Satire should spear the powerful

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This spoof cover of Charlie Hebdo landed a 16-year-old in jail. At least 68 other people have been rounded up for similar “crimes”.

The savage killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists by terrorists in Paris is utterly contemptible, but not inexplicable. For me as a cartoonist this seemed to be horribly close to home. As the great cartoonist Joe Sacco commented immediately after the massacre, “This is my tribe”. Sadly, the ensuing media storm has done little to explain and a lot to foment division and put the blame upon “backward” Islam and Muslims in general.

There’s been a vocal campaign extolling the “western values” of free speech and the right to offend, claiming that satire should be free from constraints and able to offend indiscriminately. This is where I part company with the satirists of Charlie Hebdo. The point of satire is to attack the powerful, to expose their hypocrisy and absurdity, and of course to be funny. If satire is directed downwards it is not satire, it’s bullying.

Sadly Charlie Hebdo had been drifting away from its roots in the revolutionary events of France 1968 for some time. In the aftermath of 9/11 its output became blatantly Islamophobic and increasingly Zionist. They carried cartoons which were vile racist caricatures of the sort I haven’t seen since the National Front and BNP published such stuff in the 1970s and 1980s. Worse, some of the anti-Arab cartoons are so stereotypical that the addition of a Star of David would immediately turn them into the sort of anti-Semitic filth produced by the Nazi Third Reich. These are images designed to offend and humiliate a marginalised and persecuted minority. Yet they went largely unchallenged.

There is a magnificent tradition of cartoon savagery in France, starting with the biting drawings of Daumier, whose depiction of Emperor Louis Philippe in 1832 earned him six months in prison. Gustave Doré made hundreds of images depicting the horror of poverty in 19th century Paris and London, an early version of the reportage style of comic continued so successfully by the likes of Joe Sacco (Palestine) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis). The tragedy of Charlie Hebdo is that the cartoonists really thought they were still working in the revolutionary tradition of 1968.

Should cartoonists be offensive? Well of course, it’s our job. But who should we offend? It’s not enough to say “We’re rude about everyone — what’s your problem!?” because everyone is not equal. For someone of Christian origin to take the piss out of the Pope or the church is fine, in fact it’s to be encouraged, but to pick on a someone smaller and weaker than oneself, as we all know from the playground, is wrong. It is important not to confuse insults with satire; they are sometimes the same thing but mostly not. Relying on lazy and racist stereotypes as Charlie Hebdo has done is not satire, subtle or even remotely funny.

I’m an atheist but I don’t expect to convince anyone of the validity of my opinion by belittling theirs; surely the idea is to weaken the influence of religion, not drive its followers further into the arms of the clergy. Shortly after resigning over the magazine’s rightward lurch former Charlie Hebdo journalist Olivier Cyran wrote:

“Scarcely had I walked out, wearied by the dictatorial behaviour and corrupt promotion practices of the employer, than the Twin Towers fell and Caroline Fourest arrived in your editorial team. This double catastrophe set off a process of ideological reformatting which would drive off your former readers and attract new ones — a cleaner readership, more interested in a light-hearted version of the ‘war on terror’ than the soft anarchy of [cartoonist] Gébé. Little by little, the wholesale denunciation of ‘beards’, veiled women and their imaginary accomplices became a central axis of your journalistic and satirical production.”

This is worse than bullying; it is satire in the ideological service of the state (and Charlie Hebdo receives a hefty subsidy from the French government). Islamophobia is not satire. Laughing at Muslims is like sharing a joke with the Nazis of the Front National. And I don’t think any cartoonist worth their salt would relish the idea of their deaths being mourned by the likes of Netanyahu, Hollande, Merkel and the other world leaders who headed up the march in Paris after the killings.

The sight of these champions of free speech (the same ones who have banned Muslim women from wearing the veil and outlawed pro-Palestine demonstrations) marching in the name of free expression seems almost beyond parody. Fortunately many cartoonists and satirists have already proved this fear wrong with merciless exposure of these hypocrites. I have a radical, non-satirical idea to prevent further atrocities like this: How about not invading other people’s countries?