French Prime Minister Manuel Valls holds a copy of Charlie Hebdo with the title "Tout est pardonne" ("All is forgiven") in Paris, January 2015.
Christian Hartmann / Courtesy Reuters

As any kid who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s could tell you, reading comics was a guilty pleasure. “Why are you wasting your time reading these silly things?” our parents would ask. “You should be doing your homework.”

Political cartoons were an equally frivolous diversion, a sort of second cousin to the comics, just slightly more serious than “Popeye,” “Batman,” and the rest.

Fast-forward nearly a century to the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo and everything that has followed: the terrorist manhunt and the demonstration of solidarity in Paris that included 40 world leaders. It turns out that cartoons, caricature, satire—call it what you will—are not so trivial after all.

We have seen this show before, albeit with a different cast of characters. It was only ten years ago that the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten commissioned a dozen cartoonists to caricature Muhammad. Across Asia and Europe, hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets to protest. Embassies were shut down, ambassadors recalled. In Pakistan, protesters burned Danish flags. Worldwide, protests killed more than 100 people and injured some 500. The cartoonists were forced to go into hiding, with million-dollar price tags put on their heads.

"TEMPERS RISE, FEVERS MOUNT"

Given the long line of kings, dictators, bureaucrats, politicos, and other would-be censors who have taken drastic action against cartoons over the years, these events should shock but not surprise. At least, they did not surprise me. In my 30 years as editor and then publisher of The Nation—a bastion of word-people if ever there were one—only once did the staff march into my office with a petition demanding that we not publish something, and that something was a cartoon, a caricature. (Drawn by the late, great David Levine, it depicted Henry Kissinger, under a blanket decorated as an American flag, doing the deed with a woman with a globe for a head. In David’s words, Kissinger was “screwing the world.”)

The British cartoonist David Low, 1891–1963, whose cartoons often mocked Hitler as ineffectual (one showed him as a spoiled brat), was fascinated by the ability of his caricatures to cause offense. In November 1937, Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, attended a meeting in Germany in which Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, requested that London’s Evening Standard stop publishing Low’s cartoons. Upon his return, Halifax reported to Low’s publisher: “You cannot imagine the frenzy these cartoons cause. As soon as a copy of The Evening Standard arrives, it is pounced on for Low’s cartoon, and if it is of Hitler, which it usually is, telephones buzz, tempers rise, fevers mount, and the whole governmental system of Germany is in an uproar. It has hardly subsided before the next one arrives. We in England can’t understand the violence of the reaction.”

Low offered his own theory: “No dictator is inconvenienced or even displeased by cartoons showing this terrible person stalking through blood and mud. That is the kind of idea about himself that the power-seeking world-beater would want to propagate. It not only feeds his vanity, but unfortunately it shows profitable returns in an awed world. What he does not want to get around is the idea that he is an ass, which is really damaging.”

A simpler reason cartoons cause so much trouble: they are so hard to miss. It was Thomas Nast, after all, the cartoonist who gave Republicans their elephant and children their Santa Claus, whose caricatures provoked the wrath of Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed. Tweed famously said that he did not mind what newspapers wrote about him because his constituents couldn’t read. “But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures,” he said. (Ironically, Tweed, who was sentenced to prison in connection with a $200 million fraud perpetrated on the citizens of New York, was caught and brought to justice when a Spanish customs official recognized him from Nast’s caricatures.)

Tweed’s fear of political cartoons was nothing new. In 1853, French King Louis Philippe established censorship rules specifically for caricatures. “Whereas a pamphlet is no more than a violation of opinion, a caricature amounts to an act of violence,” he said. His view was perhaps colored by his experience as a target of the caricaturist and publisher Charles Philipon, whose cartoons captured the resemblance of the king’s face to a pear. One of Philipon’s employees, Honoré Daumier, became famous for his caricature “Gargantua,” which depicted the pear-shaped king sitting in front of the national assembly on a large commode. As the poor deliver food and tribute, he excretes boodle to aristocrats below. Daumier, Philipon, and the printer were all indicted for “arousing hatred and contempt of the king’s government and for the king’s person.”

A VISUAL LANGUAGE

Although the message of the cartoon is always the purported cause of the actions taken against it, that message is often ambiguous or misunderstood. This enables readers to draw their own conclusions from the work. Thus, when The New Yorker ran a cover, during then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign that showed Obama and his wife Michelle in terrorist garb, thousands of readers cancelled their subscriptions and the Democratic candidate for president even took time out from his campaign to call the cover “offensive.” In fact, as The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, explained, the cover was intended not to satirize Obama but to satirize the “distortions and prejudice about Obama.”

There are almost as many theories as to why cartoons cause so much offense as there are political cartoonists. There are religious reasons (“No graven images”), anthropological ones (so-called primitive peoples believed that pictures were alive), and psychological ones (there is even a whole new field called neuro-aesthetics that purports to show how and why such images activate such strong emotions.)

My own theory: caricatures are by definition unfair, often grotesquely exaggerating the people they portray, and yet the victims of cartoons and caricatures have no way to retort. If you don’t like an editorial, you can always write a letter-to-the-editor. But there is no such thing as a cartoon-to-the-editor, which must be frustrating. And that frustration might be compounded by the fear that the caricaturist may have captured something real. As the Austrian art historian Ernst Gombrich put it, “The caricaturist [does] not seek the perfect form, but the perfect deformity, to penetrate through the outward appearance to the inner being in all its ugliness.”

Given all of this, should certain cartoons, like hate speech, be banned?

Taking the high road, outlets such as The New York Times and CNN have declined to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the grounds that they are offensive to Muslims. My own position: government censorship of any sort should never be tolerated. Editors, on the other hand, should be free to publish or decline to publish whatever they want, whether for reasons of taste, politics, ideology, or anything else. However, in the case of the newspaper of record, as the Times likes to consider itself, there has been a confusion of categories. If the cartoons had been submitted to the the Op-Ed page as original visual editorial statements, then the Times would be justified in not publishing them. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, however, the cartoon covers were not merely in the news; they were the news. And because cartoons—and works of art in general—don’t lend themselves to paraphrase any more than poetry does, it is not good enough merely to describe what is in them. They pack an emotional wallop precisely because they speak in a visual language, and since they have to be experienced to be truly understood, it seems to me a disservice to the reader not to run them.

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  • VICTOR NAVASKY is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was the editor of The Nation from 1978 to 1995 and its publisher from 1995 to 2005. He is the author of The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power.
  • More By Victor Navasky