I knew George Wolinski, but not closely. He saw the humor in everything, and probably even the black humor in the disaster than befell his last day on earth. If he got to meet with the murderers in heaven or wherever he might have pointed out that for all their expense and fear they accomplished nothing. They gave him a famous death rather than some waning, weakening thing, succumbing to Alzheimers. He might have written a note to be passed to God or Allah or whoever, saying something to the effect, look, these guy are idiots, make them work in the kitchen for a few years, that should do it.
Political cartoonists are heartened by stupidity in government especially the kind than is provided by politicians wrapped up in their own bull. We appreciate it more than most journalists when a candidate, especially for a re-election he or she does not merit, tries to deflect press attention from their abysmal records in office by lying and smiling to the voters. Paul Conrad, one of the deans of the cartooning field, working for the Los Angeles Times for many years, said that when Nixon resigned, “I wept.” Nixon has after all provided the Conrad family with bread and shelter for many years.
This perverse pleasure, which admittedly doesn’t seem to help the nation forward toward better government, still has a use. Prompted by some goofy or evil politician, a good cartoon can quickly show that we are not fooled. Editorialists temporize and try to answer their own questions, but the cartoons, if done right, are like an ice cube down the back of your shorts, uncomfortable and surprising, embarrassing and mortifying. Meant as a joke, but just a bit too harsh to forgive.
And too many ice cubes down too many shorts will result in a reaction, so a bit of judgment is needed.
Which is the problem with the Paris killings. Men like my colleague Wolinski didn’t believe in much of anything, certainly nothing religious. He and his editors were not just irreligious, they were anti-religious, and not just once in a while, but nearly every issue. They could not understand how anyone could take the claims of religions seriously, and so they didn’t themselves. The practices of Islam, the proscriptions against most of the physically enjoyable parts of life, especially when you live among the best wine and the most intriguing women on earth, strike men like Wolinski as illogical at best and inhuman at worst. The Puritan ethic, the idea that to find anything more enjoyable than contemplation and worship of a Supreme Being, was to insult that Being. Fundmental Islam seemed to take that to the limit.
Should Charlie Hebdo have limited their insults to the Islamic faiths? Should they have looked for more intricate ways of amusing their readers at the expense of what they thought were stupid, irrational beliefs? Should they have, as a friend said, “stooped to subtlety”? Would their message been lost if the purposely and rather childishly insulting nature of their magazine had been tempered?
Curiously, here in the land of the free, political cartoonists are well used to self-control, if not self-censorship altogether. At the top of the list of subjects to be gentle about is religion. The American attitude is to let people alone in their minds, despite the hard charging right wing sections of the current GOP. And there is an American practicality in this. Barry Goldwater used to say that you can’t legislate morality, and he was righter than he thought. Force in almost any activity generates a counter force. Forced thinking doesn’t change the mind of anyone. Thus, reason most of us in the US, why try? Living a happy life despite attempts by others to prevent your enjoyment of it is the best response, and living well is the best revenge.
Until these murders, the satires on various faiths in Charlie Hebdo were pretty much without effect. The Jews were attacked and the paid no attention. The Catholic Church went about its archaic ceremonies unimpressed. If there was a difference in the radical Islamists it was that in France, they are poor and largely unemployed. And although there is no justification for the killings, there is an argument to be made that making immigration possible as the French have done to many peoples, and then treating immigrants poorly is bound to have a reaction.
So far the discussion and review of this bloody event has been to frame it as a freedom of expression issue. Well, it’s not that simple. Freedom is a wonderful idea, but reality has always trumped ideas. And the reality of human existence in these times is that a lot of people are crazy and believe insane things. And that there are a lot of guns and ammunition about.