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Let Us Laugh Together, On Principle

The New York Times International Edition has decided to no longer publish political cartoons. The decision follows a scandal about a cartoon that appeared last April in which a blind President Donald Trump is holding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – depicted as a guide dog – on a leash. Trump is wearing a yarmulke; Netanyahu has a Star of David around his throat. Some critics deemed the cartoon offensive and anti-Semitic, the Times apologized, and the responsible editor was sanctioned. Now the paper of record – “All The News That’s Fit To Print – has decided to stop publishing political cartoons.

What is the role of humor? Satire? The Geneva cartoonist Patrick Chappatte wrote a cartoon with the words “Without humor we are all dead” after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in 2015. At the same time, I quoted the political theorist William E. Connolly “Let us laugh together, on principle.”

The outcry against the Times’ decision is obvious. Chappatte wrote: “I’m afraid this is not just about cartoons, but about journalism and opinion in general. We are in a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow. This requires immediate counter-measures by publishers, leaving no room for ponderation or meaningful discussions. Twitter is a place for furor, not debate. The most outraged voices tend to define the conversation, and the angry crowd follows in…In the insane world we live in, the art of the visual commentary is needed more than ever. And so is humor.”

What is the role of humor and satire “in the insane world we live in”? The United States has had great political humorists. When the stodgy former President Calvin Coolidge died in 1933, Dorothy Parker asked, “How did they know?” The actor, humorist and columnist Will Rogers ran for president in 1928. Since he thought all campaigning was bunk, he ran as the “bunkless candidate,” promising that if elected he would resign. On election night, he declared victory and resigned. Mort Sahl, wearing his cashmere sweater and with a newspaper in hand, made outstanding barbs during the Kennedy era.

But Parker’s, Rogers’ and Sahl’s humor was not railing against an “insane world.” When Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in ending the Vietnam War, the songwriter and satirist Tom Lehrer said, “When Kissinger won the Nobel peace prize, satire died.”

There is a very thin line between jokes, satire and appropriateness. I remember Lenny Bruce screaming “nigger” in a Brooklyn theatre in the late 1960s. He was not trying to be funny; he was trying to make a point about taboos and inhibitions to an audience that was mostly white. He wanted us to feel uncomfortable, to make us reflect on our attitudes to people of color.

Chappatte’s political cartoons, like those of his French colleague Jean Plantureux (“Plantu”) and other members of the Cartooning for Peace organization, are purposefully edgy. Their role is to provoke. Some, like Musa Kart in Turkey, have been imprisoned. The charges against Kart are for “supporting terrorism.” Those in power do not always appreciate edgy cartoons or criticisms.

The Timeshas gone one step further. The self- proclaimed paper of record has abandoned its role of provoking. And not just because of one ill-conceived cartoon. The editorial page editor, James Bennett, explained that “for well over a year we have been considering bringing that [international] edition into line with the domestic paper by ending daily political cartoons and will do so beginning July 1.” Given the sensitivity of political dialogue today – such as “safe places” at universities and the SafePlacesNationalNetwork– there remains little space for humor or satire.

Can we still laugh together, on principle? Is this “insane world” beyond humor and satire? Chappatte’s point, as well as Connolly’s, is that humor is part of our being. To not to be able to laugh, to not to be able to make fun of someone or something in an appropriate manner, condemns us all to be as dour and sullen as the faces of John Knox, William Farel, John Calvin, and Theodore Beza – the ultimate Grumpuses – on the Reformation Wall in Geneva. Do we really want to return to that puritanical era?

You will ask what is meant by appropriate? One can easily condemn the Trump/Netanyahu cartoon as inappropriate or even anti-Semitic. But does one cartoon merit condemning many others? Humor and satire walk a very thin line, as I have said. There are always risks in telling jokes that people may not appreciate. That is the definition of edgy.

When I look at the statues on the Reformation Wall, I think of book burning and theological terrorism. Geneva’s experience with theocracy in the 16thcentury was a time of limited freedom. The Spanish doctor Michael Servetus was burned at the stake because he opposed Calvin’s view of predestination. And he was not the only one condemned because of “radical” ideas.

Let us all laugh together, on principle. As Chappatte wrote, and it bears repeating, “Without humor we are all dead.”

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Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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