“Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.” – Mark Twain
Written in a notebook some time in 1888, Twain’s simple sentence appears to be a casual thought, something scribbled on a journal page. But it says volumes about what liberty means in a free society.
Last week when the offices of the satirical French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo were stormed, thugs killed a dozen people – mostly journalists and cartoonists who were seated at a round table brainstorming ideas for their next issue.
If you watch a short 2006 documentary posted on The New York Times website, you can see how the staff operated. Sitting around a circular table, they chose a topic, bounced ideas off each other, continuously sketched with markers and finally posted all the drawings on a communal bulletin board. Then they chose the strongest or funniest image to become the cover.
In 2006, the subject was the uproar over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
By now, most people know that the odd newspaper name is an homage to the central character in “Peanuts,” the American comic strip invented by Charles Schulz. Back in the ’70s, the staff decided to run Schulz’s new strip. And as the story goes, the journalists admired Charlie Brown’s philosophy and named the publication after him. “Hebdo” is short for weekly.
In America, our satirical tradition is shallow compared to France.
Of course, it all started with the Greeks. At ancient religious festivals, playwrights presented great works of comedy and tragedy, then added a satirical response. The Greeks understood that parody could balance the human scales. If you can laugh at power and at yourself, you’re unlikely to be subservient to a tyrant.
Parodies have been with us a long time. And the French particularly have mastered the art of social satire. First there was Voltaire, then came the political storms leading up to the French Revolution and the often vicious imagery that accompanied it. By the time Daumier and other social satirists were taking aim at the corrupt Louis Philippe during the July Monarchy, the idea of ridiculing authority was embedded in French free thinking.
Portraying the obese king as an overripe pear with no intelligence became a symbolic path for generations of political cartoonists in France and America.
If you scan the covers of Charlie Hebdo online, they are beyond what our most biting satirists would produce here at home. Tom Spurgeon, the author of a website that tracks global comic news, calls the French edge “savage, unforgiving, doing-it-for-the-sake-of-doing it.”
For most Americans, Hebdo satire is darker and raunchier than our traditions, even Seth Rogen’s “The Interview.” It is the business of satirists to offend, to shout a loud wake-up call. But no wake-up call deserves a murderous response.
I keep a copy of Twain’s sentence on my bulletin board – now near a copy of a Charlie Hebdo cover.
email@example.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.