Features & Columns

Right to Offend: Satire and Free Speech without Censorship

Radical Islam isn't the only threat to satire here and abroad
PEN PALS: Political cartoonists say truly free speech and satire can't be restricted by qualifiers. CRM / Shutterstock.com

The Charlie Hebdo terror attacks of Jan. 7 continue to stimulate conversation and debate here and abroad over the so-called limits of free speech—and it's raised important questions in this country about the state of American satire.

Just how far is "too far," and how much should—how much do—cartoonists engage in self-censorship? And why?

In an op-ed published in the San Jose Mercury News days after the attack, Pattie Cortese, a projected San Jose City Council candidate in 2016 and wife of Dave Cortese, president of the county Board of Supervisors, joined with Rabia Chaudhry, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community's Silicon Valley chapter, to voice their solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims and guardians of free speech.

"The West's relationship with much of the Muslim world is inflamed right now," the pair wrote. "Why choose to pour salt in this open wound, rather than ask ourselves what we can do to build bridges of understanding? We cannot control the behavior of another, but we can take an honest look at our part. We urge all Americans to do the same. Just because we can, does not mean we should."

A quartet of leading American cartoonists interviewed for this story, each of whom have come out of the alternative media universe and squarely represent the tradition of American political satire in their own way, say this type of speech handcuffs exactly the types of discussion America should be having. Each cartoonist has engaged the issue in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo.

Shannon Wheeler

Shannon Wheeler, author of the popular strip Too Much Coffee Man, came out quickly of the Charlie Hebdo gate with a strip reprinted here depicting the slain Charlie Hebdo employees ascending to heaven, with some choice commentary (see page 10). It's a priceless, bittersweet strip.

Wheeler says he had an initial impulse to not "go there," but realized very quickly that he didn't just want to do a pat comment on free speech, "something corny with pencils," and that he had an obligation to honor the Charlie Hebdo heroes by having a little bit of fun. They'd have wanted it that way, he says.

But the American media—corporatized, sanitized and afraid of "offending" anyone, let alone an advertiser—is a dominant roadblock for American satirical cartoonists these days, Wheeler says. "People are afraid of pushing limits," says Wheeler. And, critically, "people are trying to make money. I think that's what it boils down to a lot, in terms of why the humor is so conservative here."

Cartoonist Danny Hellman identifies the strain of argument that runs "I support free speech, but . . . " as being a particularly insidious cop-out. "It's not free speech if you put the 'but' there," he says, adding that the average American doesn't bother to get under the hood to understand the satire Charlie Hebdo was engaged in. Surface impressions rule the day.

"You have to be French and you have to be versed in French politics," says Hellman, who rejects any conjecture that Charlie Hebdo had a "racist" undertone to it. "You can be against racism and be racist at the same time, but clearly they weren't a white supremacist rag, like a lot of people in this country seem to think they were. They made fun of racists just as much as they made fun of religious figures. They were clearly just out to make fun of everything in a rude way."

Jen Sorensen, who has been curating strips by Muslim cartoonists, and writing on it, believes that an "I support free speech, and . . ." approach is the more fruitful conversation to be having after the attack. The 2014 Herblock Prize winner has been interviewing Muslim cartoonists about Charlie Hebdo. "These are educated Muslim cartoonists who are doing very brave work and whose lives are being threatened," she says. Those cartoonists, she says, should have a voice—and it should not be drowned out in a froth of free-speech absolutism.

"I have two perspectives on this," Sorensen continues. "As a political cartoonist, it's horrifying and awful, and I have a vested interest in not being attacked for drawing something. I absolutely support that. But then there is a conversation that follows."

Through her interviews, she's come to see "what different people in various minority groups think about this. And the more marginalized people are," she continues, "the more complicated the responses are. I feel that we can firmly condemn the attacks, but can also talk about the cartoons and how they are being interpreted by broad populations."

Skip Williamson is up there with R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman as one of the heavyweight cartoon satirists of the underground comix movement that sprang up in the convulsive American 1960s. Williamson is an absolutist on free speech issues. He cut his cartooning teeth in the racially polarized environment of America, circa Jim Crow.

One classic, jarring strip he's been sharing on Facebook features a man in a car, with Mississippi license plate. The man has a lynched African American hanging from his rear-view-mirror. Today, that kind of gut-punchy stuff is basically off-limits, especially in mainstream publications that simply do not want to offend readers or make them uncomfortable.

"So many people here are so ready to pounce on anything that remotely smells like racism," says Hellman, a veteran illustrator who's done a couple of covers for Metro's sister newspaper, the North Bay Bohemian, in recent months.

He makes the point: To Pakistanis and others in the Arab world who are protesting the Charlie Hebdo strips, the West is already the kingdom of the infidel. From their perspective, "we expect the infidels to do awful, disgusting things," Hellman says, "so why should they then kill them for being infidels? Why expect people in foreign countries to follow the rules of your religion? It's just intolerance, plain and simple."

Hellman invokes the spirit of the Realist and early alternative newspapers, a golden age of American satire. "Things were so much more vibrant and hip back then. What happened to our media and popular culture that the blood just got sucked out of everything, and we're left with this profit-driven, lowest-common-denominator 'marketplace of ideas'?"

The debatably glorious advent of Twitter has put an emphasis on beheading infidels, metaphorically, who don't get with the sensitivity program.

"We're still getting used to the idea that people can get shut down," says Wheeler. "You do make the joke that is sexist or racist, or is interpreted that way, and people call for the end of your career. They call for your head. This person should be fired, they should never work again."

Williamson's first published cartoon, which ran in papers all over the country in the middle of the 1960s, depicted two garbage cans as a way to highlight the abject injustices and hypocrisies of Jim Crow. One said "White Trash," the other said "Negro Trash." Nobody called him a racist for that cartoon strip, which he penned when he was all of 16 years old.

"Today if I published that, I'd get a lot of flak about it, but back then, it was just part of what people were doing and talking about," says Williamson, who calls for "no censorship ever."

Like Hellman, he laments a bygone era in American satire. Sorenson's take on the post-Hebdo conversation on expression, she says, is a little more nuanced. She stresses that she's in the "I support free speech, and . . ." camp, as distinguished from the "free speech, but . . . " camp, which was exemplified, for instance, by Pope Francis' utterances on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which are worthy of savage mockery.

Sorensen also has more faith in the sturdiness of American political satire than her crusty male counterparts. "I have heard a lot of commentary to this effect, that compared to Charlie Hebdo, American satire is very weak. 'Satire is dead in America.' I guess I agree to the extent that daily newspapers have lost their edge, have become a lot more cautious," she says.

"But in some ways I feel that political satire is alive and well in America."