Artist at work

Cartoons: A Laughing Matter?

Plastic surgeon to patient: Why would you want a new face? You look just fine.

Patient: I am the guy who drew the Muhammad cartoons.

In 2005, a Danish paper published 12 cartoon caricatures of the prophet Muhammad which were quickly reproduced around the globe. Violent protests erupted; cartoonists received death threats; offices of newspapers were attacked. The Great Mosque of Paris sued but did not prevail.

If you are a cartoonist for the New Yorker, your greatest fear might be that of rejection. In other parts of the world, the fear of losing your job, your freedom or even your life is very real. There is no liberty of expression in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia or even Tunisia where Islam cannot be attacked with impunity. Still cartoonists continue to take risks every time their irreverent pens put them in direct conflict with the objects of their defiant wit.

The Association “Reporters without Borders” was created to promote freedom of the press and has often taken aim at such retribution.

Ali Dilem is an Algerian cartoonist. In 2006 he was sentenced to jail and a fine of 50,000 dinars for cartoons critical of President Bouteflika. Bouteflika was recently reelected to a 4th term despite having not campaigned, not uttered a single word and having only been seen in public once when he was wheeled to a booth to vote for himself.

French caricaturist Plantu of Le Monde got in trouble in Africa for a cartoon of Jesus distributing condoms instead of the multiplying loaves of bread. The fundamentalists of 3 religions bombarded Le Monde with protests. They did not prevail.

Michel Kichka is an Israeli cartoonist. He has targeted Netanyahu, Francois Hollande and even Michelle Obama. She is portrayed as a Barbie surrounded by her many outfits. He has also drawn a self-reproducing Putin. One of his cartoons shows Bashar al Assad standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica.

Ridicule is the most powerful weapon. It has an instant impact. It flies straight to its target bypassing lengthy explanations and circumlocutions. In older times, when satirists could not openly criticize powerful institutions, they took to subterfuge, using imaginary places and times, and often animals. (See “Animal Farm.”)

Plantu says, “Our job is to circumvent taboos.” His terse, incisive caricatures do just that. Plantu said “We are constantly offending someone”.

Malala is standing in front of a building with a huge banner saying: School Closed. A reporter asks: What would you like to do when you grow up?

At Obama’s last meeting with Angela Merkel, she is holding up her phone saying “I have a new mobile.” “Yes”, Obama responds, “I know!”

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8 years ago

Thank you, Simone, for this post about cartoonists. Lately, our own Garry Trudeau, has been running reruns. I hope he is well. This is not to compare his risks with those cartoonists you have mentioned in your article.

Fundamentally, your point is so well made. It is risky to criticize powerful people/institutions.

Power to the artists!

Jan Bowler
Jan Bowler
8 years ago

One of the things that I’ve always loved about the US is it is the one place where the free expression of opinions and ideas, including or maybe especially irreverence, was not only tolerated but celebrated. Now I worry that political correctness has begun to stifle free expression, particularly on college campuses where tolerance of opposing views should be an inviolable precept.

I appreciate the fact that you are making your voice heard intelligently, enjoyably and truthfully. Here’s to more of that!

8 years ago

I worry too about students’ rigidness of opinion when so many commencement speakers are being disinvited or booed because of their views. A liberal education should be about listening to opposing ideas.

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