01.08.15
Steven Heller | Essays

On the Front Lines of Free Expression

 
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. 


Photo of Charlie Hebdo vigil in New York’s Union Square on Wednesday night by Celine Bouchez




Comments [7]

Well put, Steven.
Aleks Dawson
01.08.15
12:47

Of course the murders are abhorrent, of course no one deserves to die for drawing a cartoon. But to reduce it to just being about 'freedom of expression' is an extremely surface level analysis of a dangerous situation. It isn't really just about freedom of expression this is blowback for the War On Terror. I don't even really believe the killers are bothered about 'offensive' cartoons. US led Imperialism has been committing far greater acts of terrorism in the Middle East, murdering millions in Iraq, Afghanistan and through funding and support the destruction of the Palestinian people by Israel, and, ironically the building of IS by Saudi Arabia (home of the 9/11 attackers). 13 years of war is what has created this extremism. What this is about Nafeez Ahmed in this piece (http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/blowback-paris-1534074535) expresses well: "The targeting of Charlie Hebdo signifies, along with the trend of recent Islamist terrorist attacks, that the strategy is shifting from symbolic spectacular high casualty attacks, to more frequent and less complex strikes that are easier to organise and execute. But the targeting of Charlie Hebdo is revealing in another way. In 2006, the magazine published the notorious Muhammad cartoons that had previously run in Denmark, provoking worldwide protests across the Muslim world. Charlie Hebdo had also run several of its own original cartoons of the Prophet of Islam. The terrorists’ decision to target Charlie Hebdo is thus more than just an attack on France; it is an effort to rally populist support from across the Muslim world for the Islamist cause. Successive global public opinion polls across Muslim countries up to 2013 show that overwhelming majorities have increasingly expressed “negative views” about al-Qaeda terrorism, to the point that support for the Islamist terrorist network had waned to an all-time low. Given IS’ fantastical messianic ambitions to establish a global ‘caliphate,’ the latest massacre in the name of ‘avenging the Prophet’ can be seen as a sign that Islamist extremists are now recognising the increasing unpopularity of Islamist violence amongst Muslim publics – illustrated once again with the unprecedented mass mobilization of Pakistanis in response to the Taliban’s recent massacre of school children. This is an attempt to turn the tide, and rally Muslims to their support." We can condemn the murders, have sympathy for the victims but still not align ourselves with some of the work of Charlie Hebdo some of which is racist and Islamophobic. Priding yourself on attacking everyone is not good enough as blogger 'a paper bird' says: "We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless." Free expression/speech is never 'free' it is always backed up by power, Rupert Murdoch has far more freedom of speech than me or you. There are limits to it as well, we don't allow someone to incite hatred or murder through speech and in a Europe where Muslims are the new Jews and in the context of a French society whose extreme secularism oftens insults those with religious faith, Muslim's are in danger - there have already been attacks on Mosques in France since the attack - and are asked to apologise for acts of fanatics in a way no other group are. Fascism and Racism are growing in Europe, the reactions that have tried to make it about a fight for free speech don't allow us to stop those movements or terrible acts like this happening again, as that would mean addressing the root cause, the War On Terror and the actions of the West.
noel douglas
01.09.15
06:42

Why do the line breaks not work in posts! They've all been lost in my comment above, sorry it's all gone into one block.
noel douglas
01.09.15
06:43

http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/jan/09/joe-sacco-on-satire-a-response-to-the-attacks
noel douglas
01.09.15
06:47

Dear Noel Your comments are much appreciated. Certainly, free expression is not the entire issue here. The War on Terror has added to the Terror Levels. But that does not mitigate the magnitude of the violence in response to words and pictures. What's more the use of terror as a weapon existed long before the War on Terror began. Our policies and those of our allies are a response to terror that has been practiced over decades. The war has spiraled and that's the essence of war. It is important not to make martyrs of Charlie Hebdo. Frankly, I was never a fan of Charlie Hebdo's satiric strategy. But that is not the issue either. They provoked for sure. They insulted for sure. But cartoons are statements, not bullets. They are powerful but not deadly. Propaganda can be fought by propaganda.
Steven Heller
01.10.15
07:38

Hello Steven, as I said no one should ever be killed for drawing a cartoon that is obvious and yes Terrorism existed before the War on Terror however the killers were French Algerians linked to Al-Qaeda in Yemen. France has an appalling record of Imperialist oppression in Algeria, and that is a history that causes a deep and burning anger among many Muslims similarly Al-Qaeda is now far more widespread thanks to George Bush and Obama carpet bombing Afghanistan and Iraq and sending Drones to kill people from a distance in Pakistan. How many of those victims are honoured with front pages in the Western press? None because they have brown skin and aren't as important as white, westerners. The attackers are linked as I mentioned to Al-Qaeda in Yemen. In April this year US drones murdered 12 people at a wedding in Yemen (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/yemenis-seek-justice-wedding-drone-strike-201418135352298935.html), did we see hashtags and campaigns to remember there names? No. One of the attackers was radicalised by seeing images from Abu Gharib, the US just admitted it tortured people, are those the 'values' we supposedly are telling Muslims we hold that are so honourable? It is things like this that lead some to turn to Terrorism as a response. You say "our polices are a response terror that has been practised for decades" Really? Do you not know the history of Imperialism in the Middle East? Britain, France and now the US has continually interferred with those countries. Did the Afghans or Iraqis attack the twin towers? No, George Bush and Tony Blair launched a criminal war against another State that has opened up a sewer of extremism in those countries and were until recently supporting IS against Assad, why? Because they want to control the resources. None of this excuses the murders but if we don't want these types of things to continue we have to realise it is Imperialism that is to blame, most victims of Terrorism are Muslims in the Middle East. As Ramsay Clark, former US Attorney General said, in a rare moment of honesty: "“Our overriding purpose, from the beginning through to the present day, has been world domination − that is, to build and maintain the capacity to coerce everybody else on the planet: nonviolently, if possible; and violently, if necessary. But the purpose of US foreign policy domination is not just to make the rest of the world jump through hoops; the purpose is to facilitate our exploitation of resources.”
noel douglas
01.10.15
06:41

Noel, I'd argue that the chicken/egg goes back to European, Ottoman, Russian and American imperialism/world domination of the late 19th century. You can't pick the terror you want, you have to accept the terror you've got. Whatever the root cause, we're in a screwed up reality now. The killings were carried out by criminals who were, well, criminals. They chose Charlie Hebdo because they spoke out.
Steven Heller
01.11.15
08:02



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