Politics

Much Ado About Art, Satire and Terrorism

As the debate rages over Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons, Art Spiegelman offers sage advice on cartoons and free speech.

“I never wanted to be a political cartoonist,” said Art Spiegelman. “I just wanted to understand what had happened.”

Spiegelman is first and best known to the world for his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus. But he’s also the creator of a range of other provocative and pioneering comics, as well as co-creator with his wife Francoise Mouly of the acclaimed RAW comics series of anthologies which helped re-shape American comics. When he spoke the words above he was speaking about 9/11. That was the traumatizing terrorist attack -- he lived not far from the Twin Towers, and witnessed the attack first-hand -- that affected him for, he says, at least a year after. It inspired the pieces that were later collected in his acclaimed 2004 collection, In The Shadow of No Towers.

He made the above comments while speaking at an event in Toronto on 26 January, shortly after another devastating terrorist attack: the massacre at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris, France. Spiegelman, whose work is featured in an ongoing retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, had been scheduled to speak on the topic of “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?” Following the attacks, which have affected him profoundly, he re-named his talk: “Do !*@%! Cartoonists’ Lives Matter?” Outspoken and creative as he was following 9/11, he’s spoken out just as powerfully in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, launching a scathing critique on the refusal of many North American papers to publish the French magazine’s controversial cartoons. His comments also offered insight into the particularly potent power of cartoons to provoke, and to change public perceptions.

Canada Divided

His comments couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time in the raging debate over free speech. Canada’s Minister for Public Safety, Steven Blaney, had recently returned from laying a wreath at Charlie Hebdo’s office and representing the Canadian government at memorial events in Paris. A mere two weeks later he and his government opened debate on a sweeping new anti-terrorism bill that’s been criticized as seriously eroding the very freedoms of speech Charlie Hebdo so strongly advocated. ("CSIS powers to be expanded under Harper's 'Anti-Terrorism Act", by Karl Nerenberg, Rabble.ca, 30 January 2015)

The irony hasn’t been lost on free speech and civil rights advocates, many of whom have criticized the bill. The bill has been in the works for months, but the recent Charlie Hebdo attack has certainly shaped the public debate. Among other things, the new legislation gives Canada’s spy agency increased powers to circumvent constitutional and civil rights, lowers the bar for allowing police to invoke certain measures such as holding suspected terrorist planners without charge, and gives the police extra powers to control and remove online material that it deems could help to incite, promote or glorify terrorism, as well as greater abilities to pursue and prosecute those who produce such material—from ‘signs’ to blog comments. ("Four reasons Harper's new anti-terrorist legislation will alarm you", by Karl Nerenberg, Rabble.ca, 2 February 2015)

Even Edward Snowden emerged from his ongoing exile in Russia to speak out against the new Canadian terror laws. He spoke by videolink to students at Upper Canada College to warn Canadians against the new legislation. ("Edward Snowden Warns Canadians To Be 'Extraordinarily Cautious' Over Anti-Terror Bill", by Zi-Ann Lum, Huffington Post, 3 February 2015)

As the federal government moved forward with its new legislation, the country’s media also struggled with how to respond to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The big question, while covering the story, was whether or not to reprint the controversial cartoons—particularly those depicting the Prophet Muhammad (this has been the source of much of the controversy, since some conservative forms of Islam denounce visual depictions of the Prophet).

Responses varied. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the national public broadcaster) opted not to reproduce the controversial ones. Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor-in-Chief of the CBC, wrote in her Editor’s Blog about the decision not to run the cartoons. “You can be a fierce devotee of freedom of expression who feels outrage against extremists and solidarity with French journalists, yet still decide that you can cover the story clearly and thoroughly without publishing material that could offend Muslims or even incite hatred toward them,” she wrote, “And it is the journalism -- the story -- that matters most. If we had felt that showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was imperative to telling yesterday's story properly, we would have included them. Each time, we have to weigh the competing "goods".” ("To Publish or not to Publish", 8 January 2015)

Notably, the CBC’s French-language service, Radio-Canada, did choose to run the cartoons, albeit “sparingly”. This represented a broader split on the issue between English and French-language media in the country. Eleven of Quebec’s leading French-language newspapers collectively ran the cartoons, along with a joint statement of solidarity. Yet the English-language daily in Quebec, The Montreal Gazette, refused to participate, and did not print the cartoons. ("Prophet Muhammad cartoon in Quebec papers after Charlie Hebdo shooting", CBC News, 8 January 2015)

The country’s two largest national newspapers also differed in their approach. The Globe and Mail refused to run the controversial cartoons, and explained the decision in its Public Editor’s blog. According to Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead, “any story about killings must keep the focus on the victims. In this case, the Globe stories did focus on the journalists, the police and the other victims… do the readers need to see actual cartoons or do they need a description? One problem is that we don’t know if it was one particular cartoon or several that was the focus of the killers’ anger. If that comes to light, perhaps The Globe should review its decision.” ("Public editor: Why The Globe didn’t publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons",8 January 2015)

She also quoted Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley as saying “One doesn’t need to show a cartoon to show the story. The story is the killings, not any cartoon. As our editorial said, we support the right to publish material that provokes. Throughout the media landscape across the world, there is a wide range of material that is published. Charlie Hebdo has its voice, for example. The Globe and Mail has its. We hadn’t published the cartoons before the slaughter and our editorial position remains the same today.”

Chris Selley, writer and columnist with the National Post – the Globe and Mail’s principal competition, and the most prominent English-language paper that did choose to print the controversial comics -- didn’t mince words in his column criticizing those papers that refused to run the cartoons: “Snivelling cowards, the lot of them.” ("Chris Selley: Why Canada’s media won’t show the Charlie Hebdo pictures", 13 January 2015) He singles out the CBC in particular. “If you ask me, the public broadcaster shouldn’t be filtering news according to religious sensibilities. It shouldn’t be in the theology game at all.”

Concluding with a claim that the paper’s Letters to the Editor hadn’t reported a single letter that was critical of its decision to run the cartoons, Selley suggests another reason for Canadian papers’ failure to print them:

I suspect it’s more a matter of Canadian politeness — a desire not to cause offence when it can be avoided; a preference not to make a fuss. And in this case it was very easy to avoid. That’s a problematic instinct for a news organization to have. Just as problematic, based on some of the explanations on offer, is that some outlets don’t actually seem to know why they didn’t publish the Charlie Hebdo covers. From no perspective is that encouraging.

Other writers were equally livid. The National Post's editorial board published a lengthy statement (featuring the controversial cartoons) wherein it argued "Our response to the atrocity in Paris should be to emulate those who lost their lives defending their freedom to speak out as they please." (ibid)

In a lengthy column (featuring full-colour reproductions of the controversial cartoons) the National Post’s Calgary Correspondent, Jen Gerson, criticized the “weasely assertion” and “cringeworthy line” of papers that tried towing a middle line by saying that neither terrorism nor racist cartooning were acceptable. The goal of the murderers had been to deter people from publishing cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo, she wrote, "and when Canadian news outlets avoid running the cartoons, the effort succeeds... We owe it to the people who died to stop cringing." ("Jen Gerson: Canada’s media talks tough, treads carefully over Hebdo cartoons", 9 January 2015)

Is It 1984? Or Animal Farm?

Other prominent writers and media commentators also weighed in. Hana Shafi, a Toronto-based journalist writing in the Huffington Post, says that while the writers should not have been murdered, “we can also call out the elephant in the room: Charlie Hebdo was a notoriously racist publication, one that made its fame and capital through Islamophobia, among forms of bigotry.” ("Charlie Hebdo's Cartoons Were Racist, Not Satirical", 15 January 2015)

Shafi goes on to draw an interesting line when it comes to acceptable satire. “People scream in unison "it's just satire!" But to me, and others, satire is something like George Orwell's Animal Farm, not racist caricatures of minorities with elongated noses and frightening eyes reminiscent of early Nazi propaganda with anti-Semitic illustrations of Jewish people.”

What’s interesting here is that Shafi’s comments suggest a distinction – intentional or not – between literary and visual satire. In fact, Animal Farm does rely on stereotypes and caricatures. The animals are all quite obvious caricatures of individuals and groups in the former Soviet Union. The difference is that Charlie Hebdo’s satire, the controversial cartoons, was visual. This seems to reinforce Spiegelman’s observation, made at his talk in Toronto, that the visual nature of comics allows them to operate at a different and more direct level than the written word. “It gets in your brain before you have a chance to fight it,” he said.

Shafi’s Animal Farm reference is in fact particularly appropriate, though perhaps not for the reasons she intended. Animal Farm was criticized upon publication in 1945 precisely because of the political satire it engaged in. Orwell even had difficulty getting it published. He began shopping it around toward the end of the Second World War when the Soviet Union, his satirical target in the book, was still a heroic and celebrated ally of England and America in the war. Publishers were hesitant to print the book. So frustrated was Orwell with his inability to find a publisher brave enough to publish it, that his original intended preface to the book (titled ‘Freedom of the Press’) became a powerful critique of media self-censorship.

Orwell’s reflection on how hard it was to get his political satire published is a prescient one for our times. In that prefatory essay, he observes a phenomenon that Charlie Hebdo must have known all too well: “If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face… The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.”

Orwell breaks down the issue in a way that renders it just as relevant for our time, if we were to replace the word ‘Stalin’ with ‘Muhammad’: “The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, ‘How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?’, and the answer more often than not will be ‘No’, In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses… It is only, or at any rate it is chiefly, the literary and scientific intelligentsia, the very people who ought to be the guardians of liberty, who are beginning to despise it, in theory as well as in practice.”

He concludes on a scathing note: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it… it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect…”

Orwell was a literary satirist, and not a visual one, so it’s hard to say whether he would have endorsed Charlie Hebdo’s satire. His words certainly speak to that spirit, though.

Splash image: "Art Spiegelman" by Art Spiegelman

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