In 1968 the arts, culture, and satire magazine Evergreen Review featured the story "The Spirit of Che" with a now famous deific portrait of Che Guevera by Paul Davis on both the cover and posters throughout the New York City subway. This iconic illustration was so offensive to anti-Castro Cubans that they bombed the Evergreen offices in Greenwich Village. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Free expression took a hit.
Anyone with the fanatical need to access mass media could apparently do so through violence. In 2015 the media is more accessible than ever to anyone with an Internet account, yet it is so densely populated that the magnitude of violence has risen exponentially to be heard and seen above the din.
Yesterday’s massacre of twelve editors and cartoonists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satiric weekly that prides itself on humorous attacks of any and all folly, is not an isolated event, albeit the bar has been raised. As this was a premeditated killing spree over a newspaper’s satiric content, it could be seen as a new license for others. But satire, satirists, and cartoonists have long been targets.
In France the satiric press has a history of being squelched through legal and extra-legal means. Honore Daumier, France’s greatest cartoonist, who in 1832 published an offensive, anti-government cartoon, Gargantua, was jailed for six months. “Between 1815 and 1880 about twenty French caricature journals were suppressed by the government and virtually every prominent nineteenth-century French political caricaturist either had his drawings forbidden, was prosecuted and/or was jailed,” writes censorship scholar Robert Justin Goldstein. In 1918, in the United States, contributors to The Masses were brought to trial charged with “unlawfully and willfully … obstruct[ing] the recruiting and enlistment of the United States," owing to a Henri Glintenkamp cartoon showing a skeleton measuring a man for a coffin with the title Physically Fit. During the early twenties, cartoonist/caricaturist George Grosz endured three criminal trials for “public offense” owing to his caustic attack on the German military in his portfolio Gott mit uns. Had Grosz stayed in Nazi Germany, where there was a warrant for his arrest, his cartoons would have put him in a concentration camp.
Graphic commentators are often on the front lines of the war for free expression. And today they are even more vulnerable to religious mandated assasination. Free expression continues to take a hit. The cartoonist and editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed yesterday, had said, “We have the right to express ourselves, they have the right to express themselves, too.”
However, murder is not expression.