This month, legendary cartoonist Art Spiegelman (of Maus fame) was set to provide the cover to a "free speech" themed issue of the magazine The New Statesman, titled "Saying the Unsayable," which is guest edited by legendary weirdos Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. Here's what New Statesman editor Helen Lewis had to say about the issue:
Together and separately, Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman are two of the most talented, innovative and unpredictable artists in our culture. In the wake of the debates around Charlie Hebdo, 'call-out culture' and hate speech online, and with so many governments around the world repressing their citizens' ability to speak freely, this issue is incredibly timely.
And here's the cover Spiegelman drew:
According to Spiegelman, he pulled the cover himself after the magazine refused to publish a free speech cartoon he drew which appears to feature a drawing of Muhammad. Spiegelman posted on Facebook:
I yanked that ball-gagged New Statesman cover at the very last minute!... It's one thing to find a way to Draw the Undrawable for a special issue called "Saying the Unsayable" but I just couldn't Accept the Unacceptable when the mag at the last minute WELCHED on their agreement to include my "First Amendment Fundamentalist" page (already published in the Nation in the US
http://www.thenation.com/article/201721/drawing-line, in Le Monde in France, FAZ in Germany, etc.) Seems none of the "liberal" mags & papers in the UK want anything to do with my viewpoint, alas. So here's an early sketch I did for the issue, that now seems downright prescient! (My dear friends Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, guest editors on this issue got mugged in the crossfire. Their attractive mugs now grace the cover: far nicer to look at than anything my curdled brain and hand could draw anyway. Sigh.)
Spiegelman's Facebook post included this image:
The cartoon Spiegelman is talking about:
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, it was easy for the world to stand up for free speech and claim "Je Suis Charlie." But it wasn't long before cracks began to show in this solidarity, with France arresting teenagers for making anti-Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Is freedom of speech only celebrated in France when it's anti-Islam? At the same time, criticism that Charlie Hebdo's satire contained elements of racism and xenophobia were mostly brushed aside in the rush to pat each other on the back about how pro-free speech we all were.
But by the time a provocative "Draw Muhammad" contest in Texas last month ended in a thwarted terrorist attack, the media narrative had gone almost completely in the opposite direction, with most media outlets condemning the contest, a fair assessment of its intent but seemingly a contradiction to the feel-good Charlie Hebdo marches. That the contest was reckless and run by probable bigots is worth noting, but does not negate the participants' right to free expression and certainly does not justify attempted violence. Our media seems ill suited to addressing the complexity of this issue.
The winner of that Draw Muhammad contest, by the way, was Eisner nominated cartoonist Bosch Fawstin. You might not know that because we're the only comic book website that talked about it at length, probably because it's difficult for the comics community to come to terms with the fact that a creator they celebrated a few years back could seemingly turn out to be an embarrassing Islamophobe. The comics community, perhaps echoing the ideals of mainstream superhero comics, sometimes has trouble with nuanced situations where a person or idea cannot be easily classified as "good" or "evil," but might instead consist of elements of both.
Spiegelman notes in his comic that the right to free speech is the right to be an idiot. But being an idiot with a tool as powerful as free speech can result in consequences, and if you exercise the right, you must also accept the responsibility. Coming to terms with this is complicated, and I don't think we've really wrapped our minds around it yet. It's possible to be anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-bigotry, and yet, at the same time, pro-free speech. It just isn't easy. And what is comics journalism if not "easy?"
If you're looking for answers here, you won't find them, because I don't have them. I do know that figuring out the balance between freedom and responsibility is something that the human race has always struggled with and probably always will. I also know that if we ever hope to make any real progress on it, we need to talk about it, even when it's difficult and uncomfortable to do so.
So what do you think?