I grew up in a Catholic-Communist family in Italy – a hybrid, laughable combination typical of a country with the largest Communist Party in the West and, notoriously, hosting the Vatican. I could have gone either way: my mum daily watched the Pope on telly, while dad used to immerse himself in his daily newspaper, L’Unita, founded by Antonio Gramsci. You would need to have a strong sense of irony to survive this: sometimes, you could feel the cold-war climate within the very walls of our flat! I survived it thanks to the cartoonists that brightened up my childhood, portraying – among others – irreverent images of the Pope, Cardinals, and Politicians (including Communist ones, of course).
After the horrible facts of Charlie Hebdo killings and the mourning for the losses, increasingly there are voices which distance themselves from the production of the murdered cartoonists. Fair enough. Their drawings are not easy to digest, nor they were meant to be. Moreover, an increasing number of commentaries suggest that Charlie Hebdo was Islamophobic and Orientalist (e.g. they were portraying Muslims with long beard, big nose, and turban!). More voices are now heard about Satire, in general, being offensive, sexist and racist and therefore in need of some form of control.
Something I feel very strong about is the possibility of Satire to be free, that is, push the margin of good taste or even to be offensive. This is what Satire is about, it cannot be anything else. Satire digs into personal feelings, blatant stereotypes, hidden racisms of us all. It cannot be politically correct, that would not work. Imagine – as the puritan circles of the moderate middle-class left increasingly do – a politically correct cartoon or comedians’ joke: no racism, no sexism, etc. Lovely. Great. But do not call it Satire, please. It will be the end of this form of expression. Imagine the Edinburgh festival without stand-up comedians or, even worse, with politically correct comedians. It won’t work. What about Graham Norton? And Chatty Man? Do we normalise those ones too? A world with regulated Satire is a boring moderate place, where middle fingers cannot be stuck up to power. Pax. Pacification by cappuccino, latte or Belgian lager. No swearing, no utterance, no conflict. Pax.
One of the first ever examples of Satire we have on records happened over 2,000 years ago. “The Babylonians” by Aristophanes ’caused embarrassment for the Athenian authorities since it depicted the cities of the Athenian League as slaves grinding at a mill. Some influential citizens, notably Cleon, reviled the play as slander against the Polis and possibly took legal action against the author.’ (from Wikipedia). Please note, Athens was the Paris of the time, if the comparison ever stands, and Aristophanes has somehow gone to history as a ‘conservative author’. Some argue that Satire is the instrument of Power on the weakest (see for instance the infamous drawings from Hoggarth’s series in support of the Gin Act in 1751). I do not agree. I prefer to remember the Bakhtinian inversion of the Carnivalesque as utmost form of irreverence of the voiceless, humour and chaos. Crucially, for the Russian philosopher this inversion created the very conditions on which a dialogue becomes possible: it started at the height of power, the medieval Festival of Fools, which targeted the clergy of, ironically, Northern France. Or the work of the great Bulgakov, whose ‘Master and Margherita’ was published 20 years after his death by the Soviet regime in a severely censored form.
There are other examples that come to my mind, but I stick to one I know well: Vauro, ex cartoonist of the Italian communist newspaper ‘Il Manifesto’, represents migrants as black people, as he usually does, child-like, with big lips and bellies sticking out. On the other hand, the ex-Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, sitting on a throne with a colonial helmet, is often depicted like Mussolini with a black jumper and a fierce jaw. The vignettes very closely dig into the fascist iconography of Italian colonial past. Is that politically correct? Obviously not. Is it racist? Obviously yes. However, while it has become ever too easy to declare ourselves “I am not racist, but…”, these vignettes tease out the racist imaginary that a lot of Italians still have of their, fortunately brief, colonialist encounter with East Africa. That is what Satire is good at, in my opinion. It extracts the most hidden fears, the often unspeakable and unspoken racist and sexist imaginaries, and it shows how ridiculous they are. At least, this is what I hope.
Another illustration by the same cartoonist, maybe more poignant for the scope of this article, shows Pope Benedict XVI on his first trip abroad in 2009. Ratzinger controversially advocated a return to fundamental Christian values to counter the increased secularisation of many Western countries. He chose Cameroon where he famously declared that condoms would not stop the spread of AIDS. In the vignette he appears (note, always much taller than the child-like African) angry about the child-like guy using a condom. The child-like guy clumsy replies: ‘So sorry, I thought it was a chewing gum!’
Satire can be offensive and irreverent, and usually it is. But the possibility to respond to it is what makes the difference: that is, a right to dissent to Satire and to contest it. Obviously this is a function of the media capital that one has, the ability to mobilise dissent, for instance in the form of petitions. Point granted. But usually Power, with the capital letter, has plenty of such a crucial form of capital. So, I would not bother much about this either. What about normal citizens? Do they have the same ability to respond? Probably not, despite social media. But I argued that Satire usually targets Power: actually, I suspect the stronger the form of Power it addresses, the more irreverent and malicious Satire becomes. That is its raison d’être.
What is more ludicrous and challenging than sticking your finger up to the most archaic, regressive and fascistic form of power we currently know, the coming together of religion and political tyranny, that is, forms of fundamentalism? Returning to Charlie’s vignettes, I really struggle to find a blatantly racist one, in the sense that the offence is usually, if not always, moved towards the religious authority (the Prophet, the Pope, the apparatus of militancy), towards fundamentalism rather than a generic attack on Muslims. I risk to be very unpopular here, but it seems to me that irreverence to religious power is other than racism. Moreover, it increasingly appears that these terrorists were not more religiously motivated than I am, meaning that they appear as being very much part of a political movement masked by religion, the Salafist Jihadism linked to Al-Qaida in Yemen. Very little to do, I believe, with ‘Ibrahim selling kebabs in the streets of suburban Paris’ (I am stereotyping here, of course, but this is one of the metaphors that antiracist defenders of décor came out with, in a recent television debate about Satire).
In conclusion to these rather disjointed thoughts, I think that in order to answer Joe Sacco’s rhetoric question: ‘…Satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bones? And what exactly is the target? And why?’, we need to ask another question: ‘What would the world be without bones?’ And also, how do you practically organise this? Are you going to put some primary school teachers in charge of an ethical committee for Satire? Do you publish vignettes with the censorship mark, such as PG, 15+, and so on? Or are you going to ask publishing permission to any faction leader of the religious world (not only Muslim, of course)? Do we celebrate self-censorship, but then who is really benefiting from it? The list is endless and the answers, I am afraid, are rather scarce.