Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle against Censorship

Red Lines Cherian George Sonny Liew Cover Comics Journal Review

Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle against Censorship

Cherian George & Sonny Liew

MIT Press


448 pages

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The attempt to make sense of a thorny political issue – I mean, really make sense of it, to consider all its angles and aspects, to treat it as something worth serious consideration by serious people – seems like an effort associated with another time. Much of the writing about politics, all over the spectrum has gotten lazy. Times of extreme polarization will do that. Everyone starts preaching to whatever choir they’re standing in front of, making lazy assumptions that don’t invite or respond to questioning, and the congregation ends up standing around wondering what the point was supposed to be.

This is especially true when someone makes the attempt to connect a political issue to a cultural phenomenon. Two factors come into play in much contemporary work: general overviews of a topic are difficult to pull off if they attempt any kid of depth or intellectual rigor, and the constant striving for authenticity (and the desire to stake out little fiefdoms of expertise) result in a focus, for better or worse, on ever-smaller subject. The result is an admirable series of close-ups that often leave us no longer able to integrate them into a big picture.

Finally, whenever we are making a political argument around art, we are required to admit to the world what value we think art has in the world of politics. Is art the most powerful ally of the ideology we favor, and the most persistent enemy of the ideology we oppose? Is art a political weapon, as Kurt Vonnegut famously came to believe, possessed of the power of “a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high”? Or is art simply something removed from the world of politics something that can be about it but that can never be the thing itself?

These are terrifically daunting tasks, any given one of which is enough to sink a well-meaning work. They are also haunted by the hated shadows of ambiguity, complexity, and circumstance, because they are not a series of questions that can be answered with a yes or no, but rather a number of interconnected problems, any attempt to make sense of which will only point to new problems. This is why it’s so important to pay attention when a book comes along that tries to do something meaningful, to take all of these issues into account in a respectful and humble way, and to turn all of this work into something worth reading both as a work on the subject it dares to address and as a piece of art itself.

Sudanese artist and civil rights activist Khalid Albaih is among the 60-plus cartoonists featured in Red Lines.
Credit: Cherian George and Sonny Liew

Such a book is Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship, a difficult and sometimes frustrating sort of graphic textbook released by the MIT Press in late August. The book was written by Cherian George, a professor of media studies in Hong Kong, and designed by Sonny Liew, a cartoonist who has worked extensively for Marvel and DC and been nominated for multiple Eisner Awards. Neither approaches the topic of censorship purely as an academic. George, despite a record as an accomplished academic, was denied tenure when he taught at Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University because of his criticism of media interference by the country’s ruling party; Liew, too, ran into trouble with the Singaporean government when they withdrew a substantial grant for his celebrated graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on the grounds that it called into question the “authority and legitimacy” of the Peoples’ Action Party.

Red Lines needs do little to make its two major arguments: that cartooning has been used as a tool to provoke and question the legitimacy of rulers and governments since the invention of the medium, and that the response of those rulers and governments has often been hostile in the extreme. As the authors painstakingly catalog in the early part of the book, cartoonists have been imprisoned, censored, and censured by the people they have criticized for over a century. They have been jailed (like Iran’s Atena Farghadani), beaten so badly they could no longer draw (like Syria’s Ali Farzat), and murdered (like Palestine’s Naji al-Ali). It’s an ugly history, and one which branches off down dozens of dark alleys now that the internet has not only given cartoonists a new medium on which to find an audience, but also has given those who would silence them new tools for doing so. George and Liew go to great pains to travel all over the world, seeking out examples both well-known and marginal of comics artist who have suffered for delivering a message the people in power didn’t want to have heard.

In one chapter focusing on gender censorship in India, Iran, and the United States, Red Lines examines the additional threats faced by female cartoonists.
Credit: Cherian George and Sonny Liew

But Red Lines is far more ambitious, with a far loftier goal, than simply providing documentation of an obviously lamentable tragedy. From its very beginning, the book concerns itself with the fundamental building blocks of its title: What is a political cartoon? What differentiates it from other political work, and from other forms of cartooning? What does censorship mean, and why do we invoke it so lazily when it has as many shades and variants as the political targets it aims itself at? When we decry the censorship of political cartoons, is it enough to do so simply in the name of free speech? Or do we need to interrogate the question further, asking what we meat by free speech and where its limits appear, if it has any?

It is to its great credit that it takes these questions seriously, and it does so at the very outset. The textbook style of Red Lines is inquisitive rather than polemical, epistemological rather than ontological, and self-questioning rather than self-asserting. It is not a work that is attempting to definitively answer questions about a subject, but to make sure those questions are asked. Structurally, it is interesting if not especially engaging; it walks you through its layout (its construction, its treatments of different kinds of political cartooning and different examples of censorship) and weaves its specific examples in deftly. George’s prose is convincing and equitable, and if it’s never assertive, it’s because his solid arguments lay out the case without the need for frills. Liew’s art is competent, but this is not a book meant to showcase his skills as a cartoonist; if anything, it has a somewhat alienating ‘zine style, drawing on some dated design elements that make what is a very contemporary work read as if it has re-emerged from a forgotten past. While this isn’t ideal for an artist of his caliber, it does allow him to get out of the way of the message and let the cartoons that are at the heart of so many acts of oppression and violence take center stage.

Red Lines includes an account of China’s multiple layers of censorship, including cartoonist Kuang Biao’s cat-and-mouse games with the censors.
Credit: Cherian George and Sonny Liew

The authors do a tremendous job in running down interviews with the cartoonists at the heart of these censorship battles. They travel to meet them when they can (leading to some chilling moments, as when Kuang Biao describes his visits from Chinese state security officials: “I have served them tea right here in my office. They were sitting right where you are. And they probably know that you have come to meet me here today.” When they can’t, they are contacted by phone, via e-mail, and over the sketchiest of phone apps. Never are they made out to be a uniform mass of undifferentiated heroes, but rather a group of individuals without uniform politics and with the same motivations, both noble and petty, as anyone else. Some are childish. Some are bitter. Some are admirable. Others seem to be cranks with an axe to grind. But they all have run afoul of the mechanisms of silence, wielded by those who would rather their visions remain unseen.

But where Red Lines truly excels is the great effort it expends to widen rather than narrow its scope at every turn. The book, as noted, goes out of its way to discuss political censorship in places we in the West most often associate with authoritarian governments: China, the Middle East, Africa. But George and Liew do not pretend that such things never take place in the wealth democracies, and in fact embrace the task of explaining what censorship in America looks entirely different from censorship in Singapore. Many studies of media suppression ignore the way capitalist democracies are able to engage in censorship by simply pricing artists out of their audiences, or by denying them access financially to the tools they need to spread their message. Red Lines rises to this challenge with entire chapters on so-called ‘market censorship’, noting, for example, how cartoons in publications for the radicals of the International Workers of the World led to a decision by the government to disallow their distribution via the U.S. Mail. Without access to the mail, the Wobbly newspapers simply died off.

George seeks to make the case that there are as many kinds of censorship as there are forms of expression. There is, of course, much on the subject of good old-fashioned authoritarian repression, where drawing a crude caricature of some corrupt or venal leader will get you a midnight visit from armed thugs, culminating in a ruined career, a jail term, or an early grave. But there is much more than that. In one chapter, George tells his own story; with great candor and level-headedness, he and a former collaborator recall how easy it was to simply ignore the government ban on caricaturing or mocking its leaders, because they were well-compensated for their work and didn’t feel the need to make waves. What he calls “censorship by seduction” extends even beyond the regime itself. Prudencio Miel, the collaborator, recalled that in his native Philippines, his art improved because he was forced to contend with the country’s social ills, whereas “in Singapore, you’re insulated from all the vagaries of daily life”. Comfort and ease can blunt criticism just as surely as oppression.

Palestinian cartoonist Mohammed Sabaaneh is one of more than 60 cartoonists whose encounters with censorship are documented in Red Lines.
Credit: Cherian George and Sonny Liew

Despite its sometimes-haphazard construction, one of the great pleasures in reading Red Lines was that my mind would nag at me about some crucial piece of the picture I felt the authors were leaving out, only to have them address it with confidence and clarity on the very next page. What about memes? Do they count as political cartooning, and how do they fit into the censorship picture? How do we draw the lines between censorship by government entities and censorship by private ones? How do we deal with misinformation, “fake news”, and other attempts not just to criticize or provoke, but actually spread harmful falsehoods? How much leeway do we give censors in times of war or genuine crises, and how much is just using the façade of the security state to justify repression? What about material that is suppressed because it causes legitimate offense on lines of race, gender, religion, or other identity lines (“good censorship”)? How does censorship differ in a liberal, democratic framework as opposed to an authoritarian, centralist one? Red Lines may not have all the answers, but at least it is unafraid to ask the questions.

The timeliness of the work, too, can be partly credited to luck, but much of it stems from George and Liew’s skillful weaving of historical context with modern developments in technology. The internet has been the censor’s foe because of its ability to disseminate any kind of information instantaneously all over the world, and to create persistent copies of images and ideas that might otherwise have been destroyed; but it has also been its ally because of the same technology’s ability to rapidly analyze vast amounts of data and spur action by whoever controls its levers.

In the East, China has pioneered new ways of both throttling the internet to keep messages its government finds undesirable from reaching an audience and putting huge teams together to use the internet as a tool for meme-ifying messages that same government wants to find the widest audience possible. In the west, tech giants like Facebook have created algorithms that let the most toxic messages reach millions while images of dissent are simply buried in an impossibly vast ocean of data, and with no principle guiding them but the maximization of profit, it creates an entirely different kind of censorship: not one of wills, but one of simple numerical efficiency.

Washington Post cartoonist Ann Telnaes was one of several award-winning cartoonists interviewed for Red Lines.
Credit: Cherian George and Sonny Liew

The book even asks us to consider the kinds of censorship that we don’t often think about. Contrary to the stark lines it lays out early when discussing the hallmarks of restricting freedom of expression contained in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, George and Liew discuss things that have the odor of censorship if not the textbook definition. Primary among these are editorial censorship, where the higher-ups at a newspaper or publisher can invoke good taste, community standards, or even aesthetic judgment to make sure a political cartoon never sees the light of day. This can lead to another form of censorship, perhaps the most insidious of all: self-censorship. The fear of reprisal, financial loss, criticism, or physical punishment can dissuade even bold truth-tellers to not bother drawing a cartoon in the first place.

On more overarching questions of ideology, quality, and intent, Red Lines is more subdued, even silent. This seems to be a failure at first, but later, the intent of the authors becomes clear: censorship in political cartoons is a subject of such complexity and depth that it can be discussed in great length and detail without bothering to ask “Is the ideology reflected in this dissent justifiable?”, or even “How good does a cartoon have to be to get included in this conversation?” It is unafraid to note that genuine outrage against cartoons thought to be offensive can easily be manipulated into bad-faith attacks on undesirable political viewpoints, as shown powerfully in a section on the constant attacks hurled at Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley, attempting to paint him as a virulent anti-Semite because of his frequent and acidic attacks on the Israeli government.

The book starts and ends with the deadly controversies surrounding cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, a topic the authors deal with in a self-reflexive and delicate manner.
Credit: Cherian George and Sonny Liew

Nowhere is this realized more perfectly than in Red Lines’ penultimate chapter, on the mass murder of employees of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo by radical Islamists in 2015. At the time, it was called France’s 9/11, and hundreds of thousands turned out in the streets of Paris to unequivocally condemn the brutal killing of a dozen people. This would seem like a slam-dunk for a book on the topic of censorship in political cartooning. But George and Liew do not look for the easy answers. Instead, they look for exceptions to their own rules: Was this traditional censorship, given that the attackers represented no government or official power? Even if the murders were entirely unjustified, did Charlie Hebdo bear any responsibility to moderate cartoons that were certainly meant to provoke and offend? How thick, how solid, how red is the line between what is understandably allowed in a liberal democracy and what is just as understandably forbidden by laws against hate speech? The authors not only probingly pose these questions, but they put them to those Charlie Hebdo employees who survived the massacre – with some surprising answers.

These answers are not easy, because Red Lines rejects easy questions. We live in a time where we are questioning the nature of censorship every day, and as the book’s wide-ranging final chapter makes clear, we are only at the beginning of that process. Censorship is a tool of illiberal authoritarian regimes, but political cartoons are just as efficient in exposing the contradictions of liberal democracies. Who has the right to be offended and who has the right to offend, where the funding comes from for dissenting ideas and how it finds an audience, what counts as protected speech and what doesn’t and how that gets enforced – all of these are being disputed every day in new ways by different people everywhere in the world. What Red Lines, a book whose few flaws are entirely overcome by its hugely ambitious scope and its determination to avoid simplistic moralizing, accomplishes is laying out a baseline for the discussion of this topic, of defining its scope and its consequences, and of making us understand the rules by which the battle has been fought in the past so that we can better comprehend the nature of the fight in the future.