Charlie Hebdo attack chills satirists and prompts a debate

The New York Times reports: The killing of a dozen people in Wednesday’s attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has prompted an outpouring of tributes from cartoonists around the world, who have flooded the Internet with images ranging from the elegiac to the scabrously rude.

One showed a Kalashnikov facing off against a phalanx of pencils. Another, originally drawn several years ago and widely recirculated, depicted a hulking figure in a turban holding a sword over the head of a cartoonist hard at work at a desk, above the caption, “As if we needed more humorless editors looking over our shoulders, threatening cuts!”

But amid all the “I Am Charlie” marches and declarations on social media, some in the cartooning world are also debating a delicate question: Were the victims free-speech martyrs, full stop, or provocateurs whose aggressive mockery of Islam sometimes amounted to xenophobia and racism?

Such debates unfold differently in different countries. But the conversation could be especially acute in the United States, where sensitivities to racially tinged caricatures may run higher than in places like France, where historically tighter restrictions on speech have given rise to a strong desire to flout the rules.

Charlie Hebdo has had “a much more savage, unforgiving, doing-it-for-the-sake-of-doing-it” spirit than any American publication, said Tom Spurgeon, the author of The Comics Reporter, a website that tracks comics news from around the world.

“That’s not so much an American impulse,” he said. Especially today, “there’s a sophisticated dialogue about what privilege means, and a feeling that you don’t need to insult people, especially downtrodden people, to make your points.”

Political cartooning’s emphasis on “kicking up” against authority goes back to its origins in the 17th century, when the end of Europe’s religious wars opened up political space where iconoclastic irreverence could flourish, the historian Simon Schama, a professor at Columbia, said in an interview. [Continue reading…]

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