Long live Political Cartoonists: Defend them! We need them!

The earliest political cartoon as we know it was published in The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, depicting the then colonies as a snake in pieces, captioned “Join, or Die”, a call to rebellion against the British. The cartoonist was that jack-of-all-trades, Benjamin Franklin.

A few years later, in 1790, the revolutionary Paul Revere published and distributed a powerfully bitter satire on the Boston Massacre. In the television series American Visions, the art historian Robert Hughes described the drawing as probably the most influential piece of visual art in America’s history. Cartooning was an immediate and emotive way of communicating simple messages to a largely semi-literate populace.

Cartoonists have always been a subversive lot, dovetailing with journalists over the past couple of hundred years, expanding bit by bit the role of “free expression”, mainly in the Americas and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The great political agitators in Britain during the confrontations with Napoleon used to print cartoon pamphlets questioning the direction of the war, mocking both Prime Minister William Pitt and Napoleon, and selling them in the streets. They became enormously popular and fashionable dinner party conversation pieces and relied on their impertinence for continued sales.

They gradually were incorporated into satirical magazines and, later, newspapers. Nobody powerful was safe. The aristocracy became a popular target in quiet times.

In France, the incendiary power of the cartoon was exploited by the publisher-cartoonist Charles Philipon (1800-1862). He employed several cartoonists including Honore Daumier and Gustave Dore who used their cartoons as powerful weapons in the struggle for journalistic independence against increasing censorship by King Louis Philippe.

Philipon, and later Daumier, developed a pear – “la poire”, or the buffoon – to symbolise the king.

The symbol became famous as dozens of pear caricatures appeared, ridiculing the pear-shaped ruler, and inevitably Philipon was put on trial. During the drawn-out court case, which attracted enormous publicity throughout Europe, he defended himself by drawing a large pear, then with a few lines transforming it into the king’s likeness. “Can I help it if his majesty’s face is like a pear?” he asked.

He was found guilty and spent six months in jail. But the ridicule spread throughout Europe, with the pears published and republished. The king was humiliated but it led to a convention among the powerful in France, and later the rest of Europe, to pretend to find satire funny rather than to be seen to lack a sense of humour.

This convention, spreading to the written and spoken word, contributed to the development of free expression – not without battles, however. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several states of the US passed bills banning cartoons depicting politicians. In one amusing case, the governor of Pennsylvania, one Samuel Pennypacker, had an anti-cartoon bill introduced, forbidding the use of birds or animals to portray politicians. Cartoonists then depicted politicians as vegetables. All states eventually repealed the laws after much derision.

Cartoonists working in less democratic environs don’t find it so easy, even today. In Algeria, Ali Dilem was jailed for one year in 2006 for mocking President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He was picked up without charge two or three times a week for several years and taken to the police station. He has been charged and briefly jailed, on his last count, about 70 times. A cartoonist colleague was assassinated. Dilem no longer lives in Algeria and has 25 warrants for his arrest for his satires of government ministers.

Which brings me to the Danish cartooning storm, reignited this week with the arrest of five men in Denmark on terrorism charges. Extremists on both sides are using it to inflame hatred to push larger agendas. There are no great principles at stake. Is it censorship not to publish images mocking the Prophet? Well, yes. But we use self-censorship all the time in newspapers on sensitive issues where there may be great offence taken with no particular point made. The original decision was irresponsible and the mad reaction unforgivable.

More than 100 people have died since the drawings were first published in 2005. One is too many for a pointless cartoon gimmick.


January 1, 2011

Thanks to Alan Moir, a Herald cartoonist. He received a Churchill Fellowship in 2000 to research the history of Western political cartooning in Britain.


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