Toon Musings: Je Suis Charlie, Mostly
Je Suis Charlie, Mostly
Cartooning, like art in general, takes a concept, distills it to its essence, and then exaggerates that essence. Because it relies on the melding of pictures (usually iconic and, hence, simple ) and words (usually brief and also simple), most people, at least in this country, think of it as entertainment for the… simple.
But this simplicity and wide appeal gives cartooning power. Why read an editorial when a five-second glance at a funny drawing of a hapless but sympathetic doofus being casually walked on by a pig in a top hat and tails can accomplish the same thing, and reach a wider audience?
The French magazine Charlie Hebdo recognized this power, and used it to mock pretty much everyone: they had published extremely inflammatory and insulting cartoons of the Pope, and had been sued by the Catholic Church on numerous occasions. The cartoons that caused their recent troubles often depicted the prophet Mohammed, sometimes in an unflattering light. Now the Quran itself does not explicitly prohibit depictions of Mohammed; in practice, it was originally discouraged (particularly among Sunni Muslims) to prevent idol worship and to reinforce the idea that the Prophet was “just a man.” Oddly enough, the ban seems to have been perverted to have the opposite effect among certain radical, violent, politically motivated adherents. Indeed, (to paraphrase Frederick in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters) If the Prophet they claim to be avenging came to Earth and saw what his followers were doing in his name he’d never stop throwing up. Or, put another way:
Cartooning isn’t thought of as a dangerous profession. Excessive pallor, hand cramps, squint muscle seizures when suddenly exposed to sunlight are only embarrassing or uncomfortable; wiseassedness in a free society is seldom fatal, unless it results in getting on the wrong side of a homicidal zealot.
In my own work, I prefer my satire a bit more allegorical and removed from the subject, but more tightly targeted; I would rather not insult all believers in order to outrage a radical few. I’m not censoring myself— I just don’t believe blanket condemnation of Islam is fair. In this, I have to slightly disagree with Charlie Hebdo; they gleefully mocked anyone and any faith, and at times condemned and insulted Islam for its own sake. As Muslims are a minority in Europe, often unfairly discriminated against and reviled, such indiscriminate “punching down” is bad satire. But it’s also protected speech, which is the most important issue.
As has been pointed out, the content of the cartoons is really beside the point. In a free society, free speech is held to be an inalienable right and a virtue in itself. In a free society, insults are not an offense at all, much less a capital offense. In a free society, criticism must not result in mayhem. Violators of such a basic social compact strike a blow against civilization itself, and need to be hunted down like the vermin they are.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at www.myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures. He resides in Heartland America.