A Cartoonist Must Die

January 2015

“Now the courtroom is quiet, but who will confess.
Is it true you betrayed us? The answer is Yes.
Then read me the list of the crimes that are mine,
I will ask for the mercy that you love to decline.
And all the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice,
A singer must die for the lie in his voice.
And I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty,
You keepers of truth, you guardians of beauty.
Your vision is right, my vision is wrong,
I'm sorry for smudging the air with my song.”
      —Leonard Cohen (A Singer Must Die)
Charlie Hebdo I am a cartoonist. Non, je ne suis pas Charlie. Ni Banksy, ni Bill Watterson, ni Gary Trudeau. Mais, je suis cartooniste quand mÍme.

In the wake of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, I thought I better look over my cartoons and see if I might have to die for them. I think almost any of them could get me killed.

Most of my cartoons are offensive. It's not an accident. I like offensive cartoons. Generally I don't mind offending people — especially when they are behaving in ways I find offensive. I think this cartoon is my most offensive. This one may be the runner-up.

Looking over my cartoons, I seem to have steered clear of religiously offensive cartoons. Why? Religions and religious symbols (all of them) are sacred. They belong to God. To mock them is to mock God. I don't mind offending and mocking people; but I do not wish to mock God. The closest I've come to a religiously offensive cartoon is this one. But here I'm mocking the misuse of religion, not religion. I believe placing this famous fetal image of Jesus in the womb of a woman giving birth in the bombed-out hulk of an Iraqi hospital is completely consistent with Christian theology.

And this piece of silliness which I put together for my atheist brother, mocks the misuse of religion to deny science.

Not so with Charlie Hebdo. Glenn Greenwald reproduces two cartoons from Charlie Hebdo here. The first thing to notice is that they are racist. The first depicts the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) naked except for a turban, showing off his butt to a television camera. It would be totally unacceptable if applied to Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Krishna or any other mainstream religious figure. The second is even worse because it also mocks female slavery implying that Muslim women held in sexual bondage are interested in nothing more than their welfare checks. Again, totally unacceptable if applied to any other religion but Islam.

Personally, I think we cartoonists have a special responsibility. Our medium is perhaps the most powerful social medium of all. We can say graphically with one image and a few words what others require long treatises. Cartooning, in its succinctness, is perhaps closest to poetry. I like to think of cartoons as visual poems.

I don't think Charlie Hebdo exercised much responsibility in printing these two images. They certainly feed negative stereotypes of Muslims who are already marginalized and discriminated against in Western societies. They can best be described as “cheap shots” — cheap and dangerous. Non, je ne suis pas Charlie.

But aren't these cartoons protected as “free speech?” Again turning to Greenwald:

“Iíve previously covered cases where Muslims were imprisoned for many years in the U.S. for things like translating and posting ‘extremist’ videos to the internet, writing scholarly articles in defense of Palestinian groups and expressing harsh criticism of Israel, and even including a Hezbollah channel in a cable package.”

So much for freedom of speech. Freedom of speech belongs to those whose speech is sanctioned by the powerful. But I would go even further.

Freedom of Speech is one of those core Enlightenment values that many in the West like to think of as Universal values. They are not Universal. Our Freedoms are so fragile that all it takes is a 9/11 or a Charlie Hebdo and they begin to evaporate in the name of National Security.

At our weekly peace vigils, I am admonished from time to time that my freedom to demonstrate is based on our military might. While it is easy to dismiss such admonishments, there is more than a little truth to them. Our so-called democracy is based on theft: Land stolen from the Amerindians. Industry built with slave labor. Theft from our own underclasses. Theft of resources from far-away lands unable to stand up to our military might. And theft from the Earth itself — and to such a degree that all humanity is now in danger of extinction.

Personally, I find this a rather high price to pay for the Right to stand in front of the Post Office with signs declaring Peace is Patriotic. I think it's also a high price to pay for Charlie Hebdo's Right to publish degrading images of Islam. So the very least I can do is question the core Enlightment values that have given rise to our predicament. I have questioned them and find them lacking. Bad speech drowns out good speech; and if you don't believe that, just turn on your television.

Did a handful of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo deserve death? Certainly not. But neither did millions of Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans, Pakistanis, Libyans, and Syrians who continue to die in the West's neo-colonial wars of aggression. And, for that matter, neither did the Kouachi brothers.

Millions marched in Paris proclaiming “Je suis Charlie.” Five of us vigil quietly at the Rolla Post Office proclaiming “Peace is Patriotic.”

And who creates these divisions in society? Who hoards obscene wealth while billions live in grinding poverty? Who amasses unheard of military might in quest of power? Who is so totally without spiritual values that they will risk destruction of the Earth and extinction of human life for no other end but wealth and power? Aren't these “keepers of truth” and ”guardians of beauty” just as responsible for the death of Cabu, Charb and the others at Charlie Hebdo as they are for the millions who die in our wars of aggression or succumb to the grinding poverty imposed on them?

I began this article with a quote from Leonard Cohen's A Singer Must Die. In ten lines, Cohen lays bare the heart of the matter more poignantly than all the paeans to free speech I've read in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. We artists are dangerous. We lie. The vision of the world we show you is not as it is, or as it might be, but as we choose to present it. We lie.

Charlie Hebdo's vision of the world is particularly dangerous. It mocks the sacred. And there is a high price to pay for mocking the sacred, as Charlie Hebdo found out. Not only did it lead to the death of Cabu and Chard; but also to the escalation of war, violence, death, destruction and repression that we are already witnessing.

So where do I stand? Neither with Charlie Hebdo, nor with the Kouachi Brothers, nor with those who repeat meaningless slogans, nor with those who use this incident to further their agenda of war, violence and repression. As Leonard Cohen sang:
“Which side are you on now?
Which song are you gonna sing?
With a mega-stench of corpses that is blowin' in the wind.”

I will choose no such side. I am a cartoonist. I am dangerous. I lie. And if “a singer must die for the lie in his voice,” so too, a cartoonist must die for the lie on his brush.


A Note on Leonard Cohen

I've never met Leonard Cohen. I've never attended a live Leonard Cohen concert. Yet, I feel an intimate bond with him.

When I've been sad, depressed, suicidal, I've listened over and over again to Leonard's music and lost myself in his sadness. It seemed he was talking to me. He'd talk of people I knew: A stranger who is “reaching for the sky just to surrender.” A puppet master whose “body is a golden string.” A saint whose “body is gone; but ... his spirit continues to drool.” Somehow Leonard would see me through it all and I'd come out the other side whole.

A few years ago when there were demonstrations against Leonard Cohen traveling to Israel to give a concert, I said to myself: “Let him go. The Israelis have fallen to such a level of iniquity, no one but Leonard Cohen could possibly save them.

I still love listening to Leonard's music. He is still writing songs like “A Singer Must Die” that go straight to the heart. His songs are poetry that one can almost understand — almost — but not quite. Perhaps, if I don't die for the lie on my brush, he'll see me through the next crisis too.

If you are, like me, a fan of Leonard Cohen, don't miss this biography of him by Liel Leibovitz.