Charlie is us
I spent one summer working in a print shop in Santa Rosa, California.
My cousins owned the shop in partnership with my uncle, and they were gracious enough to host me for the summer and allow me to make a little money while attempting to learn the family trade.
I was a better production assistant than a press operator, which required some mechanical and engineering skills.
So I collated, packaged, invoiced and made deliveries in a beat-up old GMC truck with a hydraulic clutch. Which proved very interesting when I had to make deliveries in downtown San Francisco.
My favorite delivery, by far, was to the house of one Charles M Schulz, who lived and worked in Santa Rosa.
I only ever met the man on a handful of occasions, dealing mostly with his assistant or his wife, but I was as enamored of his celebrity as anyone I had ever met personally at that point in my life. Which I think included the actor Craig T Nelson and Pope John Paul II.
The reason I’m name dropping in this post is to make a point about communication, freedom of speech and decency in light of last week’s massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Charles Schulz is one of the most influential cartoonists of our time, and the Charlie in Charlie Hebdo, is, in part, in reference to Schulz’ iconic fat-headed lead character, Charlie Brown.
Schulz’ Peanuts strip was neither political nor polemic but rather a unique take on life that paved the way for other cartoonists to make stronger statements about society.
Cartoons are a mirror for society where the reflection is essentially true but softened with humor, misdirection or sarcasm, in popular culture.
The characters in our favorite cartoons are often stand-ins for every dad, mom, child or family pet.
If you related at all to Homer Simpson, it’s because there are aspects of ourselves in that yellow buffoon, and the cartoonists who design him and the writers who put words in his mouth, are generalizing with humor in a way that touches each one of us.
The classic of the genre is Charlie Brown. Just as you have never successfully kicked the proverbial football held by Lucy, I have never managed to boot the ball.
Charlie is us, and truthfully, we are Charlie.
The point of satire in our culture, and, in fact, many other cultures, is not that it appeals evenly to society. The point is that it smooths out the wrinkles that subdivide us by point of view.
In the West, and especially in America, where tyranny isn’t a part of our vocabulary, and where the First Amendment is a shrine to our most cherished freedoms, satire lives like a low hum, like background noise.
So it’s easy to see why some people might question whether or not it’s right to draw offensive cartoons about religious figures.
Very few people are questioning the right to do this. But many people are questioning the purpose of it, the decency of it.
And that kind of thinking is a very American luxury.
There is no question that cartoons that depict religious figures are often tasteless and horrifying to some degree. And there is no question that these will offend a great many people, because the context in parody or satire is either not widely available or lost in translation.
The very ability of an artist to communicate an idea is at stake if we look at this from the viewpoint of sensibility.
An offensive statement made in art often carries with it a potent message, which is plainly visible to those who most need to see it. The delivery vehicle will look different to each person who views it, and in this way, it penetrates even the toughest defenses made by man or fashioned by the heart.
I think back to the great Russian writers, many of whom spent large portions of their lives working hard labor in camps or prison for using satire or parody in stories to reveal the excesses of Communism or of society.
If sensibility had guided most subversives in the world, tyranny would have a bigger foothold in this world today.
Ideas can be spread many different ways. From word-of-mouth to wheat-pasted posters on the sides of buildings.
Some ideas are big and simple, while other ideas are complex, multipart stages in need of a delicate delivery.
In the West ideas can flow from the thinkers to the artists to the printmakers freely like water over a fall.
In other parts of the world and even in parts of the West, ideas are hampered by strict laws, they cannot flow freely and are best spread through imagery, illegal activism and subversive literature and films.
These ideas are not always so blatant as offensive images of a religious icon. Sometimes they are, and they cause a ripple effect. Sometimes these ideas are spread at the cost of lives. Martyrdom is a two way street.
The death toll on both sides a bloody stamp that says we received your payment, while the message hits its target audience.
When people retaliate against other people for a perceived offense, they greatly increase the reach of the initial idea.
Sometimes this is necessary. Sometimes this is the only way to break down tyranny.
The sensible thing would be to love and respect others and their beliefs, but the world is not capable of this action at this time.
In America, we have this idea hoisted up on the pedestal of the First Amendment, and yet as a nation, we are not capable of fully living it out.
It remains an idea awaiting its time.
Our satire is more subtle, just background noise, and yet it falls like water over rocks, gently wearing away the surface to a fine sheen.
In this state, we cannot see clearly why French cartoonists would draw offensive pictures of Mohammed. So we question their sensibility while defending their rights to do so.
The question is bigger, more universal, outside the scope of our narrow worldview.
Some artists understand this, their sensibilities attuned to this higher level of understanding. This higher critical thinking.
It is their job to make these ideas more accessible to each of us, and it is their art that plays a principle role in delivering these ideas to the doorsteps of our mind.
Much the way that Peanuts delivered a more serious look at childhood, the contrasting hidden-to-us world of a family pet, the roles of music and education in our lives and even religious and non-religious observances at various holidays, ideas have a way of filtering down through art to find perfection in other ways of expression.
Charles M Schulz was not necessarily attempting to change the fabric of society with his comic strips, but his art influenced other artists and paved a way for comics to become a delivery vehicle of ideas. Some blatant and some benign.
We are all Charlie. We are all indebted to Charlie to some degree. Because Charlie is us, our own reflection peering back at us through whatever lens we’re most comfortable viewing it.