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.
I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.
I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by Norton & Company. When my grandfather gave me the book it was still new scholarship, and I was no scholar, but the text fascinated me. Densely illustrated, the Potter edition uses marginalia to communicate the context of both the novel and Hearn’s Introduction like an analogue prototype for the internet. I was a babe in the woods, looking through the first book I ever owned that did not involve talking animals or a young sleuth by the name of Encyclopedia Brown. I was proud that someone thought me ready for such an impressive text, but make no mistake, the pictures helped. As a child I was not a strong reader, but I was wildly artistic. And the first page I opened had a caricature of two men, in nightgowns, with nineteenth-century facial hair, collecting clocks.
I don’t think I can reproduce it here for legal purposes, but Roman numeral lvi (56) of the Norton edition will show you the two figures identified as the authors George W. Cable and Mark Twain, drawn by Thomas Nast, on Thanksgiving, 1884.
There was no other description behind the cause of their act, collecting clocks at five before midnight, besides: “The two spent Thanksgiving at Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, New Jersey.” I cannot fault Hearn’s lack of insight, because it sparked the first real academic inquiry in my young mind: What the hell is going on?
I can tell you that later I learned:
On Thanksgiving Eve the readers were in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were entertained by Thomas Nast. The cartoonist prepared a quiet supper for them and they remained overnight in the Nast home. They were to leave next morning by an early train, and Mrs. Nast had agreed to see that they were up in due season. When she woke next morning there seemed a strange silence in the house and she grew suspicious. Going to the servants’ room, she found them sleeping soundly. The alarm-clock in the back hall had stopped at about the hour the guests retired. The studio clock was also found stopped; in fact, every timepiece on the premises had retired from business. Clemens had found that the clocks interfered with his getting to sleep, and he had quieted them regardless of early trains and reading engagements. On being accused of duplicity he said: “Well, those clocks were all overworked, anyway. They will feel much better for a night’s rest.” A few days later Nast sent him a caricature drawing—a picture which showed Mark Twain getting rid of the offending clocks. (Mark Twain, a Biography, vol. II, part 1, 188)
But all this postdates my first academic thought. Before I knew Huck, Jim, the Mississippi River, or the author who sent them down it. I saw a picture and knew the name of the man who drew it. Thomas Nast. I remember I wanted to know more, and now I can share some of it with you, in context.
Editor’s Note: This piece is a repost from Phil Nel’s excellent blog, Nine Kinds of Pie, which features great posts on children’s literature, comics, music, academia, and other subjects. Check it out.
While he was contributing to the New Yorker as Syd Hoff, he was also contributing to the Daily Worker and New Masses as A. Redfield — the pseudonym he adopted for his radical work. The Ruling Clawss (Daily Worker, 1935) collects his cartoons originally published in the Communist daily. Contrary to what all published biographies (except for the one in Julia Mickenberg’s and my Tales for Little Rebels) allege, Hoff’s first collection of cartoons was not Feeling No Pain (Dial, 1944). His first such collection — and, in fact, his first published book — was The Ruling Clawss. Here are a few selections.
Hoff mocks this bourgeois “artist” as a voyeur with no understanding of true suffering.
M. THOMAS INGE
If incongruity is at the heart of humor and what makes people laugh, as some theorists have maintained, then nowhere is there a greater disparity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and our failure to achieve it, than in American politics.
The democratic system posits higher values than we can live up to—not only life and liberty, but the pursuit of happiness for heaven’s sake! Not to mention equality, justice, and freedom of speech. And then there are the politicians entrusted with achieving them. We still laugh, unfortunately, at Mark Twain’s quip, “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”
A gauge of the success of our system is our willingness to make fun of ourselves and celebrate our failures with the horse laugh. We hold nothing above ridicule—the law, government, religion, or the President—and we seek redress through satire.
Rather than be discouraged, the use of humor encourages us to try again and see if we can’t get it right the next time. Laughter is a healthy corrective, and it serves to adjust our hopes and expectations to the reality of what’s actually possible in this increasingly precarious world.
Little wonder then that the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country from its very founding. One of the earliest political cartoons to appear in a newspaper was attributed to Benjamin Franklin in the May 9, 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. The crude drawing portrayed a snake cut into separate portions like the states, with the injunction “Unite, or Die,” a warning that political survival in the colonies depended on union and mutual respect. Not much humor there really, except in the odd choice of the snake, given all its symbolic weight, as the image of the emerging nation.
We would not have truly belletristic writing in America until Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper several decades after the founding of the nation. One reason for this may have been the fact that the minds of the leading intellectuals were mainly involved in working out the details of the social and political structure of the commonwealth. Most of the writing, therefore, addressed practical economic and political problems, as well as theological questions.
There did seem to be room for humor however. As early as 1647 Nathaniel Ward ridiculed what he saw as too much religious tolerance and freedom for women in the colonies in The Simple Cobler of Aggawam. Almost a century later, Thomas Morton, of Maypole fame, turned the spyglass around in the other direction and made fun of Puritan bigotry in New English Canaan (1737). Ebenezer Cooke in Maryland laid a comic Hudibrastic curse on the entire new world in The Sot-Weed Factor (1708).
As periodicals and newspapers developed, the columns were promptly filled with humorous essays and satires on the absurdities and pomposities of the emerging social and political classes. Franklin, the Connecticut Wits, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, Seba Smith, Francis Whitcher, and Marietta Holley were among them, the last two women also having their say.
Soon major schools of humor would emerge in New England and the Old South, which would in turn produce Mark Twain, after whom neither American literature nor humor would ever be the same. As for political humor, do we have a more profound and funnier statement on the conflict between the individual conscience and the laws of the state than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)?
The example of Twain’s comic accomplishments would inspire many other writers to follow, such as James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Woody Allen, and Garrison Keillor, to name only a few. A strong strain of humor has persisted in American literature.
But just as surely as these writers were observing and commenting on the national scene and the human condition, so too were the editorial cartoonists in the pages of the newspapers. Although Franklin and Paul Revere are credited with early political cartoons, it wasn’t until Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler in the nineteenth century that they became a major force.
Nast’s satiric vision was so penetrating and influential that his cartoons seemed to have an effect on national affairs. One of his Civil War drawings is credited with assuring Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, and his unrelenting attacks on Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies contributed to his downfall and imprisonment.
Although few would have such direct influence, many notable comic artists would follow Tweed’s path into political cartooning as a profession, such as Rollin Kirby, Jay “Ding” Darling, Herbert L. Block (Herblock), Bill Mauldin, Patrick Oliphant, Paul Conrad, and Jeff MacNelly.
Do readers pay attention? Sometimes with startling results. While mostly readers respond with letters of complaint, in 1987 a reader was so incensed with a cartoon by Tony Auth in the Philadelphia Inquirer that he broke into his office, trashed it, and warned that if it wasn’t for his religion and humanity, he would have killed the cartoonist.
More recently, in the January 29, 2006 issue of the Washington Post, a cartoon by Tom Toles criticized statements about the war in Iraq by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld through use of a symbolic figure of an American soldier who has lost both arms and legs.
A dew days later, on February 7, the Post published a letter attacking the cartoon as “callous” and “reprehensible” signed by the Chairman and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the only time in memory that a single letter had been signed by all five members for any purpose, much less a cartoon. The letter did not address the political point of the drawing but only the use of the amputee figure as “beyond tasteless.”
On the same day as the cartoon by Toles appeared in the Post, the pages of the newspaper carried the first story about what would prove to be the most profound and powerful response to a cartoon in history, what has become known as the Danish cartoon incident.
A daily Danish newspaper had published on September 30, 2005, twelve cartoons criticizing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad as a test of freedom of speech, the editor understanding that Islamic tradition forbade any pictorial portrayal of the prophet as a hedge against idolatry. He may also have understood that any ridiculing of the prophet, as had been demonstrated by Salman Rushdie’s lampoon of him in Satanic Verses, would constitute blasphemy deserving of the death sentence.
Protests, demands for an apology from the editor and the Danish government, and legal complaints were lodged for a year by Muslim groups before it erupted into an international furor. Danish embassies were closed in Muslim countries, boycotts against Danish trade and products were instituted, and riots broke out in several countries leaving many injured and a considerable number dead.
Editors in the United States and abroad who chose to reprint the cartoons were accused of inciting further violence, while those who did not were condemned for giving in to repressive pressure to gag freedom of speech. A few resigned or lost their jobs.
However, such radical responses as these are rare in the history of the political cartoon. Mainly the drawings serve the same function as does all successful humor in providing a useful reality check. Walt Kelly, former editorial cartoonist and creator of the popular political comic strip Pogo, once put it best: “Humor should not be regarded as the sweetening around a sour pill. It is something that clears the air, makes life more real, and therefore less frightening.”
Copyright © M. Thomas Inge