UW Charlie Hebdo
UW Panel on Charlie Hebdo Missed the Mark
By MIKE KONOPACKI
On January 30, the University of Wisconsin and the Department of French and Italian sponsored a panel discussion on freedom of expression and the execution-style slaying of French cartoonists at Charlie Hedbo. The panel did a great job explaining the complex French culture that led to the tragedy. Their varied insights created an enlightened debate. However, the lack of a cartoonist on the panel was an unfortunate omission and not the only one.
As a political cartoonist myself, I believe without reservation in the right—indeed, the responsibility—of cartoonists everywhere to insult and offend as they see fit. The courageous cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo did exactly that and paid a terrible price. I, however, am not Charlie Hebdo. Religious terrorists have not menaced me, and I don’t know if I’d have the courage to defy them. Death threats are an extremely persuasive form of censorship. But, when freedom of speech is the victim, no less than democracy itself is in peril; and we who claim to believe in free speech are duty-bound to defend it, even when we find it offensive.
In my own work I adhere to the advice of Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne: “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” I see no need to deride the powerless when powerful targets abound. If organized religion is a source of oppression and violence, it deserves to be ridiculed precisely because freedom of speech protects freedom of religion and all other freedoms. Freedom of religion, however, is no guarantor of free speech. Even though (as the panel pointed out) French society has deep-rooted problems contributing to discrimination against some religions, murdering cartoonists who ridicule sacred cows is not only inexcusable, it is ultimately self-defeating.
As an atheist, I believe that man created God in his own image, not the other way around. Consequently religion is only as peaceful or as brutal as the humans who practice it. In America, a so-called “Christian nation,” we’ve witnessed horrid examples of our leaders holding up the Bible to justify everything from slavery and murder to imperialism, war and torture. Never forget that for nearly a century after the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist Christian terrorist group, tortured and murdered thousands: Blacks, Jews, immigrants, gays and Catholics. Islam is no more lethal than Christianity.
Concentrating exclusively on free speech in France the UW panel failed to acknowledge the abridgment of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press right in its own backyard:
♦ In 2006 the Badger Herald reported on the international controversy sparked by Muslim extremists’ death threats to Danish cartoonists over depictions of Muhammad and Islam. The Herald published just one cartoon as an example, which spawned at least two campus forums on whether or not the cartoons were hate speech. Lost in the debate was that the uproar prevented the newspaper from publishing more of the cartoons, consequently censoring speech on a campus once famous for defending “that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
♦ In February 2012 the UW Extension School for Workers planned an exhibit of art created during the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising. A lone legislator, Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), shut it down by threatening the School’s meager funding. The UW did nothing to defend the academic freedom to display and discuss art critical of those in power. The Wisconsin State Historical Society, which had archived much of that art (as did the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.), pleaded with the School not to reveal that fact lest they too become the object of a vindictive legislature’s red pencil. The UW Art Department, where I earned two degrees, stood mute.
The fact is the mere suggestion of a UW student newspaper akin to Charlie Hebdo would spur howls of indignation. The political correctness of the university would, like it did to the Badger Herald in 2006, immediately vilify it and brand it as hate speech. The University of Wisconsin would be too cowed to defend it. It wouldn’t happen.
I encourage the UW community to stop treating freedom of expression as an academic concern existing elsewhere and to confront the crisis at home. Since taking the reins of power in 2011, the governor and extremists in the legislature have subverted our state’s progressive traditions and culture. They are now targeting UW for massive budget cuts, putting under siege the “Wisconsin Idea” that has served our citizens so well for so long. Now is the time for every UW campus to create the most offensive and objectionable forms of expression to counter this attack. Now is the time to be as courageous as Charlie Hebdo.
Mike Konopacki, MA, MFA, is a 2010 graduate of UW Madison; a contributing political cartoonist to the Madison Capital Times; an internationally-syndicated labor cartoonist for the trade union press; co-creator of numerous books of cartoons with his partner, Gary Huck, of Huck/Konopacki Cartoons; and the illustrator and a writer of A People’s History of American Empire with historian Howard Zinn and others.