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 — which the Parisian satirical magazine did when murderous Islamic hooligans killed ten of its staff at its offices on January 7. But Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, in accepting the George Polk Career Award in early April, said things about Charlie that created no little stir in cartooning circles.
We have posted the entire speech at the Usual Place (RCHarvey.com, Rants & Raves Opus 339), but here below we repeat those of his remarks that most contributed to the stir:
“Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable,” he said. “Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful.”
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are customarily crude and often tasteless and when the magazine takes on issues involving religions, particularly Islam, it offends Muslims, who, in France, have been marginalized and isolated in ghettos at the fringes of larger cities. And when Charlie ridiculed radical Islam as political rather than religious, the magazine seemed to be attacking all Muslims — including the unassimilated French Muslims, to which Trudeau was sensitive: “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.”
What Trudeau clearly believed was his humane and thoughtful re-consideration of the Charlie cartoons — by American standards, unusually gross in flinging their satiric barbs — suddenly looked as if he were blaming the victims: the Charlie cartoonists brought on their own murders by drawing those outrageously offensive cartoons. Trudeau promptly denied he was blaming the Charlie cartoonists, saying he had been misunderstood. But that didn’t stop the debate which quickly coalesced around whether freedom of expression should be limited by ordinary politeness to reduce or eliminate offensiveness.
Cartoonists immediately took sides. Some supported Trudeau; others did not. Generally, they believe that there are red lines that should not be crossed — but those lines tend to be personal, individual, rather than institutional or legal.
Cartoonists reaction to Trudeau’s remarks had barely died down when the American PEN, an organization that advocates literature’s role as a force in society, revived the foofaraw by planning to give Charlie Hebdo an award for courage that some PEN members objected to, saying it would “valorize” offensive cartooning. (Isn’t satire inherently offensive — to someone? What, then, of the future of satire?)
In most of the ensuing discussion, those opposed to giving Charlie an award focused on the offensiveness of the cartoons, revealing that they didn’t understand cartooning — particularly cartooning in France, which tends to administer satire with a bludgeon rather than a barb, as is the usual practice in the U.S.
Some PEN members, like Art Spiegelman, pointed out that the award was for courage not for the quality of the work: “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.’”
Neil Gaimen agreed: “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.”
But two days before the award would be given, an anti-Muslim group’s “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest exhibit in Garland, Texas, was attacked by Cutthroat CalipHATE hooligans of the home-grown sort, who were killed in their attempt. Although the American Freedom Defense Initiative said its event was intended to foster freedom of expression, most observers thought the AFDI, with a long history of opposition to what it calls “the Islamification of America,” was deliberately staging a perversely provocative exhibit. The AFDI leadership regarded its contest exhibit as successful in proving “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?”
The PEN gala took place May 5, two days after the shootings in Texas. Because of the presence of Charlie staffers to accept the courage award and the recency of the 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.
This whole Charlie enchilada is covered in exhaustive detail at the Usual Place (RCHarvey.com, Rants & Raves, Opus 340), should you care to pursue the issues fully.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Iran, of all the unlikely candidates, is running an anti-Isis cartoon competition, reported independent.co.uk, “inviting submissions from around the world that mock the militant group and the atrocities it has committed.
“Mohammad Habibi, the executive secretary of the contest, said 280 works had been selected from 800 submissions, including entries from over 40 countries such as Brazil, Australia and Indonesia. Habibi told the Tehran Times that some foreign cartoonists were attending the contest, but that they had been forced to travel under pseudonyms due to security concerns.”
He told Iran’s Press TV: “Nowadays everyone around the world knows about the parasite by the name of Isis and what crimes they have committed against humanity and art and culture. Artists now have the duty to raise public awareness about this group by participating in such events.”