Canceling Cartoonists

On January 7, 2015, the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo found themselves facing a form of cancel culture before it became fashionable in the Twaddle sphere.  It was of the most severe, lethal sort.  Twelve people were butchered and the fanatic’s credo asserted.  The assailants Chérif and Saïd Kouachi had been offended by the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  To add insult to grave injury, figures of various shades of political colour not exactly disposed to free expression were suddenly claiming they stood with the slain, declaring themselves in solidarity to be “Je suis Charlie”.

Despite the support, the usual cast of apologists made an appearance, citing matters of violated cultural and religious sensibility.  They did the same when it came to justifying the calls by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to murder Salman Rushdie for having authored The Satanic Verses.  Behind many an apologia for such instances of censorship is a witch-burning, stoning, amputating goon salivating with delight.

The commissars of cancel culture have also gone for cartoons and animations of late, though the reasoning has varied. The cartoonist’s history is filled with grotesque caricature: the blackface Bugs Bunny from 1953 who pretends to be a slave; the same character who ends up, in 1944, on a Pacific island filled with unsympathetically depicted Japanese figures.  (That’s war propaganda for you.)  In 1968, the studio pulled a series of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons in what came to be known as the “Censored Eleven” for reasons of offensiveness.

In recent times, the creepy skunk Pepé Le Pew, accused of supposedly contributing to “rape culture”, has been given the excision treatment.  Dr Seuss, the pen name for Theodor Geisel, has received his share of retrospective punishment, with the foundation bearing his name withdrawing six books.  Call it, suggests Philip Nel of Kansas State University, a “product recall”. “They’re not being banned.  They’re not being cancelled.  It’s just a decision to no longer sell them.”

The grounds for generously applying an eraser to political cartoon satire is taking matters towards more treacherous ground.  The satirist serves to poke fun and mock the staid, the orthodox, the petty.  The intention of such work confronts the peddled narrative rather than marching in step with it.

This month, Australia has made its own modest contribution to cartoon cancel culture by taking aim (the word is appropriate) at one of its favourite scrawling sons.  Michael Leunig, a declared “national treasure”, was gently let down by the editor of The Age after sketching a cartoon seen to be a bit on the nose of vaccination policy, notably in Victoria.  The paper chose not to run the work, featuring a tank equipped with a needle as a gun barrel pointing at the equivalent of the “Tank Man” figure made famous during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.  As matters transpired, this proved to be one cartoon too many.

Was Leunig’s effort a bit much?  Was it in keeping with Charlie Hebdo’s description of itself as the irresponsible newspaper (journal irresponsible) offering humour at times stupid and nasty (bête et méchant)?  This was certainly so for the paper’s editor, Gay Alcorn, who told Leunig that his thinking was not “in line with public sentiment”, which is always a worrying rationale to cite in any context of satire.  “I have pulled multiple cartoons by Leunig, almost entirely on the grounds that they expressed anti-vaccination sentiment.”  She insisted that cartoonists could challenge readers “but I had a concern with cartoons perceived as anti-vaccination.”

Leunig thought this a bit rich, an instance of “wokeism and humourlessness” run wild.  “The Tiananmen Square image is often used in cartoons around the world as a Charlie Chaplin-like metaphor for overwhelming force meeting the innocent powerless individual.  In my view, it is a fair enough issue to raise in the most locked-down city in the world”.

His cartoons on the subject of mandatory vaccination have previously riled audiences.  When the Victorian governmentintroduced a policy of not permitting unvaccinated children to attend childcare or kindergarten, Leunig took to his pen.  At the time, his efforts worried Jo Alabaster, a science communicator and advocate who claimed it sent “the community a message of fear and mistrust, based on ideas that simply aren’t truthful.  Science gives us the knowledge that vaccines are the safest and most effective way we can protect our children against vaccine preventable diseases.”

The reaction to Leunig’s axing did not lack that fundamentalist delight from those who feel that some things are beyond debate.  Then there was his age, his gender, his skin colour, and, the resort of those with no argument, a perceived lack of talent. “76-year-old white male cartoonist axed after being shit at his job for the past 20 years,” one social media vulture tweeted with glee, demonstrating a deep understanding of the issues.  The less than mature outlet Junkeesuggested that Leunig should have simply stuck to drawing ducks.

All this had the effect of not engaging the contentions that vaccination policies do pose.  There will be those unable to take them for genuine medical reasons.  There will be those left out in the digital divide given the mandatory use of vaccination passports for travel and for admission to workplaces or venues.  Protests numbering in the thousands against vaccine mandates and health passports have taken place in Italy, France and Greece.  A good number of those protesters can hardly be dismissed as inhabitants of the lunatic, conspiratorial fringe.

The unvaccinated have become the convenient whipping boys and girls of public health politics, just as those who marched against lockdown rules were deemed irresponsible “covidiots” with nothing particularly valuable to say.  Such dilemmas are the sort that deserve a satirist’s depiction.

In 2013, in response to another flutter of rage, Leunig rued that, “Making jokes is about the most wrong and stupid thing a bemused, middle-aged, white heterosexual Anglo-Saxon sort of Celt Australian male can do these days.”  Humour, he suggested, had to be taken off the menu.  The Age has gone one step further in taking him off its editorial page altogether.  At least they did not shoot him.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: