Robert Crumb, a famous American cartoonist living in France, gave an interview to The New York Observer about a cartoon he drew of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. But it wasn’t that cartoon that was surprising, nor was it the fact that he would even do that. It was what he had to say about Charlie Hebdo’s editor regarding the magazine’s depictions of Muhammad.
Observer journalist Celia Farber spoke directly with Robert Crumb and said that she thought Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists and editorial staff knew they could very likely get killed for their work. Crumb agreed, saying:
“The editor knew. He knew. The office got fire bombed in 2011. The government started, like, you know, offering them protection, and when he said that thing about, you know, ‘I’d rather die standing than live on my knees,’ he said, ‘You know, I’m not married, I don’t have credit cards, I don’t drive a car. I stay very … I keep everything very simple… I don’t want to have these connections, because I could go at any time.’ He knew that.”
Farber then says to Crumb that the American media cannot wrap its mind around the idea that Charlie Hebdo wasn’t trying not to offend, and failing miserably. Rather, they knew exactly what they were doing, and offense was the whole point. It’s the point behind a lot of satire, and a lot of cartoons. The best satire not only pokes fun at something, but exposes a very uncomfortable truth about it.
Farber says to Robert Crumb:
“It’s not the faith that is being insulted. It’s the extremism, the psychosis. The totalitarian impulse.”
Crumb more or less agrees, but can’t bring himself to be as irreverent, insulting and offensive as Charlie Hebdo, even in his own cartoon. Neither could American media outlets in general. Crumb says:
“All the big newspapers and magazines in America had all agreed, mutually agreed, not to print those offensive cartoons that were in that Charlie Hebdo magazine. They all agreed that they were not going to print those, because they were too insulting to the Prophet. Charlie Hedbo, it didn’t have a big circulation.”
Since Charlie Hebdo’s editor knew what was possible, he also knew that free speech and freedom of expression can come with consequences. Instead of backing down in the face of possible irrational consequences, though, they pressed on and continued to offend. That’s why they’re being held up as heroes to those who champion freedom of speech as the be-all and end-all of freedom.
But is death worth it? Some on the right in the U.S. might say so; those are the people who think the fallen at Charlie Hebdo are both heroes and martyrs (others elsewhere in the world feel this way, too, that’s not limited to the U.S.). It’s true that Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t be condemned for what they did. Satire is sometimes an ugly business, and can sometimes be very offensive.
The American media decided running the cartoons wasn’t worth the potential consequences. The French seem to feel otherwise. It’s very difficult to understand what Crumb says, and still act as though expression never has consequences.
The bottom line is not that Charlie Hebdo did something wrong. It’s also not that they should have expected this and shut up because of it. It’s that we have this idea in the U.S. that some speech should never have any consequences at all (e.g. insulting Muslim extremists), while other speech is fair game for any consequences (e.g. speaking against or insulting Christian dominionism).
That double standard is actually what Robert Crumb highlighted, whether he was aware he was doing it or not.