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 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.”
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