Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Froussard: What Charlie Hebdo Has Taught Me (So Far)

I have not been looking forward to writing this post. But I can't really call myself a caricature blogger and ignore it.

The media saturation of the topic has been pretty solid this past week. Or at least it has seemed so from my vantage point (with about two hundred artists on my Facebook feed, and as an avid listener to public radio, which has given it much coverage).

On Wednesday, January 7th, twelve people, among them the editor in chief and four cartoonists, were killed at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in Paris. The next day a policewoman was gunned down. And then, finally (let us hope it is a final count), four more lost their lives in a kosher grocery during a standoff with the gunmen presumed responsible for the original attack on the magazine.
Rather than a somber photo of Charb, I am going to show
you a drawing of his that made me giggle. The French and
the English have a bromance of sorts, having lampooned
each other for centuries upon centuries (this caption reads
"But who wants the English in Europe?").

Stephan Charbonnier ("Charb"), the editor, knew he was a target for a long while. The magazine's offices were firebombed in 2011, and Charb was featured in a "wanted dead or alive" poster in an Al Queda magazine in 2013 (I know, I thought it too: "WTF, they have an official magazine???"). His attitude was fairly brazen about the dangerous hackles he was raising: "And when the government asks us not to do any provocation, we have the impression that three idiots who demonstrated in the streets represent all of Islam. It's the government who insults Muslims by saying that. You have to take them as they are. One has to mock them using humor, disarm them with humor and not give them any credit. By taking them seriously and sending regiments of riot cops to hold them, one takes them seriously."

I want to say that this type of bravery in the name of free speech, artistic expression, and separation of church and state, and the right to mock anyone and everyone is a very American thing . . . but it's not, really. It's more a French thing.

Our word caricature originates from the French word, and there are many early French caricaturists that come to mind: Daumier, Philipon, Guillaume, and so on. There is a reason I often wear berets to my gigs, and why Chelsea Peretti put on a ridiculous French accent when she made fun of Jeff Pecina (see my last post). The French are kinda historical smart asses, they have been linked to caricature's roots in our consciousness even if we don't know the names Philipon or Daumier.

As a lighter historical digression, let me tell you about Charles Philipon and one of the most successful political caricatures of all time.

In the early 1830s, after a July revolution put a new king upon the French throne (Louis-Pilippe), there was still unrest and criticism of the new leader. Artists and satirists attacked him, softly at first but more and more ruthlessly, often in a publication called La Caricature. Philipon drew the king carelessly blowing bubbles, each representing false promises like freedom of the press, popping in the wind. Ironically, that drawing landed him in court. As did another cartoon he drew of the king as a mason, fixing a wall and erasing traces of the July revolution. On November 14, 1831, Philipon is again in court and performs a demonstration that became, it could be argued, one of the first viral memes.

He defended his caricatures of the king by claiming that it was not his fault that "everything can look like the king." To illustrate, he drew a series of caricatures showing the king morphing into a pear. Though Philipon was sentenced to jail time and a hefty fine, the success of the image, this caricature, was immediate. As he recounts in a letter: "The people, seized by a mocking image, a simple image design and a simple shape, began to imitate this wherever he found a way make charcoal image smearing, scratching a pear. Pears soon covered all the walls of Paris and spread to all the walls of France."

The pear came to symbolize the king, his corrupt regime, and all his cronies, and it helped galvanize the population against him. Other artists began to use the image of a pear. Louis-Philippe, the Pear King, eventually had to abdicate the throne in 1848 and lived out the rest of his life in exile.

So France has a history of caricature being a very powerful weapon, and popular force. Their media is shaped by this, it has a cultural memory.

R. Crumb, an American cartooning legend who has been living in France for a couple decades now, gave a lengthy and insightful interview about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and his thoughts on the media differences between his two home countries. "You don't have journalists over there anymore, what they have is public relations people. That's what they have over in America now. Two-hundred and fifty thousand people in public relations. And a dwindling number of actual reporters and journalists." He also went into the French tradition of merciless political satire and said "It's a French thing, yeah, and they value that very highly here."

The cartoons were very insulting and offensive by design. That strikes Americans as nonsensical. We like smart, we like funny, and we can put up with a little poking, but we are much quicker to see things as hate speech. And we really hate hate speech here.

Both of these are rude and immature photos. One of them is
a crime in Pennsylvania. But perhaps with lobbying we
can protect Ronald McDonald from desecration as well. 
We also still have plenty of sacred cows. Just a few months ago a 14-year-old in Pennsylvania was brought up on charges and could have faced 2 years in jail for taking a photo with a statue of Jesus. Let me repeat that. He was facing two years in jail, in America, for taking a photo. The statue (which was in a public place, he did not trespass) was undamaged, he simply stood in front of it at an angle that made it look like Jesus was, ahem, doing something very lewd. It was absolutely exercising free speech, absolutely should have been protected under law, and it happened here on our soil. And that's how it was dealt with. The kid was given probation and community service, and he was banned from using social media. His "crime" fell under a Pennsylvania law defined as "defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise, physically mistreating in any way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action."

So in Pennsylvania, you'd better not outrage someone's sensibilities. I wonder how Pennsylvania cartoonists feel about that law.

I was working a big convention during the days that the massacre unfolded. And normally I would never chat with clients or caricature guests about a divisive, controversial topic while I'm doing my job and in "public-pleasing" mode. But the last guy I drew was from Paris. So it came up. Very briefly, very tentatively, we discussed the state of things in France and he filled me in on the latest news there (the gunman and hostages had just been killed mere hours ago, which was news to me). Well, a bystander overheard our talk and butted in with "Well have you SEEN the cartoons? They were REALLY offensive."

I stopped short for a moment. I did not know the victims. But I know people who knew them. I felt a kinship. And here's this guy, saying that over my shoulder, and in my mind I instantly imagined him defending a rapist, saying "Well, did you SEE what she was wearing? It was REALLY slutty."

Now, standing up and slapping him for that statement would have probably not gone over well with my corporate client. And it would have been answering offensive speech with violence, which is exactly what the Paris tragedy was. So I put on a nice face and just said, as neutrally as I could, "Well, I can't imagine any cartoon, of any level of offensiveness, that would justify murder." The guy shrugged. My Parisian friend in the chair looked irritated but left it at that.
Some friends just don't photograph well. 

That guy was one of many examples of why America is not Charlie Hebdo. There's a feeling of cognitive dissonance going on when we rally about freedom of speech but then say "Oh but they were such racist cartoons, I mean, that was hate speech." Jeffrey Goldberg summarized this well in his piece for the Atlantic Weekly, "We Are Not All Charlie Hebdo."  He points out the ridiculous bravery of those working at Charlie Hebdo: they continued to publish those rude satires of radical Islam even AFTER their offices were firebombed in 2011. No American outlet would have done so. Matt Smith and Trey Parker were reigned in pretty immediately and their infamous Mohammed episode of South Park was redacted by the network back in 2010. Comedy Central was not firebombed, they just thought maybe they might get a violent response. That was enough to put on the brakes.

Molly, it sucks to be you. I'm so sorry. I hope things change.
Now, I'm willing to admit my own hypocrisy and cowardliness here. I'm not including my own drawing of Mohammed in this blog post. But I will talk about Molly Norris, who started "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" back in 2010 right after the South Park brouhaha. Here images were benign to the extreme: Mohammed as a domino, a thimble, a teacup. It was something she posted as a lark on Facebook.

Within a day she got death threats. She has been in hiding four years now, with a new identity, at the recommendation of the FBI. Her friend Larry Kelley, who started a foundation trying to help fundraise for her, says that law enforcement did not do enough to protect her. "The example of Molly Norris shows you we are not even playing defense when it comes to threatening the journalistic community." On his blog he states "Norris is the first casualty in the campaign to Islamify America. And we let them take her down without a whimper."

I do not know if Molly was given any choice in the matter, and I'm not calling her a chicken for going into hiding. But I'm holding this American example up in stark contrast to the way things played out after the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo. The government assigned more security, there was a guard there at all times, and the cartoons kept on coming. Did the cartoonists know they were taking a humongous risk? Well yes of course, they weren't stupid!

Much has been said of how the artists at Charlie Hebdo were part of that elite, hard-edged group of "underground" artists who came of age in the 1960s and seemed constantly tilting at the windmills of politics and religion. Crumb mentioned in his interview, "He knew . . . he said that thing about, you know, 'I'd rather die standing than live on my knees,' he said 'You know, I'm not married, I don't have credit cards, I don't drive a car. I stay very . . . I keep everything very simple . . . I don't want to have these connections, because I could go at any time.' He knew that. "

These guys knew they would more likely than not become victims. Martyrs to free speech, if you will. I find that bone-chilling. And admirable. And it takes a load off me. They were brave, and insulting, and rude, and crass, and subversive for me. For all of us. So I may go with R. Crumb on this and call myself a cowardly cartoonist (as he did, slyly, in his contribution to the many cartoons being circulated about the tragedy).

I am a chicken. Sorry.
But I hope that some of Philipon's spirit is still around. I hope that through the mass exposure this event is getting, through the courage of many individual people, whose ancestors scratched charcoal pears onto walls, we can elevate the notion of free speech. And "elevate" in this sense means "lower"--for you cannot have free speech if it means "only for things that are high-brow and inoffensive." Hate speech should not be a crime, only hate action.

Charb, Tignous, Wolinsky, Cabu, Honore, do not rest in peace. Rage on, through your work and through your sacrifice, so that the rest of us can be inspired. Taunt on, brothers and sisters, taunt on.


  1. Yes, wearing a slutty dress does not justify rape. And drawing an offensive cartoon does not justify murder. Of course the killers were wrong. Of course.

    But I do not wear a button that says I am Charlie. Because I would not have drawn those cartoons. They were, in my opinion, the equivalent of refusing to eat lunch with the Jewish kid in elementary school, because he is Jewish, or of wearing a Klan hood and robe and calling for a return to the days of slavery. They were mocking and ridiculing a religious faith and those who adhere to it. I don't agree with the dictates of the faith. I do defend the artists' right to ridicule it. But I would never do so myself. Not because I'm afraid of reprisals (although I am). But because I believe it is wrong to ridicule someone's religious beliefs. Well, perhaps not exactly wrong. But not gentlemanly. I mean, why do it? Those examples you gave of Philipon's political caricatures that ridiculed the King were done with a reason and a goal. What is the justification behind mocking a religious belief? I do lots of things in poor taste - I've got a warped and often inappropriate sense of humor. But I just can't see the humor in something like Piss Christ by Serrano or cartoons that depict Mohammed as homosexual, when the sole point seems to be to piss on someone else's religious values. (Unfortunately, and this may take some of the vinegar out of my rant, I did think the South Park episode was pretty funny).

    1. Mike, thanks for the dialogue. You might really get a lot out of a recent article Tom Richmond just directed folks to. Check this out on the DailyKos:
      It raises some really salient points on how we, as non French speakers unfamiliar with their culture or complex satire, are getting it wrong when we have knee-jerk reactions about the meaning (or our presumed meaning) of many of the covers that are going around online.
      That said, it's completely fine for you to believe it's wrong to mock someone's religious faith, and no one is asking you to do it. Supporting a satirist's right to satire things is a whole separate issue. Should religions get a pass? Well, where do you draw the line then? Plenty of religions are messed up and deserve some mockery. Taliban fundamentalists shot a girl in the head because she wanted to go to school. Stuff like that should not be off limits because the shooters really believed in their heart it was their sacred duty to put a bullet in the head of a 14-year-old. One might argue that many things are sacred to many different people (including kings and leaders), and if we tut-tut at any satire aimed at that, we'd be left with nothing. Kim Jong Un (like his father, and grandfather before him) is revered as a religious figure in North Korea--do cartoons that mock him bother you at all?
      I can think of many justifications for mocking religious belief. Mockery is a legitimate tool of change. Sometimes it is the only available tool to demand change. It is the promotion of an idea, which (unlike the artists) can never be killed once it's been put out there. If religions had not undergone massive changes over the past few millenia (or even the past few centuries), I would not be able to even have this conversation with you. I would be silent, as women are urged to be in the Bible, and I'd probably have twelve kids and no education whatsoever. I'm not saying I owe my modern life to political cartoons, just that satire is a very strong way to bring about a new zeitgeist with a huge amount of people. And that leads to change.
      "Mockery of religion is one of the most essential things . . . one of the beginnings of the human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority, it's indispensable." --Christopher Hitchens.

    2. I just think it's more complicated than the I am Charlie buttons make it out to be. Yes, the terrorists were very, very wrong. But them being very, very wrong, does not, by definition, make Charlie Hebdo very, very right.