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.
The history of political satire in the U.S. provides plenty of examples of how cartoons contributed to bolster religious and ethnic stereotypes of nineteenth-century immigrants and minorities. Unapologetic images of greedy Jews, drunken Irishmen, lazy Italians, foolish Blacks, and savage Indians were regular fare in newspapers and magazines. Thomas Nast, the father of political cartooning, was ferocious in his depiction of Catholics as a threatening, unassimilable group that if allowed would erode the very foundations of the American political system.
In other words, it is undeniable that cartoons have an ugly history, one that reflects in graphic form the fears and prejudice of the society that produced them. There is also the other side of the coin: the brave role cartoonists have played in helping society maintain its sanity—think of The Masses cartoonists during World War I, who were accused of treason for denouncing the Espionage Act, think of Bill Mauldin’s World War II unassuming soldiers who refused to glorify the war, of Herbert Block who denounced Senator McCarthy in the 1950s, when most people were afraid to do so, of Paul Conrad’s denunciation of Nixon during the Watergate scandal, of Gary Trudeau, who included the first gay character in a comic strip, and so many others.
All these artists faced disapproving responses to their work, and in some cases censorship. What made their work so relevant was their willingness to go against the grain, against their society’s common wisdom. It is that irreverence that makes cartoons so infuriating but ultimately so relevant. We may like or dislike, enjoy or hate the cartoonists’ work, but their controversial character is part of their nature, their provocative stand what makes them the very embodiment of democracy. Their irreverent streak cannot and should not be tamed.
(c) 2015, Tereas Prados-Torreira
Teresa Prados-Torreira teaches a course on political satire in American history at Columbia College Chicago.