Northern Light

Cartoons and victims of free speech

I have spend the past week at the 50th anniversary convention of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists and Cartoonists Rights Network International, a great organization that supports political cartoonists in danger around the world. CRNI gave this year’s award to the South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, a brave and honorable man who is the target of a million dollar law suit by South African president hopeful Jacob Zuma for a series of cartoons.
I was asked to give a speech at the ”Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award Dinner” at the National Press Club. Here it is in a slightly edited version:

Not long ago one of our editorial cartoonists celebrated his 25th anniversary with Jyllands-Posten. Over lunch he told an anecdote, that is said to be true. During the Second World War the great Pablo Picasso met a German officer, and they got into a conversation. When the officer heard the name of his counterpart he said:
”Oh, you are the one who created Guernica,” – to which Picasso replied: ”No, it wasn’t me, it was you.”

Do I need to add that the cartoonist telling this anecdote was the one who made the famous cartoon of the prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban.

As a matter of fact, earlier this year in the trial against the terrorists accused of the March 11 bombings in Madrid in 2004 a widow of one of the 192 victims showed up in court dressed in a T-shirt with a copy of this Mohammed-cartoon on the front.

This cartoonist has a fascinating story. He is now about 70. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family in a small provincial town in the north west of Denmark. As a young man he rose in rebellion against his religious upbringing, and he has been an atheist ever since. No religious authority has been spared in his cartoons, and to those who are up in arms insisting that we should have been able to anticipate the uproar over the publication of the Mohammed cartoons I must say that the cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban was published in Jyllands-Posten a few times before the page with the 12 cartoons appeared in the paper, September 30, 2005.

But of course I have to acknowledge: Cartoons can be offensive. Indeed, they can. But so can the truth. Quite often cartoons have to be offensive to be good.

In fact, the 12 Mohammed-cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten are very different, both in the way they are depicting the prophet, and in whom they are targeting for satire. As you may know, one of the cartoons makes fun of me and the cultural department of Jyllands-Posten, calling us a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.

Ironically, the artist behind this harmless cartoon was one of two cartoonists who about two weeks after the publication of the 12 cartoons had to go into hiding after the police received notice that a young Muslim in possession of private addresses of the two cartoonists and armed with a weapon was on his way to Copenhagen. Fortunately, he was taken into custody and the the two cartoonists and their families could return to their houses.

Though conspiracy theorists have been working over time to build an arresting narrative around the history of the the publication of the cartoons and what followed, I can assure you, that I didn’t hire this young man to take revenge for the insult.

Anyway, by now I have been named a Ukrainian jew and a North African jew leading a zionist conspiracy to inflame turmoil in the Muslim world. Others have called be a CIA-agent, and, really creatively I must say, the late ex-KGB-officer Alexander Litvinenko (peace be upon him) turned me into a Russian spy operating through my father-in-law, allegedly a retired KGB-general, who developed the idea of publication of the Mohammed cartoons as a plot to drive out the US from the Middle East.
Maybe that’s the reason why the Bush White House, initially, deplored the publication of the cartoons.

Though people take cartoons seriously, some would say too seriously, a cartoon is not a piece of objective journalism committed to the most accurate and balanced presentation of the news. You cannot do fact checking on a cartoon. It works through exaggeration, caricature, satire. It distorts reality, manipulates reality, makes fun of it, offends, insults and ridicules. It’s a comment on what is going on in the news, not in the form of written or spoken language, but as a visual image.
Or as Herb Block put it so eloquently (I stole this quote from the exhibtion we attented yesterday at the Washington Post):
”The political cartoon is not a news story, and not a oil portrait, but essentially a means for poking fun, for punctuating pomposity and for offering criticism.”

Some 15 years ago Queen Margrethe II of Denmark paid an official visit to the United States of America. The National Press Club here in Washington – in fact the very building we find ourselves in – presented an exhibition with cartoons dealing with the Queen and the royal family.

Before going to Washington her Majesty invited the chairman of the Danish Cartoonist Association to her Palace in the center of Copenhagen. They had coffee, and the chairman showed the Queen the cartoons that was going to be part of the exibition in Washington.
She turned out to know all the cartoonists by name. The chairman was surprised by her detailed knowledge of the tradition of cartoons in Denmark, and asked her about it.

Not without proud she pointed to her father, the late King Frederik 9, who started his work day piling through the papers and checking the cartoons.

A few days later the Queen was asked at a press conference in Washington, if she didn’t find all these cartoons making fun of her and her family insulting and unfit for publication. ”They cannot have been published, can’t they?”, inquired a reporter.

”Oh, yes,” the Queen replied, ”all of them have been published, and I love every one of them.”

Well, this was the kind of tradition of humor and satire that served as the context for the publication of the Mohammed cartoons, a tradition that we danes are proud of and eager to keep alive. But I don’t know if we will succeed in a world calling for ”responsible speech” (which, if this comes true, by the way means that none of you will have a job) and demands for protection of religion as if the Almighty cannot take care of himself. This sounds, frankly, a little contradictory to me.

Nevertheless, Amnesty International, the government funded Danish Center for Human Rights and other good hearted people in December 2005 invited me to a public debate about the Mohammed cartoons with the intriguing title ”Victims of Free Speech”. Let me remind you that at the time the cartoonists had already been subject to death threats, Theo van Gogh had been killed in Holland for making a movie insulting Muslim religious sensibilities, the Somalia born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in hiding for having written the script to the movie, and in the UK a play had to be taken off due to threats of burning down the theater and harming the author, who allegedly had insulted Sikh-traditions. Also in the UK the BBC was attacked by angry Christians for broadcasting ”Jerry Springer, the Opera”. These were some of the issues I thought we were going to debate.
How wrong I was.
The Human Righteous crowd insisted on talking about how the use of free speech creates victims, so you cartoonists better watch out. Do not create victims of free speech. I am sure quite a few people would appreciate it. The reasoning behind this kind of debate seems to be:
If you issue death threats, intimidate, scream loud and call for clamp down on speech and at the same time insist that you are very offended, then you are a victim, a victim of free speech. If, on the other hand, you are a cartoonist, you are a potential perpetrator of a crime.

Well, victims of free speech, how orwellian can it be? Why not ”victims of democracy”? Or ”victims of the welfare state”? Or of ”free education”?

Maybe I have provided you with an idea for next year’s convention of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, but, to be honest, I hope not. Thank you for your attention.