Monthly Archives: January, 2015

Charlie and Louie: An Affair of Two Magazines, Two Cities, and Too Many Questions

Je suis Charlie Hebdo, et aussi Michel Brown, et aussi Darren Wilson et aussi… As Teresa Prados-Torreira recently observed in this space, the last month has seen an international slurry of reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre from outraged officials, scampering journalists, erstwhile academics, dedicated peace-keepers, and, of course, the international community of artists, cartoonists, and satirists. Prados-Torreira astutely summarizes in her 20 January post, “at first glance, it seems obvious that the answer to this dilemma should be a wholehearted affirmation of the need to stand in solidarity with the French magazine, with the murdered cartoonists, and in support of free speech. But the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, their irreverent depiction of Mohammed and Muslims, have resulted in a cascade of critical essays online and elsewhere.”

Many have since noted that, for interpreters within and beyond French culture, the magazine’s scabrous treatment of all things sacred and sanctified could be labelled either courageous or irresponsible depending upon personal preference. One thing is certain, though, Charlie Hebdo was rarely, if ever, about discretion. Even more interestingly, a new angle on the extensive media coverage of the attacks has taken shape that inquires as to why the tragic murder of several talented artists has become, either incidentally or on purpose, a larger global issue and a much more public and popular rallying point than the rampant cruelties taking place in Nigeria involving Boko Haram?

Even more interestingly, we have to admit that slander, satire, and ridicule of Arabs, Muslims, and Islam are hardly rare in America mainstream culture. Consider the skirmishes that erupted over the years surrounding Johnny Hart’s abuse of Islamic and Judaic symbols in several episodes of his comic strip, B.C., especially the “potty humor” episode that fused the sacred icons of Islam with the half-moon of an outhouse door. Is this not Charlie Hebdo territory? With the rhetorical avalanche surrounding Charlie Hebdo just beginning to settle, we might wonder if any more discussion could possibly serve to alleviate the tension, fear, and uncertainty that has seemingly spread across an outraged global public.

It’s a very fair question, but instead, I would like use the terror attacks in France, and their subsequent influence, to explore a few more local and personal concerns about the deploying of satire, the power of cartoons, and the often unexpected inaccuracies of visual wit. Since the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices, there have been several inspiring statements of solidarity and strength in support of free speech and equal opportunity insult, most notably including the great public demonstrations in Paris, throughout France, and across the world.

frenchcrowds1

Can there ever be a more heartening and honest sign that humor – especially in its most relentless, hostile form – deserves our attention, respect, and scrutiny? There have also been a wide variety of high profile reactions and commentaries throughout the intellectual honeycomb of bloggers, critics, and scholars. Much has been made of Joe Sacco’s somewhat disappointing Guardian catechism “On Satire.” Important statements have also arisen from doyens of provocative comics including Art Spiegelman, Keith Knight (who produced two suitably irreverent texts from very different perspectives), and Steve Benson, among many, many others. Scholars also have contributed valuable and sometimes revelatory insight into the complex legacy of French cartooning and its contribution to both Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policies and the violent reactions that it frequently instigated. Bart Beaty and Mark McKinney have offered reasoned and informative assessments that went largely ignored in the media frenzy following the attacks. Even richer and more comprehensive studies of the violent potential of editorial cartooning have also arisen from astute historians like Paul Tumey and Jeffrey Trexler. Cartoonists, of course, have been at the vanguard of the fight for freedom of speech, recognition, and reaction. From the very moment that news of the attack broke in France, powerful responses like this one were quickly finding their way around the world’s webs.

The translation is simply ."The ducks will always fly higher than the bullets." This seems a fitting commentary on everyone's natural right to free speech, peaceful tolerance, and artistic expression but for the French reader, as I have come to understand it,  the cartoon also includes sly references to the enduring poignancy of journalism and the relative pointlessness of murder, terror, censorship, and repression.  As far as I know, this cartoon comes from the first wave of responses to the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

The translation is simply, “The ducks will always fly higher than the guns.” This seems a fitting commentary on everyone’s natural right to free speech, peaceful tolerance, and artistic expression but for the French reader, as I have come to understand it, the cartoon also includes sly references to the enduring poignancy of journalism and the relative pointlessness of murder, terror, censorship, and repression. As far as I know, this cartoon comes from the first wave of responses to the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

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The 1884 Cartoon Campaign of Walt McDougall

The cartoon campaign that made Thomas Nast the most recognizable cartoonist in the nation during the late nineteenth century was his campaign in Harper’s Weekly that brought down William Tweed and Tammany Hall in 1871. In it, Nast drew cartoons critical of the kleptocracy that was running (and ruining) New York City. Because Tammany Hall was a political machine bent on keeping itself in power and enriching its supporters, there were many people and institutions that were supposed to keep that power in check but did not because they were caught up in the racket like most of the power structure in the city.

That campaign is well-documented. It reaches its climax with the famous Tammany Tiger mauling Columbia. What made it famous is the fact that it worked. Harper Brothers, the publishing house that produced Harper’s Weekly in the 1870s, was more national than local so did not have to kowtow to the Hall and bend to its will. Although Harper Brothers was threatened by the machine,it did not stop the campaign. Other cartoon campaigns have earned success as well, but they are less well-known. One such campaign was waged by Joseph Pulitzer, the new owner of a newspaper called The New York World. Pulitzer bought the struggling publication in 1883 and by 1884 went on a journalistic warpath to defeat James Blaine in the presidential election. The cartoonist Pulitzer employed to illustrate the campaign was Walt McDougall. According to Sidney Kobre, author of The Yellow Press and Gilded Age of Journalism (Florida State University), because Blaine lost the electors in New York, he lost the election and it was largely because of the Pulitzer/McDougall/ World campaign.

The effort to defeat Blaine (notice that I do not use the more positive reference that the effort was to help Grover Cleveland win—that is because it really did not matter who the Democrat was in the race, the objective was to defeat the Republican) began in June soon after the Republican Convention ended. By September the illustrations were in full attack mode. Not only that, they were published on page 1, above the fold and centered under the masthead. Readers who were choosing a newspaper at newsstands in New York were attracted to the cartoons, and because of them, the struggling World became the highest circulation newspaper in New York—on the days that it ran a cartoon (mainly Saturdays and Sundays). As with most negative campaigns, The World began with a lingering scandal from 1876 in which Blaine was accused of taking a bribe in the form of selling bonds to the Union Pacific Railroad for the Little Rock and Ft. Smith Railroad at a price greater than their value. He was the Speaker of the House at the time. The following cartoon from September 14, 1884 depicts Blaine hooking a Little Rock bass and being “pulled in” by the fish while Union Pacific executives rescue him. Blaine Little Rock Bass I

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Happy Birthday, Robert E. Howard!

Robert E. Howard 1906 - 1936

Robert E. Howard
1906 – 1936

Dungeons and Dragons fans can thank Robert E. Howard for originating the Sword and Sorcery Genre. This Texas pulp writer was also the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Howard had a boundless imagination, astonishing versatility, and was a consummate storyteller. During his brief, but prolific career, he wrote horror stories, adventures, scifi, detective tales, humorous knockabout westerns, and more.

In contrast to his swashbuckling characters, Howard was a quiet, bookish man who lived with his parents and enjoyed penning poetry. His complex personality, and the controversial views he expressed have since become a subject of conjecture.

On June 11, 1936, he took his own life, after learning his chronically ill mother had slipped into a permanent coma.

He was only thirty years old.

Here are a three of his many marvelously crafted poems.

The Weakling

I died in sin and forthwith went to Hell;
I made myself at home upon the coals
Where seas of flame break on the cinder shoals.
Till Satan came and said with angry yell,
“You there – divulge what route by which you fell.”
“I spent my youth among the flowing bowls,
“Wasted my life with women of dark souls,
“Died brothel-fighting – drunk on muscatel.”

Said he, “My friend, you’ve been directed wrong:
“You’ve naught to recommend you for our feasts –
“Like factory owners, brokers, elders, priests;
“The air for you! This place is for the strong!
“Then as I pondered, minded to rebel,
He laughed and forthwith kicked me out of Hell.

— Robert E. Howard

 

The Vision

I cannot believe in a paradise
Glorious, undefiled,
For gates all scrolled and streets of gold
Are tales for a dreaming child.

I am too lost for shame
That it moves me unto mirth,
But I can vision a Hell of flame
For I have lived on Earth.

— Robert E. Howard

 

Fables For Little Folk

He was six foot four and wide as a door
And he weighed two hundred pounds
And he laughed as he spoke, “I’ll cool that bloke.
I’ll flatten him in two rounds.”
Ah, the crowd they cheered, but the crowd they jeered
When his foeman stepped in the ring;
They hissed and jowled and the giant scowled
And rushed with a round-house swing.
Yes, he came full tilt but the beans were spilt
For the smaller man timed him fair
And knocked him out with a left hand clout
And the crowd gave him the air.
So the moral is this: make your foeman miss
And never lead with your right,
But the first that you’re to do is be sure
That it’s not Jack Dempsey you fight.

— Robert E. Howard

 

 

 

To be or not to be Charlie

Teresa Prados-Torreira

 

To be or not to be Charlie, that has been the question many academics and commentators have pondered for the last two weeks. At first glance it seems obvious that the answer to this dilemma should be a wholehearted affirmation of the need to stand in solidarity with the French magazine, with the murdered cartoonists, and in support of free speech. But the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, their irreverent depiction of Mohammed and Muslims, have resulted in a cascade of critical essays online and elsewhere.

“Why would anyone want to be identified with a racist organization such as Charlie Hebdo? ” wonders a colleague. Many observers have pointed out that the provocative images of Muslims as hook-nosed, dark-complexioned, sinister people with criminal intentions echo the anti-Semitic cartoons of yesteryear, and nurture the idea that Muslims are alien undesirables.

“But why are Muslims so thin skinned when it comes to religion?” complains another colleague.

For most Christians living in the Western world religion is not the defining factor of our identity. The fact that I was raised Catholic and still feel a cultural connection to Catholicism hardly affects my everyday life: Neither my social, political or professional life are determined by my Catholic upbringing. That is definitely different in the case of European Muslims who find themselves stigmatized, distrusted and powerless in their own countries. For faithful Muslims in France, religion is not a colorful ritual, something warm and fuzzy that is to be evoked during the holidays because it brings families together. Their religious background is at the crux of who they are and how they treated.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Don Rickles

His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. – Gay Talese

don_ricklesDon Rickles is bigger than stand-up comedy. The same way Frank Sinatra is bigger than singing. They each developed a style which would, in essence, become its own genre. They were both actors and, more accurately, entertainers. And they both forged their respective careers by refusing to compromise or vainly chase ephemeral trends. Such stuff as icons are made.

Don Rickles studied acting formally at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas studied. Rickles admits he wasn’t the best student at the Academy, but he received advice and direction there which he applied throughout his career. Rickles landed some film and television roles and appeared in a few stage productions, but the loudmouthed Jewish kid from Jackson Heights made a name for himself with his quick, merciless wit.

Don Rickles never hesitates to credit his mother for much of his success. Like most comedians of his era, Rickles got his start playing mob-run dives and strip clubs. Etta Rickles, who he affectionately refers to as “General Patton,” hustled all the comedian’s early gigs, marching into club owners’ offices and demanding her son be given a slot.

Shortly after the Rickles family moved to Palm Beach, Etta learned that Frank Sinatra was performing in town, and that the famous singer’s mother, Dolly Sinatra, was staying at a nearby hotel. Etta somehow met, and charmed, Dolly. The two mothers hit it off and Dolly assured Etta that her son Frank would be at Don’s show that night. Dolly Sinatra made good on her promise; Frank and entourage showed up for Rickles’ set. Upon seeing Sinatra enter, Rickles quipped, “Make yourself comfortable, Frank, hit somebody.” Silence. Sinatra’s entourage looked to the Chairman for direction. Sinatra howled. Rickles doubled down, “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend: Your voice is gone.”

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Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Humor in America

Those of us who study humor, and I would think that many people in general, have spent a lot of time the past few days thinking and reading about the meanings of the Charlie Hebdo Massacre in France.  We have collected here a number of the articles, cartoons, videos, and other pieces that have been helpful and/or provocative, although this list is in no way exhaustive.  Feel free to add suggestions in the comments.

*The Onion’s brilliant piece on the fear of publishing anything on this subject.  Also, this and this from the Onion.

*A few cartoons  from the last week: Tom Tomorrow, Khalid Albaih, the Atlantic Monthly,

*And more collections here and here and  (and why the media should pay cartoonists here).

*Joe Sacco’s provocative cartoon “On Satire“: “In fact, when we draw a line, we are often crossing one too.  Because lines on paper are a weapon, and satire is meant to cut to the bone.  But whose bone?  What exactly is the target?”

*Ruben Bolling of “Tom the Dancing Bug” “IN NON-SATIRICAL DEFENSE OF CHARLIE HEBDO”

*The Daily Show on the tragedy.

*Ted Rall, “Political Cartooning is almost worth dying for.”“Which brings me to my big-picture reaction to yesterday’s horror: Cartoons are incredibly powerful.

Not to denigrate writing (especially since I do a lot of it myself), but cartoons elicit far more response from readers, both positive and negative, than prose. Websites that run cartoons, especially political cartoons, are consistently amazed at how much more traffic they generate than words. I have twice been fired by newspapers because my cartoons were too widely read — editors worried that they were overshadowing their other content.”

*Unmournable Bodies, by Teju Cole:  “But it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal.”

*”Charlie Hebdo is Heroic and Racist” by Jordan Weissmann.  “So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t.”

*Were Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons racist?  This says yes.  This provides much needed context on the difficult question of cultural norms. NYT on the context of Charlie Hebdo and French satire. Some explanation of some of the controversial Charlie Hebdo covers.  And more context on the satire of the magazine.

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The Laughter of Millions: Finding your Material in the “Vast Wasteland”

In the introduction to The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005: 12) Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder conclude that while entertaining, “[sitcoms] are never just entertainment”, but rather a fascinating window into the conventions, structures, and discourses of American culture. Given the genres popularity, longevity, and consistent formula from the early days of television onwards, American sitcoms form a highly interesting source material for historians. Needless to point out, sitcoms feature discourses often consumed by tens of millions of people. The main problem for historians, usually taking on television material qualitatively rather than quantitatively, is the “vast wasteland” this archival treasure amounts to. Thus, to use the immense material television sitcoms constitute the historian must find a way to select the shows that represent the culture, or find himself buried in one-liners, laugh-tracks, and opening themes.

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor)

The strengths of sitcoms as historical source material lies in their ability to on the one hand reflect the culture they are a product of and on the other hand shape the culture they are consumed in. That is to say, sitcoms are never produced nor enjoyed in a vacuum.

 

While the effects sitcoms have on audiences attitudes and believes hardly can be empirically proven it remains clear that, as John Fiske puts it in Television Culture (London: Routledge, 2010), “Social change does occur, ideological values do shift, and television is a part of this movement”. So, as historians we must find the shows that best captures the zeitgeist of a specific period in time.

This part is rather clear, what is harder is locating a methodologically sound way to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Depending on your research question material selection can of course sort itself out, if you’re looking for say Asian-American families in the lead you are pretty much left with All-American Girl (ABC 1994) and the upcoming Fresh off the Boat (ABC 2015).

If, however, there are no content requirements on the show beyond them being sitcoms (I will not venture into debates of any authoritarian definition of sitcoms here) you will need clear selection methods to find the canon of sitcoms that most saturated the specific times.

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