It’s been two years since 12 staff members of Charlie Hebdo were viciously murdered in their office by a pair of jihadist brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi. In the time since that crime occurred I’ve found myself having to defend the magazine, the deceased, and the very tenets of freedom of expression to some truly craven individuals online. I’ve never expressed my feelings at length on any topics through this website, but as a cartoonist and an atheist I thought I would break from that this once to share my perspective.
I’m not a political cartoonist or a satirist for that matter. I write and draw mystery comics featuring walking and talking animals. My work may very well never get me into “trouble” with violent religious fanatics but I would hope that if I ever were to be killed for my words or drawings there would be people around to defend my existence, my memory, and maybe my work. This is why I have such a hard time to this day accepting the unfounded criticism of the staff of Charlie Hebdo.
In the aftermath of the carnage some major voices in art decided to voice their displeasure with Charlie Hebdo, calling it “racist” or “hate speech.” I’m not entirely sure why, maybe to telegraph their own sense of self worth or “progressive” credibility, who can say for sure. Charlie Hebdo is a progressive, liberal, enlightenment inspired magazine that holds no sacred cows, they express themselves freely and that’s the way it should be. At any rate, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau disagreed and used his Polk Award speech to castigate the dead cartoonists. He insisted that the job of the satirist was to “punch up”, an arbitrary if useless phrase.
“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, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence.”
Trudeau’s logic is deeply disturbing and disgusting. He associates the Kouachi brothers, armed with assault rifles, submachine guns, pistols, a shotgun, and a grenade launcher slaughtering the staff of a magazine “powerless.” Trudeau neglects to mention that the Kouachi brothers trained with al Qaeda in Yemen and were intent on murdering people no matter what. It’s ironic that Trudeau should lecture dead cartoonists about “punching up” when he showed no compunction in “punching down” 6 feet. To my knowledge Trudeau has never faced the prospect of being killed for his work, something the staff of Charlie Hebdo did when they reprinted some Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the mid 2000’s. The staff of Charlie Hebdo operated in spite of death threats by religious maniacs (I find this bravery otherworldly and inspiring). Trudeau’s made a career for himself in satirizing the right wing of American politics, all the while, no one has called for his head, or threatened his life, yet he feels very comfortable telling other cartoonists where the line of good taste is. Further Trudeau equates Charlie Hebdo’s work with graffiti, which is interesting. Does he believe the draftsmanship of someone’s work has anything to do with whether or not someone should be shot? I think Doonesbury is a visually uninteresting comic strip with a complete lack of imagination in character design, does that make a lick of difference in the writing? What I find galling is that there are cartoonists that are out there willing to die for free speech, and Garry Trudeau, who fancies himself a liberal, progressive voice in the world, can’t seem to grasp the simple reality that Charlie Hebdo are not the bad guys. Quite simply I think Trudeau is a coward and if there is any justice in the world his contribution to the history of political cartoons and satire will be a blank page.
Other high profile critics of Charlie Hebdo included the fantasy novelist, Saladin Ahmed. Ahmed wrote a clumsy and stupid essay for the New York Times in essence arguing that freedom of speech used by the powerful is a de facto abuse of the powerless.
“In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful. And in the context of brutal inequality, it is worth at least asking what preexisting injuries we are adding our insults to.”
To categorize him as wrong wouldn’t even begin to address how monumentally incorrect he is. Ahmed’s statements belie the notion that freedom of expression and freedom of speech are things to value at all. One wonders if he sits around waiting for the day when there’s complete equity of all people so one can speak freely. Ahmed internalizes the criticism Charlie Hebdo made of Islamic extremists and fundamentalists as a slight to Muslims everywhere. Ahmed is wrong for two important reasons: Charle Hebdo skewered Islam far less than other religions in their publications and the magazine itself had Muslim writers and artists who were involved in the satire. Ahmed perpetuates the idea that criticism, even in the form of cartoons, can turn someone violent. By insisting the murderers (who trained specifically to be murders with al Qaeda in Yemen) picked up a copy of Charlie Hebdo (which they were under no obligation to read) and internalized a message criticizing violent fundamentalists to the point of calculated violence is a fantasy. If someone can be goaded into killing you for a drawing they could kill you for anything. Ahmed doesn’t grapple with the idea that Imams and Mullahs had called for the death of these cartoonists a few year’s earlier as he lacks any true intellectual curiosity. He’s lowered the bar to below ground for Muslims grappling with any criticism of their faith or mode of thinking. Again, there’s this need to portray the murderers as victims as if cartoons could really provoke someone into murder. This is a cowardly stance that ironically casts Muslims in the same light as Jihadists, which is despicable. Either Ahmed is purposely misinterpreting the work of Charlie Hebdo as racist because he wants his indignation to be seen as progressiveness, or he’s an unapologetic and ignorant blowhard.
Animation legend, Hayao Miyazaki, said this:
“For me, I think it’s a mistake to make caricatures of what different cultures worship. It’s a good idea to stop doing that.”
Miyazaki is engaging in cultural relativism and victim blaming. I have my undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology and understand the concept of cultural relativism. It’s useful in the academic setting, it let’s people make comparisons between disparate people for research purposes, but it’s not a salient worldview. Cultural relativism as a worldview is in many ways antithetical to global human rights as it’s meant to be objective and non-judgmental. We can accept that murder is objectively wrong whereas cultural relativism can’t, that’s its failing. If a cultural norm is to never be challenged, how will it ever change? Are cultures meant to exist in perpetuity no matter what they are and what their effects are? Further by Miyazaki’s metric, who speaks for the culture or religion? The most violent? Those willing to kill over cartoons or blasphemy? This is the reason he’s categorically wrong and his position is indefensible.
There are more people who made equivocations and engaged in apologetics for the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo staff, but they’re too numerous to list. I will say that they honestly enrage me to this very day. I won’t patronize their work and I think less of them as artists and thinkers because they have no qualms about rationalizing the gruesome deaths of cartoonists. In their worldview they are the ones who are enlightened, except they’ll never be the ones to stand up (in any real way) for artist liberty or freedom of expression. They’ll never put their lives or livelihood on the line for the sake of art, but they will not hesitate to bleat on about how they’re “woke” for their edgy cartoons about Donald Trump or George W. Bush.