On January 7th, freedom of expression was brutally attacked as crazed gunmen penetrated the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The attack resulted in the deaths of eleven people who worked there:
Stephane Charbonnier; Elsa Cayat; Georges Wolinski; Bernard Maris; Bernard Verlhac; Phillipe Honore; Ahmed Merabet; Mustapha Ourrad; Frederic Boisseau; Jean Cabut; Michael Renaud; and Franck Brinosolaro.
They are casualties in the war against arrogance; against hatred; against bigotry; against intellectual challenge.
Of them, those who worked at creating the barbed satirical contents of the magazine were not just journalists; they were not just radical leftists; they were provocateurs. While there is great history in the potency of editorial cartooning, it has not produced such a dramatic response since Thomas Nast’s editorial cartoons were responsible for bringing down Boss Tweed’s outrageously corrupt New York/Tammany Hall administration.
Those who would rule via fear, via torture and unthinking observance and wrong-headed interpretation of sacred documents, cannot allow such potent attacks—i.e., political cartoons—to go unchallenged.
How much mightier than the sword the pen truly is.
And how inevitable that a French publication would be the lightning rod for brutal, radical extremists. The founding of the modern states of France and America are inextricably intertwined. Without France’s help, the colonies would have lost their battle for independence against the British monarchy. Without the guiding example, support, and philosophies of the American radicals, France’s revolution would have died at birth.
I truly admire those magnificent rascals at Charlie Hebdo for having the balls to continue to do what they have done: find the scabs and pick at them; don’t let the bastards rest—hold them accountable.
It is a time-honored tradition in free and democratic countries. Although today American editorial cartooning has, to be kind, lost its bite. Oh sure, the NY Post reprints editorial cartoons that make fun of how President Obama looks—the big ears are an easy hook. Cheap shots, really, but fair game over here. But pretty damned tame compared to where we’ve been.
As recently as the 1960s there was a vibrant, radical, confrontational press in America that used editorial cartooning as its own swift sword. In the wake of national tragedy and trauma, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, editorial cartoonists and provocateurs were at their finest in America. They challenged authority; they disbelieved the official narrative of events.
Ramparts magazine, a radical, originally underground publication, published a cover story condemning de facto President Lyndon B. Johnson as being complicit in JFK’s death. Their cover story “revealed” that on the flight home from Dallas to Washington bearing the fallen president’s coffin, LBJ had had sex with the slain president’s body. It was in such bad taste that I feel uncomfortable even at this late date in describing the specifics of the piece. Yet no one was arrested; no one was attacked; no one was killed as a result of its publication.
The past is suddenly looking better than the present. Let’s re-educate the public and unshackle the editorial press, around the world, going forward.