending the right to be disrespectful. ...
Great satirists — Jonathan Swift, Rabelais, Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Mark Twain, Stanley Kubrick — have all offended and been excoriated for it; Daumier was imprisoned after depicting a grossly overweight king excreting favors. Satire is often vulnerable to being construed as hate speech, especially at first blush. Many contemporary American voices jeer at vulnerabilities as a means of unmasking them — think of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Louis C.K., South Park, or The Colbert Report.
Charlie Hebdo's staff members knew that producing satire aimed at venerated targets was dangerous. Their valor lies in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech. While many question the defense of that far-flung territory because of the bigotry that can lurk there, Charlie Hebdo has guarded it vigilantly, keeping it open for all should a time come when we, too, may need to challenge taboos and risk sacrilege. Without those who stake out the border provinces, we would all be forced to dwell in an ever-shrinking expressive terrain.
At thenation.com, Katha Pollitt continued in the same vein only somewhat less restrained:
This was a magazine that kept publishing after its offices were firebombed by Islamists in 2011, and kept publishing after nine staffers were horribly murdered by Islamists in January. Compare that to, say, Yale University Press, which dropped the illustrations for Jytte Clausen's book about the Danish Muhammed cartoons after the book's first printing, or Random House, which canceled publication of Sherry Jones's The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about Muhammed's wife Aisha. Both publishing houses cited fears of violence by Muslim extremists. Those fears were not irrational. The head of the British publishing house that picked up Jones's novel had his house firebombed—and the book was dropped. Violence works.
Pollitt talked with Francine Prose, who told her "Charlie Hebdo’s work is not important. It’s not interesting. It’s a racist publication, let’s not beat about the bush.” To which Pollitt responded:
I've known Francine since we were in college, and admire her and her writing enormously. I agree with her that there's a distinction between supporting the freedom to speak and write, as we both do, and honoring the speech itself. ... I don't agree that the drawings of Muhammed are in a different key than the magazine's rude caricatures of the Pope or Hasidic rabbis or the Virgin Mary just after being raped by the three kings, but maybe that's in the eye of the beholder. ...
Garry Trudeau accused Charlie Hebdo of punching down—i.e., making jokes at the expense of the weak and powerless. In a long letter to PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg said the same thing. There's something to that—why make struggling people unhappy?—but not enough. It's basically saying you can make fun of Christianity, but Islam is out of bounds. Furthermore, Charlie doesn't mock Muslim people—the shopkeeper who runs the corner store, the woman working in a call center, the boys hanging out in the street. It mocks fundamentalism—the narrow, bigoted, superstitious version of Islam that lies behind actually rather a lot of violence against writers.
Pollitt cites the protestors’ objection to Charlie: “‘There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable,’ they argue, ‘and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.’ Well, sure, but excuse me: violates the acceptable? The acceptable what? And don't we need writing and artwork that pushes the boundary of what the acceptable is?”
At newyorker.com, Adam Gopnik joined the anti-protest chorus. Some PEN protestors suggested that:
Maybe we could find someone better to honor than those inclined to print cartoons of Muhammad sodomizing his followers. We can regret their deaths without honoring their views—which some find bigoted or, at least, to use the word of the decade, insensitive.
This badly misunderstands the actual views, history, and practices of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Their work, as I’ve written, was not for those who like subtlety and suavity in their satire—it was not entirely to my own taste—but they were still radically democratic and egalitarian in their views, with their one passionate dislike being, simply, the hypocrisies of any organized religion. Few groups in recent French history have been more passionately ‘minoritarian’—more marginalized or on the outs with the political establishment, more vitriolic in their mockery of power, more courageous in ridiculing people of far greater influence and power. They were always punching up at idols and authorities. No one in France has, for example, been more relentlessly, courageously contemptuous of the extreme right-wing Le Pens, père et fille.
At his 33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com, author Dorian Lynskey joined the chorus protesting the initial six protesters:
One of the great fallacies in the debate about Charlie Hebdo, articulated by Garry Trudeau, is the binary distinction between punching up and punching down, as if there were a ladder of power and a simple diagram to decide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ satire. If you think the magazine was only attacking French Muslims, then it was punching down, but its obvious target was religious fundamentalism. In the era of Islamic State, Boko Haram and Wahhabism, it’s idiotic to equate religious extremism with powerlessness. ...
And isn’t there something insidious about suggesting that mocking religion is unworthy? Unnecessary? Progressives usually go to the barricades to insist that mocking religion is a valid form of freedom of speech.
I’ve genuinely been trying to understand why these six writers feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo — why they cannot bear even to sit in the same room while the award is being presented. ... Charlie Hebdo is not being honoured because it was doing the bravest, most important work in the world — braver and more important than the work of [other] preferred candidates, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. It is not being honoured for its unfailingly progressive values and always punching in the ‘right’ direction. It is being honoured because nine staff members and contributors were murdered in cold blood by fanatics who found their cartoons offensive. I struggle to come up with a definition of freedom of speech, or of courage, that doesn’t cover what they did, and the price they paid for it. ...
My question for the six boycotters is this: if you cannot physically bear to sit in a room and show solidarity with people who have been murdered for drawing cartoons — murder being the most terminal form of censorship — then what is the point of belonging to PEN at all?
The Myopia of the Writing Class
Part of PEN’s problem is that its members are mostly writers, wordsmiths not picture-makers. Michael Cavna observed that among the 200-plus signers of the petition, he could find the name of no “true” cartoonist. (A possible exception may be Liz Donnelly, who sides with the signers but perhaps had not actually signed the document. Some cartoonists, like Donnelly, are members of PEN but apparently none of them have joined in the protest.) With only a writer’s verbal perspective, many (if not most) of the PEN protesters doubtless don’t understand the cartoons because in cartoons the verbal is blended to the visual for a meaning neither has alone without the other.
The New Yorker’s art director, French-born Francoise Mouly, who co-hosted a table, emphasizes this difference, in suggesting that some writers and editors don’t fully appreciate the cartoonist’s art, and so might judge Charlie Hebdo with less perception. “Some people’s intelligence is narrow, within their own ‘language’ and mode of communication,” Mouly told Cavna. “Cartoonists are canny because they work on both fronts. They can do a mental dance. And there is a concision that cartoonists bring. They speak in symbols — that’s what they’ve trained their mind to do.”
Her husband, Pulitzer-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, agrees: “The problem is cartooning is as much a literary form as it is a visual form, and it requires a great degree of sophistication to grapple with it. It builds on symbols, metaphor, irony, and one has to have a fair amount of cultural context to know what you’re looking at. It’s easy therefore to misread and misunderstand, and I found that some of my cohorts and brethren in PEN are really good misreaders.”
Moreover, French cartoonists deploy the medium in ways Americans don’t often see and, consequently, cannot readily appreciate. The French use a bludgeon; American cartoonists use barbs and needles. Charlie’s cartoons seem to us crude and vulgar. (Even more so if you’re a writer looking at pictures that seem inexplicably gross and just a little nauseating.)
Caleb Crain at steamthing.com confronted this aspect of the dilemma as well as the cultural divide:
The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are captioned in French, and they depend for their meaning on memes that won’t be familiar to anyone who isn’t a regular reader of French newspapers and watcher of French television. I can read French, but I don’t keep up on French domestic politics, and I draw a complete blank when I first look at most Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the past week, many people have said they aren’t funny, and yeah, I have to agree. They aren’t funny. I think there are two reasons.
First, they’re puerile—pitched at roughly a Mad magazine level of sophistication—and in the American ecosystem, editorial cartoons are usually a little more tony, and don’t seem to have as broad a permission to engage with racial imagery as movies and comics do. Taste is to a great extent learned, and I’m afraid that an American reader of my ilk just isn’t likely to find vulgar and puerile cartoons about politics much to his taste.
But second, and more globally, Americans can’t find these cartoons funny simply because the cartoons always have to be explained to us. We don’t recognize the political figures being caricatured; we don’t know the political slogans being tampered with; and we haven’t surfed the particular waves of enthusiasm and disgust that have been flooding French political life lately, and on the surge of whose waves these cartoons sprang into being.
Without a familiarity with French politics and cultural surgings, we can scarcely understand what Charlie’s cartoonists are saying—let alone appreciate the nature of the satire on display. A website, understandingcharliehebdo.com, has been launched to do the explication. Often, as Cavna observes, the cartoons “are shown to have meanings the opposite of what has been assumed by Anglophones.
Alison Bechdel, author of the award-winning Fun Home graphic novel, agrees: “Satire is a powerful weapon,” she wrote at her blog, “but it’s also extremely culturally specific, and often doesn’t work when it’s the slightest bit out of context.”
So—members of the American PEN are baffled from the start: they don’t understand the cartooning medium—particularly as practiced by the cartoonists who are more heavy-handed than their American counterparts—and they are utterly unfamiliar with the French domestic landscape that is addressed by the Charlie cartoonists. No wonder some of them are objecting to honoring the magazine. But only “some.” The number of petitioners, approximately 200, seems a robust turn-out—and it is if we remember that the protest began with only six malcontents— but there are about 4,000 PEN members, so the signers represent only a piddling 5 percent of the membership.
And while there were apparently no cartoonist names on the petition, PEN counts a few cartoonists among its members. And one of them, Spiegelman, was not sitting on his hands. When he heard that some PEN members had floated the idea of standing up and turning their backs when the award was presented— or hissing— he thought: “That’s obscene,” he told Cavna. So he talked to few friends, inviting them to attend the gala and sit at a table with him and his wife, symbolically occupying some of the six empty chairs.
“It seemed necessary as a corrective to what I saw as boneheaded reasons for the pullout,” he told Kirsten Salyer at time.com the day after the award ceremony. “I decided to accept an invitation to host a table that I’d passed on before because black tie galas aren’t my thing, and I had something else I was supposed to do that night. But after those six authors, who I’ve come to think of as a kind of superhero team called the Sanctimonious Six, pulled out, I just felt that it was necessary to be a corrective and invite other sympathetic people to be there to shout, ‘Cartoonist lives matter.’”
Asked why it is important to give Charlie Hebdo the Courage Award, Spiegelman said:
“One point that was made over and over again was that this is an award for courage. And it’s hard to be more courageous than going back to work after your office has been bombed and your comrades have been slaughtered. On those grounds alone, one would think, ‘It’s a no brainer. They get the award.’
“Beyond that,” he continued, “the magazine was getting a really bum rap. It’s actually anything but a racist magazine. One of the most touching things for me during the award ceremony last night was having the head of SOS Racisme, a French organization that combats racist activity, very movingly talk about Charlie Hebdo being a great force against racism in France. They received the award for using their particular vocabulary and medium to stir debate on issues, not to create mischief, and they did it estimably, even when people didn’t agree with them. As one of the editors pointed out yesterday, the Charlie Hebdo editors don’t even agree with each other. The point of these cartoons is to start conversations about these issues. And these issues are not trivial.”
So Spiegelman phoned a few friends, he told Cavna. “Neil Gaiman [The Sandman] was game to change his plans and come along. And Alison Bechdel, who is now so involved in the world of a Tony Awards whirlwind [the musical adaptation of Fun Home just received 12 nominations], said she’d come and be at the table. Matt Groening [creator of ‘The Simpsons’] tried to come but he was in production this week.”
“Cartoonists tend to stick together because they have to,” Cavna said, adding, as Gaiman pointed out, that their work is disproportionately singled out for suppression both abroad and in the U.S., while at the same time often regarded as not “serious” enough to deserve a full-throttle defense.
Cavna went on: “Cartoonists are particularly vulnerable when addressing Islam, as some (but not all) Muslims believe that it is sacrilegious to depict their prophet visually in any way. This is not a threat limited to Europe. Earlier this year, CNN reported that the Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris is still in hiding, four years after she attracted death threats for drawing non-satirical images of Mohammed on a teacup and thimble and domino. Her name recently appeared on the most-wanted list of the al-Qaida magazine Inspire.”
“It seems irrational to me not to attend,” Gaiman said to Cavna, “I spent 12 years on the board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, for which I was fighting on a daily basis to keep people who had written, drawn, published, sold or owned comics out of prison and from losing their livelihood for having drawn something that upset somebody. It’s really, really easy in comics for one image to be taken out of context,” he added.
Said Cavna: “Cartoons and comics are a symbiosis of images and text, and sometimes viewers don’t — or, because of language and cultural barriers, can’t — absorb the meaning of the words before reacting to the images.”
This kind of misreading happened, Gaiman said, in every court case he’s been involved with. In one CBLDF case, he recalled for Cavna, everything boiled down to a single drawing of the artist Picasso, depicted walking around his studio naked, as was the painter’s wont. “There was an argument over whether this tiny Picasso penis was erect or just flapping up as he walked. You’re laughing, but we had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for this. It was fucking nuts.”
Gaiman, who has been researching Charlie Hebdo since agreeing to act as a table host at the gala, added: “I don’t know that I would have said ‘yes’ any less enthusiastically if Charlie Hebdo really were this straw man publication described by some of the people who write to me online, a publication that does nothing but anti-Islamic cartoons. From what I’ve read, that does not seem to be the case. But for fuck’s sake, they drew somebody, and they [al-Qaida] shot them, and you don’t get to do that.”
Talking with Cavna, Spiegelman reported that his wife regards the campaign against the award as a form of snobbery. “She said, ‘Now I get it: PEN is a union, a literary guild, and they want to keep the barbarians out.’”
As Gaiman put it to Cavna, “Cartoonists, and especially cartoonists outside of whatever world you grew up — we’re in the gutter. And that’s fine.” Similar cases, he points, might have been made against other PEN-award recipients who work in other forms. “It’s that thing where people look at it and say, ‘I could draw that. It’s not real art, is it?’”
Some Charlie Hebdo critics have insisted that this debate is rife with subtle distinctions and interpretations.
Cavna quoted Gaimen again: “Some people say, ‘You don’t understand the nuances.’ I don’t give a fuck about the nuances. Charlie Hebdo showed up to work in 2011 after they were firebombed, and kept working to put out an issue. And they continued and put out an issue after 12 murders. As far as I’m concerned, this is the [precise criteria for an] award for courage for cartoonists.”
None of the Spiegelman ensemble like all of Charlie’s cartoons. “Things can get pretty crude and sophomoric,” Bechdel wrote at her blog. “It’s not my kind of humor. [But] just because I wouldn’t do [Charlie Hebdo's] kind of cartoon doesn’t mean I want to live in a world where no one is allowed to. Making space for this type of expression seems vital.”
The content of the cartoons is beside the point for Gaiman: “The work is not to my taste and it’s not a magazine that I read,” he told Cavna. “But as far as I can see, this is not an award for quality. This an award for courage and turning up after your offices have been firebombed. Turning up after 12 people in your office have been murdered. Just turning up, putting out the next issue. The amount of courage in that is something that I find incomprehensible.”
Spiegelman acknowledged to Cavna that, while “not the greatest thing since Chris Ware,” the magazine has been the work of cartoonists who often “wield their power intelligently. They know how to boil things down to that essence.”
As a PEN member, Mouly is in an uncommon position because, Cavna explains, as a French native, she brings a deep and personal understanding of the cultural context of Charlie Hebdo.
“When I was young, I read Charlie Hebdo for the cartoons,” Mouly said. “I was shaped by their courage, and they had influence on me when I was a teenager — it was attached to history,” adding how important the magazine was to her “1968 generation” amid protests in Paris.
But, Mouly said to Cavna, just because she read the satirical weekly didn’t mean she liked a lot of it, let alone agree with it: “When I was a kid, it made me terribly uncomfortable to read Charlie Hebdo. When I was a young woman, in the ’70s, they were taking on feminism. … Women were their main target. It was uncomfortable, not funny—raunchy and sexist stuff. But it was an important part of France – the dynamic of the satire. That is something that I relate to.”
Gene Luen Yang, the cartoonist, educator and two-time National Book Award finalist (American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints), echoes the sentiments of fellow PEN members Spiegelman and Mouly in registering his reservations about Charlie Hebdo’s work — even as he defends the magazine’s right to free speech.
“As someone who cares deeply about the representation of minorities in cartooning, and as someone who is a practicing Roman Catholic, I find many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons downright horrific,” Yang told Cavna. “But that’s the whole point of free speech, isn’t it? People get to speak — and draw and write — things that are downright horrific, and the way we’re supposed to fight it is by speaking ourselves. Free speech is a radical condemnation of violence.
“I see Charlie Hebdo’s PEN Award through that prism: PEN isn’t condoning all, or any, their cartoons — PEN is honoring them as a symbol of that radical condemnation of violence.”
Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist, screenwriter and graphic novelist, says he cannot strongly enough underscore the word courage in the award’s very name: “I think the Charlie Hebdo courage award is really a symbolic act,” he said to Cavna. “It’s not about the quality of their work, but about carrying on in the face of mass murder. That’s probably more courage than any others who signed the petition are likely to have exhibited in a lifetime. I’ve certainly never been challenged that way. … To pick up and continue after mass murder is deserving of any courage award.
“I might have my reservations” about Charlie’s work, he said, in character as a curmudgeonly commentator, “but I have reservations about nine out of every 10 cartoons I see.”
And then, suddenly,
SHOTS RANG OUT
at a conference center in Garland, Texas, where the the American Freedom Defense Initiative was deliberately staging a perversely provocative exhibit of:
More Drawings of Muhammad
Two American Muslim residents of Phoenix, Arizona, drove 900 miles to Garland, a suburb of Dallas, to protest the blasphemy of depicting the Prophet. Arriving at the Garland school board’s Curtis Cullwell Center about 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 3—just two days before the PEN gala was to take place—the two Islamic hooligans, inspired, it is said, by the Cutthroat CalipHATE, were heavily armed and armored—three pistols, three assault rifles, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and body armor. Unhappily for this duo of homegrown terrorists, the AFDI and local authorities had anticipated trouble, surrounding the Center with more than 40 law enforcement officers. The would-be terrorists never got into the building: they got off a shot or two, hitting an unarmed guard in the ankle, then, reported nbcdfw.com, five officers responded, killing them both.
The exhibit consisted of a couple dozen or so drawings, the finalists in the AFDI-sponsored “cartoon contest” featuring pictures of Muhammad. The contest, which opened February 11 and closed April 5, was conceived to honor the murdered Charlie cartoonists—in effect, thumbing the nose at Muslims who don’t think the Prophet should be visualized. Pamela Geller, a 57-year-old former car salesman, invented AFDI as a way of protesting what she calls “the Islamization of America.”
According to Geller, explained Tina Susman at latimes.com, every time we as a nation behave in ways that Muslims approve—like refraining from drawing Muhammad—we become, by tiny increments, more Muslim than secular, slowly adopting Islam as our national religion. Crusading as an advocate for free speech and expression, Geller objects—vociferously and all around the country.
She began her tirade after 9/11 by starting to rant at her blog.
In 2006, Geller was incensed and ashamed that American news media would not publish any of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, claiming deference to the Islam religious beliefs.
Said Geller, quoted at the Washington Post: “If the Western media ran the Danish cartoons back when this Islamic supremacist movement first started gaining steam, the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo would be alive today. European press ran the Hebdo cartoons in the wake of that jihad slaughter. But the American press would not. The beacon of freedom, the shining light on a hill, is running scared. Well, that’s not who we are. The elites do not represent the people.”
From her blog (now called AtlasShrugs in deference to Ayn Rand, doubtless Geller’s guiding light), she branched out, starting AFDI with Robert Spencer. The AFDI website says its mission is to “act against the treason being committed by national state and local government officials, the mainstream media and others in their capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism, the ever-encroaching and unconstitutional power of the federal government and the rapid moving attempts to impose socialism and Marxism upon the American people.”
From this catalogue of bogeymen, it might be supposed that Geller is not only right-wing but slightly crazed and just a tense hypocritical.
In June 2010, said Alan Feuer at the New York Times, Geller organized a group of maybe 5,000 protesters (her count) to march in objection to plans for building an Islamic community center, which she dubbed “Ground Zero Mosque,” near where the World Trade Center had been destroyed. Plans were subsequently abandoned.
The next year, she tried to block the Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera from expanding into the U.S., scarcely the act of a free speech advocate. She lost. Late last year, Feuer reported, her AFDI made headlines when she sued to get the New York’s Transit Authority to permit her to buy ads on buses and subway trains that trumpeted the evils of jihad and Sharia law. One of the ads reads (in part): “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us closer to Allah” (attributed to Hamas MTV).
Geller said the ads were intended to educate the public; her growing band of critics, however, call them hateful anti-Muslim/anti-Arab propaganda. This time in court, she won. Briefly. The Transit Authority subsequently banned all “political advertising.”
Raised in a Jewish household in Long Island, Geller “champions Israel as a ‘beacon of freedom in a very oppressed and violent region,’” said Meghan Barr at the Washington Post. Geller married Michael Oshry in 1990, and the couple owned a luxury auto dealership on Long Island, according to the Los Angles Times. They divorced in 2007, and “Oshry died the following year as the dealership was being investigated in connection with an alleged identity theft and fraud scheme. Prosecutors said the scam supplied drug dealers, gang leaders and pimps with luxury cars bought using stolen identities. Mrs. Oshry was never charged.”
The New York Times reported that Geller received nearly $4 million in her divorce settlement, plus some of the proceeds from the sale of the couple’s $1.8 million home. The AFDI enables Geller to continue to live in the style to which she became accustomed: the organization took in $960,000 in donations in 2011; Geller paid herself a salary of $192,500.
Early in her career, Geller worked briefly in the business departments of the New York Daily News and the New York Observer. But she found her calling as a publicist, opposing the Islamization of America. And the cartoon contest in Garland is the latest platform for her campaign to manipulate news media into giving her the publicity that inspires donations to her cause. Or so I suppose.
Said syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker: “Waging a one-woman crusade against the Muslim world, Geller says she wanted to draw a line in the sand and demonstrate to terrorists that, when it comes to free speech, America bows to no one. ... And Geller’s contribution to these [free speech] protections and our unwavering dedication to their preservation is, exactly, what? A taunt.”
Parker continues: “Geller is a media creature and knows how to bait a media field as well. Make a noise and the media will come. Draw a crowd and the cameras will roll. Become the ‘victim’ of death threats—in essence, a fatwa —and, voila, you’re on television.”
Geller sees it differently.
“We’re holding this cartoon contest and exhibit to show how insane the world has become,” Geller told Bob Price at Breitbart Texas, “with people in the free world tiptoeing in terror around supremacist thugs who actually commit murder over cartoons. If we can’t stand up for the freedom of speech, we will lose it — and with it, free society.”
For Geller, the cartoon contest was an obvious next step. “This event will stand for free speech and show that Americans will not be cowed by violent Islamic intimidation,” she stated. “That is a crucial stand to take as Islamic assaults on the freedom of speech, our most fundamental freedom, are growing more insistent.”
Bill Maher agrees. “The contest is obviously a provocation,” Maher said on his Real Time HBO program. “But this is America. Do we not have the right to draw whatever we want?” He also critiqued the opinion that those who provoke Muslims are ultimately to blame for the violence that ensues. “This assumes that we just have to accept that Muslims are unable to control themselves the way we would ask everyone else in the world. To me that’s bigotry. That’s the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
The rules for the AFDI content at freedomdefense.typepad.com go on for pages—six when printed off my computer. Most of it is legalistic boilerplate. In this vein comes this happy circular argument: “In order to enter the Contest, you must agree to the Rules. ... You agree that submission of an entry in the Contest constitutes agreement to these rules.”
Writing a “guest editorial” at some undisclosed website (quoted at the Comics Research Bibliography), Kathy Mannix noted an inherent contradiction in Rule 5: “AFDI will assume that all art entered for consideration does not infringe upon the copyright of a third party. The artist shall assume all liability if an infringement claim is made."
To which Mannix responds: “It sure seems that the estate of Norman Rockwell has an infringement claim for the event poster AFDI used at the event and has for sale from its site for $50. It doesn't seem within the realm of parody to replace the triple image of Rockwell with a triple image of Muhammad.”
You can see this image—and a picture of the winning cartoon—at pamelageller.com.
The judges, whose identities are not disclosed, were to pick ten “finalists” whose work would be displayed at the Cullwell Center. The judges then picked a winner. Then those attending the exhibit voted to select “the people’s choice.”
Attendees at the event paid an admission fee: $25 for standing room, $50 for an assigned seat at a table; $100 for “premium seating,” plus an autographed copy of Geller’s book and a copy of the poster; for $250, you get “VIP seating,” meet-and-greet cocktails with the event organizers and cartoonists (if any are in attendance; their presence was not required) and an autographed copy of the winning cartoon. Reportedly, 200 people attended.
Bosch Fawstin, a former Muslim who says he’s now an atheist, won both the contest and the fan favorite vote, collecting $10,000 for the first; $2,500 for the second. Fawstin (which may not be his actual name) admits he’s received death threats and wouldn’t reveal to reporters where he lives. But he denies he’s gone into hiding.
Fawstin calls himself “a recovered Muslim,” adding: “That is, if Muslims don’t kill me for leaving Islam, which it requires them to do. That’s just one of the reasons I’ve been writing and drawing against Islam and its jihad for a number of years now. But fortunately for us, Islam hasn’t been able to make every Muslim its slave just as Nazism wasn’t able to turn every German into a Nazi. So there is Islam and there are Muslims, Muslims who take Islam seriously are at war with us and Muslims who don’t.”
The day after collecting his award money, Fawstin tweeted: “They came to kill us and died for it. Justice.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center plans to add Fawstin to its list of hate mongers. When he heard this, Reuters reported, Fawstin laughed: “So they want to put a cartoonist on there who doesn’t act out violently? Go for it.”
The contest attracted some 350 entries, but only about 30 were displayed on easels at the Cullwell Center. One cartoon depicted a pencil shoved through Muhammad’s body; in another, Muhammad’s turban is shaped like a bomb, with a lit fuse protruding from the top (a reproduction of the image of one of the most infamous of the Danish cartoons.)
Mannix, who viewed them all while they were still in a slideshow at Photobucket (now inaccessible), remembers from her only view of the cartoons that “one was a scan of stick figures on looseleaf paper, most were assemblages of stock images, and fewer than five came from the drawingboards or computers of professional artists or editorial cartoonists,” only one of whose work she recognized.
Mannix quotes from that cartoonist’s April blog, in part: “AFDI is an anti-Muslim right-wing hate group that is intent on picking a fight with whatever right-wing Muslim hate group will take their bait,” remarks that had the cartoonist included in his/her entry would have disqualified it.
After the shooting at the Cullwell Center, Geller seemed somehow triumphant. She had provoked violence and got it—along with a lot of national and international publicity. And she had no regrets.
Meghan Barr reported that Geller believes “she probably saved lives by hosting the event”: had they been successful, the two dead gunmen would have picked another soft target and killed innocent people. “Would you regret saving lives?” she asked. Geller plans to have more events of a similar nature—“with one difference: next time, she’ll be wearing a bulletproof vest.” She argued that “any blame should be focused on extremists who can’t be criticized or lampooned without resorting to violence.
“My event was about freedom of speech, period,” she said. She rejected the notion that it was irresponsible to host such an event in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and scoffed at the supposed danger: “It’s dangerous because we’re increasingly abridging our freedom of speech so as not to offend savages. ... No one is saying there aren’t peaceful Muslims,” she added. “But there is a problem in Islam as illustrated last night, and anyone who addresses it gets attacked.”
A day after the shooting, Geller, quoted in the New York Times, said: “This incident shows how much needed our event really was. Freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation. The question now before us is: will we stand and defend it, or bow to violence, thuggery and savagery?”
“Cartoons are political critique,” she said to Meghan Barr. “It’s a cartoon. Is that what we want to outlaw? We want to outlaw humor? We want to outlaw comedy? If you want to know who rules over you, find out who you cannot criticize.”
On their face, these are sensible statements. Many, however, find Geller highly objectionable, the result, doubtless, of her earlier vituperative campaigns against the “Ground Zero Mosque” and Al Jazeera. Susman at latimes.com said Geller has earned a slot in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s extremist files as “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead. She’s relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-based denunciations of Islam.” The AFDI is listed on SPLC’s national list of hate groups as “an active anti-Muslim group” according to Feuer at the New York Times.
In an editorial, the New York Times said Geller “has a long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims” and called the Garland event “an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom. ... Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event. These can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.
“Some of those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may earnestly believe that they are striking a blow for freedom of expression though it is hard to see how that goal is advanced by inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. As for the Garland event, to pretend it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash.”
Art Spiegelman, quoted by Kirsten Salyer at time.com, said unequivocally: “The American Freedom Defense Initiative is racist organization. It’s exactly the nightmare version that the writers who were protesting the PEN award thought Charlie was. But Charlie is an anti-racist, political magazine that does not have an agenda that consists of wanting to bait or trouble Muslims. Pam Geller’s organization is intentionally trying to start war of culture with Islam by saying that all Muslims are terrorists under the surface, and we’re going to prove it. Do the group members deserve free speech protection? Of course. But they’re hiding behind that banner with things that have very little to do with free speech and a lot to do with race hate.
“Je suis Charlie, mais je ne suis pas Pam Geller,” he went on. “She and her dim-witted, ugly organization deserve the protection of the free speech mantle that they wrap themselves in. But would I ever give them a courage award? Hardly. Would I ever want to be in the same room with them? No. Do I wish they would stop? Yes.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the Garland attack, calling it “more insulting to our faith than any cartoon, however defamatory.” But, Susman continued, the group blamed Geller and like-minded activists also: “Unfortunately, human history shows us that hatred breeds more hatred and extremism leads to more extremism. Pamela Geller ... and the perpetrators of yesterday’s attack all seek to provoke a downward spiral of mutual hostility and mistrust in America and around the world.”
Here are a few reactions to the AFDI contest from American editoonists.
Clay Jones gets us going with a cartoon that turns Geller’s strategy on its head by baiting the instigator of the baiting contest. Milt Priggee is next with a stunning if grisly metaphor that not only depicts the contest as a trap (well, the cheese in the trap) but portrays the Islamic hooligans as the rats attracted by the cheese. Next around the clock, Stuart Carlson shows us how “everybody wins” with the cartoon contest: Geller (in another hideous caricature) gets publicity; Islamic hooligans get martyred. Then Steve Sack supplies another memorable image in the same vein as Priggee’s rat trap. The logic of the poke-a-rattlesnake context is precisely the logic of the AFDI Muhammad contest.
In the next display, Jimmy Margulies’s nicely ironic image shows how unflattering Islamic hooliganism is for Islam. Next, Gary Varvel mocks the AFDI “Rockwell” poster with another Rockwell image, this one focused on the Cutthroat CalipHATE, not the AFDI contest: in painting a self-portrait, the terrorist produces a picture of the devil. Below Varvel, Ted Rall produces another of his comic strips that piles up its indictment, panel-by-panel.
Giving his strip a bitter but pointed poignancy is his incorporation of the rhythms and syntactic logic of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous formulation about the cowardice of German intellectuals as the Nazis purged the country of various allegedly undesirable groups. Miemoller’s words reveal the dangers of political apathy:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist; then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Rall’s target here is the cartoonist who is so considerate of reader sensibilities that he/she avoids all commentary altogether. And with that, he/she forfeits his very livelihood.
At the lower left, Steve Benson’s image touts the power of the editorial cartoon. About his cartoon, Benson wrote the following to accompany the its publication in the Arizona Republic: “Whatever one thinks, the pen is mightier than the sword; that’s why nuts are now trying assault weapons. That said, those terrorists wouldn’t have been killed if it wasn’t for the fact that they were trying to kill cartoonists and/or their supporters. Besides, you can’t kill cartoon ideas, even if you can kill cartoonists. Their ideas live on. That’s why their pen is mightier than the sword.”
In our last visual aid for the nonce, Clay Bennett takes a moment to be wholly realistic about what his red lines are. (I’m sympathetic because my red line on Muhammad caricatures is the same as his.) Going clockwise, Jim Morin offers a symbolic explanation of his editorial cartooning goal on Muhammad cartoons. Next, is Gary Varvel with a terrifying image of the future of editorial cartooning.
Finally, changing the subject altogether and bringing us up-to-date on the latest horrors in a gun-packing nation, Clay Jones ties the AFDI cartoon contest to the biker shoot-out in Waco with a thoroughly laughable statement. The joke doesn’t arise from blending words and pictures—the comedy is mostly verbal—but after all the recent bloodshed in the name of ideology, it’s comforting to know we can still find something in the so-called societal order that’s worth a laugh with no obvious political axe to grind.
Geller Marches On
At last report (May 27), Geller has submitted the contest winning drawing as an ad to be posted in the Washington, D.C. area metro stations and in buses. Metro officials, reported the Washington Post, are considering her application. Said Geller: “There is nothing about this cartoon that incites violence. It is within the established American tradition of satire. If America surrenders on this point, the freedom of speech is a relic of history.”
Fawstin’s drawing depicts a sword-wielding Prophet Muhammad shouting, “You can’t draw me.” At the bottom of the drawing, hands wield a pencil and the off-camera artist says, “That’s why I draw you.”
PEN’s Courage Award
The award was conferred as scheduled on Tuesday, May 5, at a gala event at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Because of the presence of Charlie staffers and the recent shootings at Garland, security was enhanced: guests passed through metal detectors and a gauntlet of armed police, reported Hillel Italie at the Associated Press. Police cars lined the street outside the museum's main entrance. Despite these encumbrances, the award was presented, accepted, and applauded.
Charlie’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard and critic-essayist Jean-Baptiste Thore accepted the award to a standing ovation. In his remarks, Biard noted the magazine's history of shocking readers with its irreverent drawings of religious figures.
"Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking," he said. "Being shocked is a part of democratic debate. Being shot is not."
While virtually everyone stood and clapped for Hebdo, not everyone was an unabashed admirer. Roz Chast, the best-selling author and New Yorker cartoonist, called the Charlie drawings "sort of stupid and ham-handed. But if I didn't support their right to publish them I wouldn't be here," she told Italie.
Italie summed up the evening: “The Hebdo award made the PEN gala the most controversial in recent memory, but also the best attended. More than 800 came for the event, at $1,250 a ticket, compared with around 700 a year ago. Expression itself was the real guest of honor.
“PEN president Andrew Solomon said the Hebdo award, and dispute, were reminders that the ‘defense of people murdered for their exercise of free speech is at the heart of what PEN stands for, so is the unfettered articulation of opposing viewpoints.’
Art Spiegelman was struck by the role of cartoons in the debate, telling Kirsten Salyer: “It’s interesting to me that cartoons have been so central to it. Cartoons are so much more immediate than prose. They have a visceral power that doesn’t require you to slow down, but it does require you to slow down if you want to understand them. They have a deceptive directness that writers can only envy. They deploy the same tools that writers often use: symbolism, irony, metaphor. Cartoons enter your eye in a blink, and can’t be unseen after they’re seen. But to understand some of these cartoons requires a lot of culture immersion and symbol reading and a lot of analysis.”
He continued: “There was a New Yorker cover back in the beginning of my time at the magazine that helped change the magazine’s DNA enough to embrace controversial images. It was in the wake of the Crown Heights race riots in which the West Indian black community and the Hasidic Jew community came to bloody blows. As I was doodling I wondered, ‘What would the guy with the monocle [Eustace Tilley] look like if he were Hasidic?’ And then I had a black woman kiss him. [It was for the Valentine’s Day issue, February 15, 1993.] When the cover came out, it created a riot of its own—as much indignation on both sides as possible in the world before the Internet.
“Among the letters that came in to the magazine,” he went on, “was a letter from a young woman saying that she thought it was really sweet that on Abe Lincoln’s birthday there was a picture of Lincoln kissing a slave. What’s so amazing about that is that it gets right to the heart of the problem that some of the protesting PEN writers have: learning to read images. They’re very easy to misread without enough information, and some of my writing brethren are great mis-readers.”
Asked what was so wrong-headed about not publishing images that could be deemed offensive, Spiegelman said: “[Because] there’s no stopping it. What would it be based on? Would it be based on when someone takes up arms against the image? Would it be based on when someone thinks it’s offensive? God knows where the line would be drawn. It can’t be drawn that way. There is an incredible efficiency cartoons have, once you learn to read them, in clarifying the issues at hand, making them memorable.
“There’s something basic about cartoons,” he said. “They work they way the brain works. We think in small, iconic images. An infant can recognize a smiley face before it can recognize its mother’s smile. We think in little bursts of language. This is how cartoons are structured. They’re structured to talk to something deep inside our brains. A cartoon becomes a new kind of word that didn’t exist before. It’s interesting how little respect they get. ‘Oh, anyone could draw that crude, vulgar scrawl,’ said a number of critics of Charlie Hedbo. That’s not quite true. They’re not totally dismissible. If a writer had made some of the points that Charlie Hebdo had made, I don’t think the writers protesting PEN would have been so condescending and dismissive.”
Let me give the penultimate words on the ongoing controversy over the award for Charlie to Francoise Mouly, who said to Cavna: “I hope this fuels an ongoing conversation about freedom of expression for cartoonists. Because unwittingly, this controversy has served as a kind of coronation for the importance of cartooning.”
The last words, of course, are mine.
What I think About Hate Speech and Offensive Cartoons
According to St. Wikipedia: "In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group." So any cartoon that "disparages" a "protected group" is, ipso facto, "hate speech." Depending upon on how elastic the term "protected group" is, it might be hard to find work as an editorial cartoonist.
Is "offensive speech" the same as "hate speech"? Ever since Freud, we've recognized that humor is essentially aggressive and is therefore likely to offend whoever is the butt of the joke. By this twist of logic, then, all satire is "hate speech" and all editorial cartoonists are out of work.
Clearly, we don’t, as a society, wish to go that far. But we do want to go as far as possible in supporting and promoting freedom of expression.
Being a free speech/expression absolutist, I don’t think we can have “a little” free speech. It’s all or nothing. We can’t have freedom of expression except for matters concerning Islam. Or Roman Catholicism. Or Tea Baggery. Or the sexual orientation of Bert and Ernie. As a matter of law and societal custom, free speech must be wholly unfettered. After that, it’s a matter of personal taste. We may choose, personally, not to ridicule gay people. Or Muslims. Or Muhammad. But such choices are personal, not legal or institutional. We can’t establish a universal “shalt not” rule that serves everyone in every circumstance. So leave it up to the individual cartoonists. That’s how it ought to be.