Imperfect Tenderness

"Satire, n. An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author's enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness." —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

First, go here, and watch a short five-minute documentary. It captures the February 2006 editorial meeting at which the editors of Charlie Hebdo decided whether or not to put an image of Muhammad on their next issue's cover. Some of the people you will see in that video were murdered last week.

They are remembered in this interview by their friend Nicolas Demorand, the former editor of Libération, the leftist French newspaper who lent the Charlie Hebdo staff office space after the magazine was fire-bombed in 2011. (Libération is lending CH office space again right now, in order to allow the magazine to release a new issue on January 14. They reportedly plan to print one million copies.) Here is Demorand, remembering 2011:

Charb [Charlie Hebdo editorial director Stéphane Charbonnier], who was killed today, was under police protection. It was a really strange moment. A newspaper isn't a military place. We had policemen in the newsroom during that time. In the first few hours we were quite scared. But after that it was really normal life. Everybody was laughing. These guys were the kindest guys. They were really teenagers. Even if they were 70 or 80 years old. They were teens. They were happy to live. They were just doing funny stuff. And it's horrible to think that they have all been killed today. You know, I'm 43. I cried like a child all day long. It was a horrible day. A horrible day in Paris. Horrible day.

Now read this interview with surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz, who is also very good at expressing the human side of this tragedy: "The media made a mountain out of our cartoons, when on a worldwide scale, we are merely a damn teenage fanzine. This fanzine has become a national and international symbol, but it was people that were assassinated, not the freedom of speech! People who sat in an office and drew cartoons."

Many cartoonists have reacted to the attack, too many to gather here. Some of the more notable responses come in the form of an ambivalent strip on Charlie's satire created by Joe Sacco, a short video interview with the British political cartoonist Steve Bell, and this drawing by Robert Crumb. Crumb explained the reasoning behind his cartoon in an interview with the New York Observer:

I showed it to [my wife Aline], and she said, “Oh, my God, we’re going to have to go into hiding.” [Laughs.] So, then Aline had this idea for another cartoon, which we also sent to Libération, a collaboration, that’s showing her looking at the drawing saying, “Oh, my God, they’re going to come after us! This is terrible…I want to live to see my grandchildren!” And then she has me saying, “Well, it’s not that bad. And, besides, they’ve killed enough cartoonists, maybe they’ve gotten it out of their system.”

Matt Madden, who currently lives in Angoulême, wrote a moving blog post.

Less impressive and less subtle was this drawing released by Asterix co-creator Albert Uderzo.

So why did the attack happen? Much important historical context can be found in this magazine's 2006 article, "Cartoons of Mass Destruction", an in-depth report written by Michael Dean and R.C. Harvey on the Danish cartoon controversy of that year, which not only fills in many of the historical blanks, but also provides a multitude of perspectives worth considering. It is fascinating to see how much has changed in just nine years, and how much remains the same. (Note that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper at the height of the original controversy, and Charlie Hebdo are very different in terms of editorial approach.)

[Matthias] Wivel was not impressed with the [Danish] cartoons. “With the exception of three or four of them, I think they are rather inferior cartoons,” he said. “The take on Islamism is pretty hackneyed, the jokes are largely quite stupid, and most of them are badly and uninspiringly drawn.”

“I think Jyllands-Posten were inconsiderate and boorish in publishing these cartoons as a single, unified, insulting statement, but am not sure the cartoonists themselves can be accused of anything else than trying their best to exercise their métier within the often rather limited scope of their talent.”

Wivel saw the cartoons as an attempt to inflame the anti-immigration sentiments simmering in Danish politics. “It should be stressed here that the decision by Jyllands-Posten to publish these cartoons more than likely was motivated by the political climate of Denmark, where Muslims are constantly the object of negative discourse, where immigration laws have developed to become the most draconian of the [European Union] and where there’s a lot of popular support for the kind of hard-line thinking that has prompted this development. It was an asinine, cheap shot at an already marginalized minority. Preaching to the choir, in other words. What no one could have foreseen was the extent to which globalization has changed the way these things work.”

Also back in 2011, The Nation interviewed Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco about the Danish cartoons. These are two highly intelligent artists sophisticated in both politics and satire, and they don't quite see eye to eye on these issues. It too is worth returning to. (As Dan mentioned last week, Art Spiegelman also recently discussed satire and Charlie Hebdo on Democracy Now.)

As almost all readers surely know, in the wake of last week's attack a widespread campaign was launched, promoting unified mourning and identification with Charlie Hebdo, and according to reports, #JeSuisCharlie quickly became one of the most popular global Twitter hashtags ever. Some, uneasy with the offensive imagery used in many CH cartoons, have been keen to distance themselves from the magazine. Satire presents some of the thorniest political issues it is possible for an artist to depict or confront, which is both its attraction and its danger. It is almost impossible to evaluate satire outside of the very specific context of the events or figures it is targeting, especially by those who share neither the language nor the cultural background of the artists. And so for those who lack that language and/or background, it may be helpful to try to get a fix on what the CH artists were attempting to do, and how they were attempting to do it, before one ultimately decides to celebrate or condemn their work.

Now, before I go on, let me add that I myself am not an expert on the political culture of France, and do not myself claim that the cartoons were well-executed satire. I am going to link to a few people below who do make that claim, but I myself know very little of the contexts in question. In fact, I have only ever read one issue of Charlie Hebdo, over a decade ago. My French is so rudimentary that saying I "read" it is probably overstating things. This took place before 2006, so I had no preconceptions. I thought some of the cartoons were funny, and some crude and vulgar. There were no racial caricatures that I can recall, but it's been a long time. I didn't get most of the jokes in any case. In its informality and personal nature, it reminded me somewhat of a zine, an alternative weekly from back before the alternative press was neutered, or a group blog. In any case, I say all this to make it clear that I am only going to make claims about satire in general, as I believe myself unqualified to judge the Charlie Hebdo cartoons myself at this time. And none of this is meant to imply that the cartoons should not be criticized. If anything, satire, which when accomplished trades in quite subtle ideas, benefits from and requires criticism more than most kinds of art.

Satire is an unusual art form, in that it is designed to be misunderstood. If you respond to it with horror or disgust, that was likely the artist's goal. The satirist attempts to mimic the view of his or her enemy, often using the same kind of language and imagery as that opponent would, but doing so ironically, and taking it so far into the absurd that the entire moral basis for the enemy's position collapses. I think the way the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff explains irony may be helpful:

Irony is a mode of discourse that presupposes a double audience -- an apparent audience and a real audience. [...] When a statement is uttered ironically, the speaker intends to convey two meanings that are related as appearance to reality. The apparent meaning is heard by the first, or apparent, audience, which mistakenly thinks that it has understood everything that the speaker means to communicate. The deeper, real, meaning is heard by the real audience, which also hears and understands the apparent meaning. The real audience also knows that the apparent audience exists, and has heard only the apparent meaning, which it has mistaken for the real meaning. Thus, one might say, the ironic utterance is a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the apparent audience. It is this complex structure of the communicative situation that distinguishes irony from ambiguity or mere confusion. [All emphases Wolff's.]

The classic example of satire, the one everybody knows, is Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal", in which the English social engineer's faith in mechanistic solutions to Irish poverty are ultimately shown to be monstrously anti-human. Swift eventually takes the premises so far that the essay's apparent meaning (that the children of the poor should be served as food to relieve hunger and suffering) eventually gives way to its real meaning. When an Anglophone reader unfamiliar with the original French political context reads the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, only their apparent meaning can be seen.

The odd thing about satire is that, in one sense, it sometimes works even when it is not understood. If a reader never understands that the narrator of Swift's essay is not serious, she will still ultimately be horrified by the "modest" proposal, and will from then on associate Swift's opponents, who use the same blandly reassured language and argumentative style as the narrator of his essay, with the cannibalism implicitly hidden beneath their rhetoric. But it takes thick skin to be a satirist, to know that one will be misunderstood as a monster. There's a reason Swift published anonymously.

Jeet Heer, in an updated version of his Globe & Mail story from last week, presents the history and complexity of French satire in a manner that those on both sides of the debate over Charlie Hebdo's alleged racism should be able to appreciate. The self-described "Frenchman and militant leftist" Olivier Tonneau full-throatedly defends the magazine in an open letter to British critics, explaining what he believes they misunderstand about CH. Tonneau claims that CH is not only not racist, but "the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism." Ruben Bolling, the cartoonist behind Tom the Dancing Bug, also claims that the CH cartoons have been misunderstood. Chad Parkhill explains some of the specific images in question. Here is a small collection of some of Cabu's explicitly anti-racist, anti-colonialist cartoons from Charlie.

Regardless of whether or not one is convinced by these defenses, one shouldn't lose sight of the wider political implications and background of the attack. Cartoons aren't going anywhere, but this is a dangerous moment for Europe. This is not the site to go to for political analysis, but it is impossible to avoid altogether. The following views I am linking to are incompatible with each other in some ways, but not in all. There are many other essays, some of them undoubtedly better, but this is a start. Juan Cole had one of the most cogent early responses, and is still worth reading if you missed it. At The New Yorker, the novelist Teju Cole notes that while the outpouring of grief for those killed in Paris is noble and encouraging, many other people around the world die every day, just as shockingly, and go unmourned. Kenan Malik writes about the implications for free speech. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Javaria Akbar and Aurelien Mondon explain why it would be a mistake to conflate the attackers with Muslims at large, and why it is foolish and wrong to hold the Muslim community as a whole responsible. (And for those of you who do Slavoj Žižek, here's Žižek.)

To go back to comics for a moment, some are upset that people they considered allies or friends are unwilling to fully stand behind the murdered cartoonists and their work. This should be kept in perspective. Satirists are always unpopular. The murdered cartoonists and staff knew that many believed their views to be racist, and if they were here to weigh in, I imagine that while they would undoubtedly be upset about their bodies being torn apart by bullets, they probably wouldn't care too much about a little negative verbal feedback. Politicians from across the spectrum, including many who were among the magazine's most frequent targets, are now attempting to use public outrage over last week's attack for their own purposes, which is far more important than the immediate reputation of a few cartoonists on Twitter.

This is one reason it was so refreshing to hear the response of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Willem over the weekend: "We have a lot of new friends, like the pope, Queen Elizabeth, and Putin. It really makes me laugh. Marine Le Pen is delighted when the Islamists start shooting all over the place. [...] We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends," Willem said. "They've never seen Charlie Hebdo."

For those who believe in the power of cartooning, it will be interesting to see the response to the contents of Charlie Hebdo's next issue.


And on the site today, we have a new piece by our frequent legal correspondent Jeffrey Trexler, who is taking a short break from his work on an upcoming piece on the Kirby/Marvel case to discuss an American precedent to Charlie Hebdo.

Free speech is a topic that isn’t exactly new to the comics world. The subject is perhaps most familiar from discussions of obscenity and the 1950s comics scare, with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund being the best known institutional expression of the ideal. However, if we go back further in our history, we can find an equally robust debate over comics as a satirical form. The early years of the medium in the U.S. brought forth a number of cases in which people argued that cartoons went too far, and their creators or publishers did not always win.

The fundamental parameters of the debate were established in the very first reported court opinion to use the word “cartoon,” the Supreme Court of Louisiana’s ruling in State ex re. Liversey et al. v. Judge of Civil District Court, 34 La.Ann. 741 (1882). The newspaper that gave rise to this landmark case a New Orleans satirical broadsheet called The Mascot.

A local writer and photographer named Sally Asher has recently provided some fascinating historical background about The Mascot, which as it turns out has other tangential connections to l’affaire Charlie Hebdo. For one thing, like its French counterpart The Mascot was a recurring target for violence by those it offended, such that at one point a newspaper artist was attacked because a mob mistakenly suspected that he drew cartoons for The Mascot. In what is perhaps the most outrageous Charlie Hebdo analogue, a few years after the lawsuit in question two local officials went to the paper’s office and attempted to murder both its publisher and its engraver. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the officials was himself shot to death in self-defense. The intended Mascot victims were acquitted in their murder trial, but so too was the surviving state official ostensibly compelled to kill by their offensive publication.