Satirical Essay On Terrorism And The Media
“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.
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 Farmdoes 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
Correction appended, Jan. 15, 2015, 9:15 a.m.
After last week’s terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, the U.S. media had to publishseveralarticlesexplaining to Americans what kind of paper Charlie is, and why it’s so controversial.
It wasn’t just a matter of readers being unfamiliar with the title of a foreign-language newspaper. Rather, the whole idea of Charlie Hebdo is foreign to American readers, because no real equivalent exists. Topical, political humor is popular in the U.S., but in recent years it has been more common on television programs — like South Park, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — than on the printed page.
This was not always the case. In fact, print satire flourished in the U.S. between the 1950s and the 1970s, with the creation of humor magazines like MAD, Monocle, The Realist and The National Lampoon — but a combination of timing and tradition has meant that the medium is, for most American readers, a matter of history.
A half-century ago, those publications featured parody articles, jokes, cartoons, comic strips and colorful, sometimes explicit cover images, as contributors experimented with boundary-pushing content. There was a sense, during the social upheavals of the 1960s, that satire was transforming along with the country. As a 1964 essay from TIME put it, American humor had “shed its inhibitions” in terms of addressing once-taboo topics like sex and death, since contemporary audiences were “largely unshockable.”
MAD, founded in 1952 by William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman, began its run by publishing distinctly liberal satire during a decade of supposed political consensus. The magazine’s early contributors, most of whom were the sons of European Jewish immigrants, used their perspectives as cultural outsiders to skewer McCarthyism and the climate of paranoia that accompanied the Cold War. During the 1960s, MAD became a hallmark of the counterculture; cartoonist Art Spiegelman characterized the magazine as instrumental in shaping the generation that protested Vietnam, and SDS activist Tom Hayden has stated that his own radical journey began with MAD. The magazine boasted peak circulation figures during the 1970s, selling between one and two million copies per issue. But by this time, MAD had expanded its targets, mocking the hippies and the establishment with equal vigor, operating under a code of humor in which no point of view, left or right, was immune to ridicule. Although it is one of the few humor magazines still in print today, MAD’s readership shrank significantly after the departure of editor Al Feldstein in 1984, after which the publication adopted a more corporate structure and began to accept advertisements, ultimately leading fans to complain that it had lost its edge.
Monocle, a quarterly satire magazine created by a group of Yale law students in 1956, was less financially successful than MAD but equally fearless in attacking the conformity of the postwar era. If nothing else, Monocle stood out from other humor publications in that it frequently featured the work of female contributors, including Nora Ephron. A 1964 article from TIME described Monocle’s main targets as “politics, pettifoggery, and government,” although the writers also tackled literary trends and race issues in America. The staff of liberal Democrats most often ridiculed conservative figures and groups, including Richard Nixon, William F. Buckley, the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. Editor Victor Navasky saw this work as a form of political dissent, and told TIME that he found society “too grim and absurd” not to satirize. (Navasky later went on to edit The Nation.)
The National Lampoon ran from 1970 to 1998, founded by a group of Harvard graduates who had worked together on the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s storied undergraduate humor magazine. Like MAD, the National Lampoon mocked political figures, consumer products, popular entertainment and cultural fads, but its tone was more caustic, and its images more sexually explicit. A 1973 TIME article characterized the Lampoon’s brand of satire as “jejune penetrations of the frontiers of bad taste.” The political stance of Lampoon contributors ranged from anarchist to libertarian, although the editorial team always insisted that it prioritized selling copies over offering any type of cohesive political statement. The most controversial Lampoon cover came from its January 1973 “Death Issue,” and featured a photograph of a dog with a revolver pointed at his head. “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog,” the text read. This was provocation for the sake of provocation – incidentally, the same sort of gimmick that some observers associate with Charlie Hebdo’s content.
Perhaps the satire magazine that most closely resembles Charlie Hebdo in terms of inflammatory imagery was The Realist, created by Paul Krassner in 1958. The most notorious items from this publication appeared in 1967, including the “Disneyland Memorial Orgy Poster” an illustration of classic animated Disney characters engaged in a variety of obscene acts, and “The Parts that Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book,” a graphic short story containing a scene in which Lyndon B. Johnson sexually penetrates John F. Kennedy’s corpse. Despite a set of contributors that included Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Jules Feiffer and Richard Pryor, this magazine remained part of the “underground” American press, never reaching a mass audience the way that MAD or the Lampoon did.
Still, whether underground or mainstream, none of these magazines traded in the type of attacks on religious leaders and beliefs that Charlie Hebdo is known for, and this is one element that truly distinguishes print satire in the U.S. from its counterpart across the Atlantic. American humorists have violated virtually every conceivable taboo relating to sex, violence and politics, unafraid to confront powerful institutions and individuals. But, with a handful of polarizing exceptions, all of them performers — Lenny Bruce, Bill Maher, Penn and Teller — they have largely refrained from attacking religious faith with the same hostility as Charlie Hebdo does. (Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Book of Mormon” musical, while gently poking fun of organized religion, ultimately struck audiences as “sensitive” and “sweet.”)
Why? First of all, America does not share the French republican tradition of anti-clericalism. Whereas secularism is a deeply-rooted, cherished aspect of French culture, in America, religious tolerance — in theory, if not in practice — has long been touted as a national value and atheists remain the most “distrusted group” in America. There is also the question of medium: prioritizing the printed page as a vehicle for sacrilegious expression is part of France’s revolutionary history. In the United States, television and stand-up comedy have arguably eclipsed the press as our preferred forums for sparring and provocation. Finally, during the heyday of American print satire — the 1950s through the 1970s — the arenas of sex and politics, on their own, offered more than enough volatile comedic fodder for satirists to exploit.
Perhaps The Realist, the Lampoon, and Monocle would mock radical Islam if they still existed today. We cannot know for certain. Instead, we’re left with a long history of scathing cartoons about living Presidents, dead Presidents and Mickey Mouse, while for caricatures of religious figures — for those who are into that sort of thing — we must look to France.
Sascha Cohen is a PhD candidate in the history department at Brandeis University. Her dissertation explores American humor in the 1970s and 1980s. Her own satirical writing can be found in McSweeneys.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the year National Lampoon stopped publishing. It was 1998.