On Satires and who are afraid of them?

Fattah Fathun Karim
72 min readMay 13, 2021


Honestly speaking, everyone is.

(P.S: The cartoons and caricatures used in this blog do not reflect my views or my advocacy of any sort. All of the contents used here are for documentation purposes only and are not intended towards causing any communal incitations but rather to get to know the contexts better. Just like to understand the human anatomy one must confront a naked human body, similarly to understand the contexts and historic progression behind any particular subject, one should remain open minded and be prepared to confront any displeasing contents that may come across for the sake of a better understanding of the whole thing. If you are still comfortable with being displeased by some of the cartoons and events that might unfold, please do not continue. This is a study on cartoons and caricatures and their influence on social dynamics. To reiterate, it is not in any way meant to provoke any individual or any particular group or any particular faith. If you are still interested in the study, please continue otherwise please don’t. Hope to see you in my upcoming blog entries.)

By everyone I don’t necessarily mean every single individual on the planet. Although, it might not be completely untrue if their turn comes up, but nevertheless, anyone a cartoon targets is obviously to get somewhat, if not massively, unsettled. Satires are a mode of expression which are concerned with poking at people’s feelings. But before we judge satires for playing with people’s feelings we should at least know that every mode of expression tends to do the same, that is to evoke some particular feeling or sensation within the audience. Satires can come in different forms under a wide variety of mediums. A musical piece can be a satire, so can be a drama. A literature can be a satire, so can be a poetry. Caricatures are usually satires. They are basically a form of portrait which uses some unique features of the subject and exaggerate them to the point where it becomes humorous. When a subtle criticism of something or someone is pushed forward, but in an exaggerated or humorous way, then a satire is born. A satire wraps up a sociopolitical message within it’s carefully crafted humorous structure. But unlike the usual, non-satirical modes of entertainment, for example in the case of the avaerage music, or painting, or drama, or poetry, or novels etc., satires are mostly divisive. It contains a “target” who/which gets satirized (be it an idea or a people) and an “audience” who gets entertained. In case of non satirical modes of entertainments, there are scopes for everyone to be simultaneously entertained without anyone getting offended. But for satirical modes, someone is bound to get unhappy, angry, agitated or vengeful even, whereas on the other side of the spectrum there can be seen bursts of cathartic sneers and bloated laughter.

Anatomy of a laughter…

It is this particular nature of satire which makes it so controversial. People usually don’t take to be charged or attacked, be it verbally of physically. In most if not all of the cases, they elicit some sort of resistance. How to appropriately react to cartoons of oneself and how to put a leash on vigilante satirists, is a topic which no one in the planet could ever agree upon. People want to be immune from criticisms or any kind of satirization of themselves. But then again, they want to laugh their hearts out at the same time too, be it at the expense of others. While there certainly are more benign sources of laughter out there, but laughters derived from the misery of others, has a wider appeal. Starting from our childhood, consider the time when we were in the kindergarten or in our early school, we used to instinctively laugh at someone who is the “weird one out”. The socially awkward kid used to be always bullied and laughed at. The kid who asks some stupid question or replies with some stupid answers were always a laughing stock. If you go back in time a little more, a time when we were toddlers barely being able to stand on our feet, you would notice a similar pattern. Kids get really amused seeing others fall in an embarrassing situation. This specific psychological aspect of the toddlers are often exploited by the elders to entertain the children with silly, frivolous and mindless tricks. If a child cannot comprehend a situation, he/she wouldn’t find it funny. Awkward romantic jokes aren’t ever gonna make them laugh or even smile, but randomly stumbling upon a wall or cracking an egg upon your head might. Take for example, Tom and Jerry, a very popular children’s cartoon. what is the cartoon actually about? It’s just about a cat chasing a mouse incessantly and failing each of the time quite miserably. It doesn’t actually have a plot (although in some episodes there seems to be a little story narrative but those are targeted to serve the adult audiences). The children are glued onto the screen just to watch tom getting smacked each time. Every time Tom/Jerry gets hit by something or runs into an awkward situation, the children crack up. But take Looney Tunes for example. Looney Tunes follows the similar pattern of hit and run comedy too. But they seem to be less appealing to a child but rather more appealing to an adult. The reason being that, looney tunes actually entails some plot within it, apart from the mindless slapstick fillers each of its episodes contain. Now this can easily bore out the children, since they are there for watching the embarrassment of the poor bunnies or the coyote or the Tasmanian devil or the ducks or the pigs or whatever other slapstick thrill looney tunes have to offer. But adults can comprehend the subtle pinches and the plot’s comedic references, granting them to be able to enjoy the full package of humor. As for the children, they cannot comprehend the language nor the narrative references, making it less appealing to them compared to the tom and jerry show, which is mostly mute and hence an easy fodder for a toddler.

Its not just tom and jerry or looney tunes, most children’s cartoons are based on the mindless slapstick model. Classic cartoons were filled with it, although modern cartoons might have reached a balance, but nonetheless they are still prevalent in most of them. Its not children’s cartoons which laid the inception of slapstick comedies, but in fact it’s inception started with adult comedic strips which introduced such kind of comedies to the general people. It goes back as early as in Greek and Roman periods where clowns entertained audience through exchanging quips and beatings among themselves. In the middle ages, slapsticks can be found to be used in Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare included chase and beating scenes in his play “the comedy of errors”. In the 20th century with the boom of television comedy, came a host of slapstick comedies. Charlie Chaplin being one of the most notable ones of such genre. Along with them were the keystone cops, laurel and hardy, marx brothers, the three stooges. These all were comedy strips targeted to audiences of all range. So, be it cartoons or films in general, such characteristics had a timeless presence throughout the history of the comedy genre.

Now why does mindless awkward violence or people’s random embarrassments make us laugh? There are multiple theories for this of course and none can be disregarded. Children respond to slapstick humors because that’s the best thing their minds can process. As we get older, our slapstick response dwindles out, since we develop more and more self-awareness, our cognition develops and so does our ability to assess situations. Hence the amount of bullies we get to see in our pre-school tend to gradually drop as we ascend towards higher educational levels and in case of graduate levels or post graduate levels they become close to being non-existent. Although it would be wrong to say there aren’t any, but even if so, those cases are more nuanced, have more complicated social factors behind them and are usually driven with an agenda rather than being driven out of mere fun or instinct. Basically we get a better hold onto our instincts as we grow older and start to express sophisticated social manners. Our empathy grows even better and we learn to socialize more effectively due to our cognitive developments. But still, our childlike self doesn’t completely go away. To show an example to illustrate this point lets take a look at the following video. A a viral video from a metal band called Syskill from East Germany, where they try to jump on an ice pool to prove how brutal they are as a way to promote their band, shows a classic example of slapstick humor.

The man in the video jumps in the pool, gets hurt but immediately is followed by laughter from his friend. After whining in pain for a while he too bursts out in laughter and it reinforces the laughter in the whole group even more, making them go hysterical. This is where the theory of socialization comes in. Laughter has evolved as an emotional cue to bond with our peers throughout our human history. Robert Provine in his book states that we are more likely to laugh while we are around our friends and peers rather than when we are alone. Social cues are important to generate intuitive laughter. Laughter is a cathartic release of energy from the body which is associated with reducing the overall stress of the body’s system. And it is contagious too. When an awkward situation appears and we laugh it away, we send out a signal towards others that it is nothing much to worry about. If we fall and break a leg or shatter a bone, no one is going to laugh but rather try to contact every available emergency hotlines of nearby hospitals. But if a little pain is all that occurs, then we laugh it away intutively to reduce the stress of the whole situation, and it all happens quite automatically. But then again, the chance of laughing things out happens mostly among close kins. Among strangers we don’t usually evoke such an emotion, or even if such emotions appear intuitively, the general tendency is to suppress the feeling to avoid tension. Laughter and its intensity here signals the strength of the emotional bond among a group of people. Laughter is contagious for this reason — to have an in-group feeling. The bigger the laughter, the bigger the heart they say; which actually translates to having a better social skill. Sophie Scott, a British Neuroscientist, has a very interesting Ted talk based upon where she shares the social aspects of laughter and how tightens up our bond among our kins.

That laughter is contagious, is an idea which is quite often exploited by sitcoms. For example when watching “Seinfield” or the “big bang theory” or “two and a half man” or “Friends” or “How i met your mother” or sitcoms alike, we encounter a laughing audience, but we should better realize that those were deliberately put there to mimic a live audience. Laugh tracks were developed by Charles Douglas, a sound engineer in CBS, in order to fix the inconsistency of laughter of the in-house crowd in order to be properly aired for the radio and television channels. He saw that the crowd was not reacting with the expected intensity at the expected moments, which posed a problem for the airing the show or engraving them into the record tapes perfectly. At times they laughed too loud and for a prolonged moment, and at times they didn’t laugh quite as much when the punchlines appeared. So to bridge this inconsistency, Charley Douglas came with a scheme, a sweetening method in which he engineers the laughter of the crowd to the production team’s will. When needed he tones the laughter down, and when needed he amplifies it up. Thus creating the perfectly engineered, transmittable version of the whole show. Soon he developed the whole thing into artificial laugh tracks and after the production costs of live sessions soared, the demands for laugh tracks started to skyrocket. Comedian Milton Berle once talked of a joke which didn’t receive adequate laughter response from the in-house crowd, but after Douglas added the laugh track, Milton reportedly rejoiced, and told everyone, “See, i told you it was funny”. Although the efficiency of laughter tracks to make a show more funny is still debated but nonetheless it has been giving punchline cues to viewers since the inception of its usage by Douglas and the sitcom producers. Today, most laughter tracks can be seen ingrained in the most of the sitcoms. Even most late night talk shows use sweetening for the audience laughters. Late night shows by Steven Colbert or Jimmy Fallon, or John Stewart, John Oliver, Bill Maher are to name the few. Oh and how did i forget about Saturday Night Live. All of the sound of audience laughter are very well captured, well engineered, sweetened or de-sweetened and then aired. All of these are done to amplify the appeal of the whole show and provide an intricately engineered program to the consumers in expense of a tiny delay in live airing. It is just too risky to keep your hands off from sweetening. But unlike sitcoms which use pre recorded laugh track, late night talk shows don not usually use pre-recorded laugh tracks, since they are aired live. They just sweeten them.

Courtesy: Nymag

Now is laughter just to enhance emotional bond or to reduce the overall stress factor in the air? Unfortunately no. There are other aspects to laughter too. “Schadenfreude effect” for example, which means to get a sense of joy at other’s misfortune, explains some of the cases of laughter where humans revel in when they see others fall in embarrassing situations. This gives a passive sense of superiority over other people who are the subject of ridicule. It may be voluntary or involuntary. While voluntary schadenfreude might translate to an outcome of jealousy, the involuntary ones are mostly unconscious and less passionate. But schadenfreude is ingrained in most if not all of our genes. Then, there is the theory of incongruity which explains why incongruous situations, are occasionally perceived as humor. The brain not being able to decipher the outcome of situation uses laughter as an escape mechanism. This is why unpredictable jokes are the funniest. Jokes that are easily predictable don’t work that good. But for jokes to be funny, the incongruity needs to be easy to comprehend as well. For example, I once recommended “South park” to a friend of mine. He didn’t enjoy the show as much as i did. The reason being that, south park is a narrative centric cartoon with full of pop culture references. My friend wasn’t aware of the pop culture references, hence the incongruity in the narratives weren’t apparent to him. It’s not just south park but if i had given him Saturday night live, he would have felt the same. But he would have definitely enjoyed Mr. Bean, Scary Movie, The dictators or other such comedy films which don’t require much context or pop culture references to be comprehended. The theory of incongruity explains slapstick humors too. When someone trips down or gets smacked in the head with a pan, we perceive that as a deviance from the norm. It all happens so randomly that it comes to us as unexpected, mostly as a shock. Although theory of incongruity explains slapstick humors partially since there are obviously other factors at play here too, but nonetheless the significance cannot be overruled. Laughters are complex and intricate neurological processes. And like many other neurological processes, it is so intertwined, that a single factor cannot be attributed to it. And hence the interest and researches into this field seems to be never ending too. Many of the theories i have referenced here have been borrowed here from scientific american. I am linking the whole article below for a better read, in case anyone wants to dive a bit more deep.

Laughters are biological processes that have been evolutionary selected throughout the great course of time. It obviously serves a purpose, otherwise this process would have long been eliminated. Freud theorized that laughter is a venting mechanism for suppressed emotions. It is a cathartic release of “tensed energies” he says. To elaborate, when we are calculating billions of calculations in our minds each day within the realm of reality it stresses our neurons out. We have a set perception of reality and when it gets shaken but in a playful, apparently harmless way, it helps our neurons get a momentary relaxation. Concepts which are more stress inducing, for example socially taboo topics make the joke even more interesting, make them even more funnier. When sensitive topics appear, we tend to invest a good lot of neural energy to calculate the perfect way to react. So, when such tense moments appear in front of us, our brain subconsciously picks up the cue but just as the incongruity appears, it realizes the punchline and calms itself down. It’s like pulling a lever up and then abruptly releasing it down, freeing up the energy invested. And in the case of neural calculations, it releases them as laughter. This made Freud understand why jokes with scatological and sexually undertones so easily amuse us. Its not just these specific category of jokes, but take any taboo for example. Take for an instance, racial issues. Racial and jokes about ethnicity are predominant in every societies. Race is a sensitive topic to talk about since it has always played a role in breeding war and division. But with the rise of sensitivity in a topic, rises the potential of it to be joked about. Gender relations too, a conflicting topic but a breeder of an ocean of joke. Race, Gender, Power, Politics, Religion, Drugs, take any sensitive topic you can find, and you will see an abundant of jokes surrounding them. But you would surely have a hard time finding any joke regarding electric transformers, or like water cycle of the planet, or the layers of atmosphere above the earth. But even a non sensitive, benign issue may have a tons of jokes surrounding it, considering how well it has been publicly sensationalized. In millennial terms, if a topic gets trending in layman conversations, (or say in twitter) it is bound to be followed by a barrage of jokes. Politicians and celebrities are always centerpieces of jokes since they are always sensationalized, and have the highest exposures.

Although, juxtapositioning of mismatched incidents, slapstick humors, household humors, dad jokes or in plain bangla “Mirakkel” jokes may seem perfectly benign forms of humor but nonetheless, these are not powerful sociological tool and hence don’t stand out. They can be contain cultural emblems and portray daily lives of average individuals, but they cannot mobilize society as a group, neither do they possess transitioning power. These are soft versions of satires without much complicated thoughts being invested into them. On the other hand, strong satires, acerbic criticisms have always been an interesting area to explore. An abundance of studies have been done on them and they seem to have larger imprint on the contemporary minds of people since their strength can mobilize and bring revolutionary changes. These are also more emotionally appealing since they integrate many intricate social thoughts and factors. Such satires usually portray a larger collective and their mindsets. Hence the imprints last longer on the people despite it’s success on social mobilizing. Usually political satires falls under this category but other satires can come up with such socially mobilizing power too. For example, satires targeting the absurdity of certain conventional social customs and practices. And its the sheer power of satires which nakedly can point out loopholes in systems is what makes the sociopolitical orders tremble. Also it makes it even more relatable and funnier.

Check out the clip from Seth Mcfarlene’s “Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy” below, where the animators present a transition from an apparent slapstick humor to a critique of alienation and evangelical Christianity. They used one of my favorite looney tunes cartoons, “Wiley E. Coyote and the Road Runner” and exaggerated the slapstick to fit into a modern setting, providing it with a narrative.

People usually seek out for narratives as they grow older. Silly acrobatics start to lost their appeals. Or in other words, people start to prefer content rich skits, contents that are derived from everyday incidents starting from family matters to workplace affairs to celebrity gossips, to local and international politics and other everyday affairs that they can relate to. Although children tend to be more prone to the schadenfreude effect, but those are in more of a primitive form, within the domain of a nascent brain’s processing capability. But for adults the case is a little different. People cant shed off the schadenfreude effect completely, since it comes with the genes. But we become good at suppressing it. Through developing more social experience, building empathy, learning appropriate etiquette, and through other social and neurological development, we get to learn to behave and not make ourselves look like a completely insensitive person in front of others. But still the schadenfreude remains, and ironically, gives birth to the strongest satires and comedic sketches of all time. Now, it may feel like a sinister thing is gaining traction here. The fact that people consciously or subconsciously reveling in other people’s misery, showing utter disregard to humanity and benignancy which differentiates us from wild animals, might seem anything but noble.

But only if things were that simple.

When trying to understand the schadenfreude effect present in people and their taste in humors, we cannot boil it down too simplistically as we do for juveniles. Adults are more complicated and require a deeper thought to understand their thought processes. One such important factor is class tensions and power dynamics among people.

Power is a basic human craving which is very much unevenly distributed in the society. Social class, hierarchy, wealth and the political system often determine how much power and influence a person can hold. It can lead to immense frustrations among people. The working class or the people in the lower hierarchy are always at the mercy of the policymakers and of the administrators at the top. Politicians Businessmen dictate their life from all the way around. Now dissents can come at a cost. To go against the establishment is a very arduous job. You need an enormous manpower first of all. Be it through forming mass public opinion and mobilizing grassroots activism or through funneling enormous sums of money for recruiting and managing mercenaries from among the common public. An interesting way to form public opinion are through mass media contents. In ancient times, the voice of the people were poetry. Then came other forms of literature which had a substantial reflection of public opinions. The newspapers industry became even a bigger media which contained an amalgamation of thought of the general public. To quote Mahfuz Anam, from The Daily Star, Print media are the medium through which a government gets to have a close look into the minds of their constituency. In recent times, Digital media are playing a parallel role with the Print media for holding and expressing public opinion. Now, these opinions are from the people without any substantial power of influence. Such distributions of opinions influence others in forming their own, and thus giant public interests are formed. In a democratic society these interests are expected to be manifested through the voting system with mass, undisturbed public participation.

But what’s an effective tool for forming and mobilizing public opinion? News reports Op-eds are effective but boring. What works good is stoking public emotions and those are created by narratives. Through propaganda pieces, rhetorical showdowns, flashy posters, manifestos, etc. Now these all can be satirical or non satirical in nature. Satires are just another mode of dissent. Anything can be satire as long as it combines two fundamental things. It has to contain humor and a critique. If it doesn’t contain a humor, then it would only be counted as a critique. If it contains humor and not a critique, then it would be a simple comedy piece. Combine the two, and you get a satire. Satires can come in the form of literature, or in the form of imagery, or in the form of poetry, in propaganda posters or in pamphlets, etc. Among all the other forms of satires, cartoons seem to be drawing the most controversies, because of its potential power stored within it.

It however suffers from a little ambivalence. The nature of cartoons are unpredictable. It’s really tough to understand the course of a cartoon, if it would be powerful enough to mobilize the public. One reason is cartoons or satires have the power to tone down the intensity of a matter. But due to its entertaining value it sticks very well among the public. Cartoons are visual art. Unlike articles or protest manifestos written in words, cartoons come with a visual message. It is easier for humans to process visual imagery than a bunch of words jumbled together. It sticks for long too. That’s why children prefer pictorial educations, adults prefer infographics and graphical illustrations over tedious reports and mathematical jargons, consumers get driven towards creatively illustrated marketings strategies, newscasters like vox, nytimes, bloomberg quicktake, Al Jazeera, use animation tactics for fancy reportings and entice more audience etc. Compared with other forms of satires, cartoons have this advantage over its audience. It presents a visual imagery with an integrated critique to its viewers. It gives people an easy puzzle to solve. The image being the puzzle, and the narrative being the solution. Deciphering the message of the cartoon gives a sense of achievement, sends out a dopamine rush in the body. Although the sense may come consciously or unconsciously, but nevertheless it gives out a sense of intellectual pride, insinuating that you are smart enough to understand subtelties. Getting to understand the joke piles up on that sense of pleasure, inducing the humor, bringing about the smile or the laughter. This is true for every cartoon pieces, but the satirical cartoons are the ones deserving of some extra attention, due to their sheer strength stored in them.

Cartoons have always been a matter of controversy since their very inception in mass media. Cartoons have acted as a strong dissenting medium since generations. And lets be honest, powerful and influential people were never in favour of dissents. But for political check and balances they have to act like they are in favour or at least condone some level of dissents. To trace back the origins of caricatures, lets go to 19th century france, where King Louis Philippe just lifted censorship over the newspapers and has granted them considerable amount of freedom to exercise their freedom of speech. The french revolution consisting of working class people had led the pathway for king louis to ascend into power. Hence he was a little sympathetic to the public press. But the freedom he granted to the press backfired against him, after a satirist Honoré Daumier, who was a vocal critic of the monarchy, started doing caricatures on the king and publishing them in popular satirical dailies. Daumier’s first cartoon that caught him a lot of heat was Gargantua. Gargantua was a depiction of the the king which showed him taking food offerings from bureaucrats, elites, dignitaries while simultaneously defecating titles, honoraries, rewards for them in return. Daumier was persecuted for this drawing and was sentenced to six months in jail (the sentence was later suspended). Despite the persecution, he kept on continuing his caricatures in popular left wing dailies of those times. His cartoons got insanely notorious in the public spheres, gaining him an ever growing fanbase. The reason why I am calling him of having an ever growing fanbase? Well look at me, here I am, two centuries later, writing a blog noting his works down, oceans away from where Daumier or his journals were born.

Gargantua: Daumier

The place Daumier initially worked for, La caricature was even more infamous. Its editor, Charles Philipon was an active participant of the French revolution. After the revolution, he started the publication but with a negative editorial attitude towards the monarchy. Most left wing publishers of that time believed that despite the working class bringing louis philippe to power, the revolution’s cause totally hijacked by the elites and the bureaucrats, and the king was acting as a chief patronizer for them. Philipon came up with a famous caricature of king louis philippe in his satirical weekly, named “Les Poires” or ‘The Pears”. It depicted the gradual descension of the king’s face into a pear in four steps.

“Les Poires” published in La Caricature.

This particular imagery has a great lot of significance. It agitated the monarchy a lot. They prosecuted Phillipon 6 times with 3 convictions, had him jailed for a year, seized all his journals and made him pay thousands of franc worth of fine. But the suppression only added fuel to the fire. As historians noted, this particular imagery spread like wildfire in the streets of Paris. Hundreds of festoons appeared in the corners of Paris all of which contains references to “The Pear”. It became so endemic that it was becoming increasinly tough to take the king seriously, since the thought of him alone gave people instant flashbacks of a silly looking pear. It toned down the king’s weight turning him into a laughing stock. Phillipon is considered to be one of the major influences in the world of freedom loving caricaturists who prefer dissents over conformity at any cost. In fact philippon can be credited with the first bold caricaturists who stood so hard against the tides. Dissenting cartoons don’t have a long past. The first caricaturist credit is given to William Hogwarth who drew inspirations from Italian and French paintings but incorporated his paintings in satirical ways, earning him the credit. Francisco Goya was a somewhat benign caricaturist too, but did not have such an acerbic style. It was basically after the development of lithography in 1790, after when print media saw a boom, that the wave of satirical caricatures started to gain traction, and began to draw public attention. And the spearhead was launched by none other than Phillipon. Who else would have taken this risk, unless a revolutionary from the core of his heart?

France has a rich legacy of political cartooning. It didn't come off so easy. Inherited from Greek-Roman traditions, French kings used to invite buffons to entertain them with humorous plays. They were even granted some freedom to poke fun at the king. Then buffons started to get replaced by literary geniuses who created more sophisticated satires and parodies. Jean de la Fontaine for example. In times of the French revolution, the proletariats used satires and mockery against the ruling monarchy, especially Marie Antoinette. the last queen of France before the French revolution, whom the people blamed for France’s financial crisis because of her carefree, extravagant lifestyle. She was popularly mocked with the title “Madame Deficit” for her lavish expenditures. It is noted that during the period of the French revolution, from 1789 to 1792, 1500 satirical illustrations were produced prompting the revolution to grow even stronger. After the French revolution, just at the time when lithography and print media started to see a boom, caricaturists, cartoonists, satirists saw a boon in their career with satirical dailies, weeklies being published regularly. I have mentioned of some popular French satirists above, like Daumier and Phillipon. Though the aftermath of French revolution gave rise to a wider press freedom by the king, the scenario quickly changed after the king was being frequently targeted by the press and the satirists. The freedom was scrapped from them and censorship was reinstated. But in 1881, the censorship law was revoked again bringing back the long cherished press freedom. This paved the way for cartoons to proliferate again. One famous cartoon of that time was Caran d’Ache’s famous cartoon, “They spoke about it”. The cartoon’s context was a famous political scandal of that time, the Dreyfus affair, which created massive political division in France at that time. It shows a family having a gleeful moment at the dinner table while all on a sudden breaking out in a huge conflict after the “Dreyfus Affair” gets brought up at the table. The Dreyfus affair centered around Alfred Dreyfus, a military personnel of jewish descent, who was falsely accused with treason against the French military. The affair divided the French population into two parties, the Dreyfusards and the anti Dreyfusards. The anti Dreyfusards were largely driven by anti semitism, whereas the Dreyfusards were motivated by republican values and individual rights. The Dreyfusards were little in number at first, but as the conspiracy by french military gradually started to unfold, a conspiracy which tried to falsely indict Dreyfus, their faction grew in number and in strength. The affair lasted for 12 years, and serves as an example of injustice and anti semitism prevalent at those periods. Despite that, this incident greatly reduced the clerical influence in the French republic and further corroborated the need of a free press. The peak outcome of the Dreyfus affair was the formal declaration of the “Separation of Church and State” in 1905, which firmly established the principle of “Laïcité”, or Secularism into the French Republic.

Drawing by Caran d’Ache in Le Figaro: “They spoke about it”
A caricature of Jean-Baptiste Bienvenu-Martin, Minister of Public Instruction, forcing the separation between the church and the state, published in Le Rire in 1905.

Cartoonists in France thrived well in the following periods, from playing big roles in Stavisky affair, in both of the world wars, waging public opinion against the fifth president of the republic Charles De Gaulle, fighting against imperialism, capitalism and state control of the media in 1968 and in all throughout the 20th century. It became integrated into French culture so much to that it became completely inseparable. Cartoons have become so normalized that no matter how horrendous, it’s status was protected just as preciously as any other democratic rights of the republic. French satirists produced an abundance of propaganda cartoons on world war 1 which were so abundant in numbers that they are still a topic of interest for many researchers to study wartime psychologies.

World War 1: French Cartoons

French cartoon showing germans failing to break into Russia through Northeastern Poland. The wolf here symbolizing russian troops.
Cartoon depicting French soldiers fighting against German soldiers drawn as bugs.
French soldiers throwing germans off their border. Germans were popularly caricatured as pigs, because in pre world war period, pigs were associated with good omen in german culture.
A pig protesting for being compared with the kaiser ( German emperor)
Cartoon depicting kaiser meeting gruesome fate in pursuit of his imperialist ambitions.
Cartoon showing senegalese soldiers kicking germans away into their border. It tried to insinuate that even africans, who were thought of to be inferior ( brrom on the hand instead of a bayonet for example) fight against this kind of german barabarity.
Cartoon showing kaiser turning into a serpent, constricting Marianne (personification for the French Republic), and a young french soldier fighting kaiser to free her.
Cartoon showing a german soldier evolving into a monstrous ogre, becoming completely devoid of humanity

World War 2: French Cartoons:

Anti Hitler Postcard in france.
Cartoon showing hitler turning into a minotaur trying to devour the world map.
“His last claim” by french caricaturist paul barbier. The signs from left to right say austria, czechoslovakia, poland and all the words adjacent to the feet translates to “His last claim”
Anti nazi propaganda postcard by French Artist Paul Barbier.
German leader and his confession: Paul Barbier. It shows Jesus saying “Love each other” and hitler saying “ If he doesnt shut up i am gonna throw him in a concentration camp”.
Caricature of three prominent Nazi Leader.

Cartoons thrived and survived in 20th century without having less to fear about any monumental repercussions. There were one or two isolated incidents, like when a satirical magazine “Hari Kiri” was banned for publishing cartoons on the then deceased French president Charles de gaulle, but the ban was later lifted and the magazine went operational again.

But then 21st century happened.

It was in the 21st century that things started to take a graver turn. Although, not by the government which used to be the usual case throughout history, but rather through terrorist factions with their hardline ideological adherence. The repercussions didn’t befall the cartoonists in the form of petty boycotts or court battles but rather through straight on massacres and homicides.

Enter Charlie Hebdo era…

In the year 2011, a bomb went off in the office building of Charlie hebdo, a French satirical magazine publishing satires on trending issues around the globe. The bomb was a response to cartoons made by Charlie hebdo mocking the islamic faith. Prior to the incident Charlie Hebdo brought out an edition titled Chariah Hebdo (Shariah Hebdo), with the caricature of Prophet Muhammad (depicted as the guest editor of the edition) at the front cover with a quote saying, “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing”. The cartoon was a made as a response to the introduction of Shariah Law in libya and victory of the islamist party “Ennahada” in Tunisia. The cartoon triggered extremist muslims so bad that they were prompted to carry out a bomb raid on the magazine’s office. The event shook the whole nation sending shockwaves throughout every corners. The attack was akin to an attack on France’s republican values, and it’s deeply rooted values of freedom of speech. France’s then prime minister Filon, interior minister Guéant all voiced their support for Charlie hebdo. In 2012, Charlie hebdo made even more cartoons on Islamic extremism as a form of retaliation after violent protests erupted in the Islamic world as a reaction to a recently aired film “Innocence of Muslims”. Around 50 people were dead all over the Islamic world while leaving hundreds injured. Charlie targeted and mocked the extremism with their cartoons, gaining them even more notoriety. Though they were asked not to fuel the fire by the Foreign Minister of France, they stood firm on their free speech grounds. Then in 2015, another raid happened on Charlie Hebdo’s Office. Two Islamist gunmen forced into the office and conducted a mass shooting, leaving 12 staff cartoonist dead, including “Charb” who was in charge of the whole magazine.

“Charb”, director of Charlie Hebdo, one of the many who were assasinated in the 2015 terror attack.

What happened after that was an avalanche of support for Charlie Hebdo. French Prime Minister François Hollande described it as a terrorist attack of utmost barbarity in french soil. The demand for the magazine skyrocketed, pushing them to print millions of copies to meet up with the demand. French government granted them 1 million euro to support the magazine. A google affiliated group donated 250,000 euro, guardian media group donated 100,000 euro. In the streets of the western world and in the internet protestors espoused the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie” as a way to show solidarity with the magazine and its causes. The survivors who were left alive in the magazine’s office pledged to continue publishing their works and not bow down to terrorist threats.

Procession in support of Charlie Hebdo

In the Islamic world, however the scenario were completely different. Massive protests against Charlie hebdo followed, demanding an all out ban on the magazine. Violent protests erupted in Niger, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Jordan, Chechnya and many other places around the world leaving dozens dead and many more injured. A UK based islamist group gave charlie hebdo the “islamohphobe of the year” award as a way to insult. As a retaliation to the islamist group, another UK based NGO awarded Charlie hebdo with “Secularist of the year” award. The magazine authorities later donated the reward moneys from the award to the family of the murdered cartoonists.

2015 Anti Charlie Hebdo Processions throughout the world.

Fast forward to 5 years, and history repeats again. On september 2020, Charlie Hebdo announced that it would reprint the prophet muhammad cartoons marking the 5th year anniversary that led to the violent mass shooting in their office. They announced it as a gesture to honor the dead artists on the occasion of the trial hearing of the murderers that was just a month away. This announcement was not taken lightly by the islamic world. Again a wave of protests broke out. Weeks after the publication, a pakistani immigrant carried out a knife attack injuring two people at Charlie Hebdo’s previous office location. The attacker didn’t know that the magazine office changed their location. But he admitted to have been driven by vengeance against the magazine for reprinting the caricatures of muhammad. French government backed Charlie Hebdo up and retorted that the enemies of the republic will never win, pledging to stand against islamist terrorism at any cost. Emmanuel Macron, French PM backed the rights of the caricatures to be published. Then just after a month, another terrorist attack shook the whole french world.

Samuel paty, a french teacher, decapitated in the streets of France by one of his students

Samuel paty was a middle school teacher teaching geography, history and civics at the Collège Bois-d’Aulne. In a class on the topic of Freedom of Expression as a part of the “Civic Education course”, he showed his class a caricature of prophet Muhammad from an edition of the Charlie hebdo magazine. Prior to showing the photo he warned the class and asked them to close their eyes if they had issues with such cartoons. A series of online smear campaign and confrontation followed from one of the Muslim student of that class and her father. The father furthered corroborated the campaign with the help of a local extremist imam and strengthened the voice of condemnation. The online campaign spread throughout Islamic communities like wildfire. The incident prompted an 18 year old Islamist immigrant from Chechen, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzarov, to take matters into his own hands and punish Paty for his misdeeds against his religion. Anzarov followed and decapitated him publicly in the streets before getting encountered by the French Police who shot the assailant to death.

This incident sent shockwaves again. Macron went even much more harder against the islamists, closing down mosques and NGOs with radical islamist ties, banning and deporting extremist preachers, and bringing social media extremist activities under police radar. He held a national tribute for Mr. Paty and posthumously awarded him the Legion of honor (Highest french order of merit). Charlie Hebdo cartoons were projected on govt buildings as a homage to Samuel paty, standing in straight defiance to the extremist demands. People brought down rallies in support of the murdered professor, paid their fair share of tributes.

But all of this, especially the projection of charlie hebdo cartoon on national building as a homage to Samuel Paty came with a serious backlash from the muslim world. Accompanied with Macron’s statement “Islam is in a crisis”, and his pledge to battle radical and political islam at any cost, it put France into a huge diplomatic crisis. Most of the loudest voices were heard from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bangladeshi islamist groups brought out rallies to beseige French embassy and demand cutting diplomatic ties with France. Pakistani Islamists group were doing the same. But in a more louder way. Unlike Bangladeshi govt who tackled this problem very wisely, bowing down to no islamist demands, Pakistani prime minster could not do that. He had to condemn French government as per the islamist demand with all his might to appease to the Islamists of his country. But that alone wasnt enough. Pakistani radical Islamist group “Tehrik e Labbaik Pakistan” started to create more grassroot mobilization and finally in 2021 came out in large number besieging the streets of Lahore to demand the expulsion of french ambassador of Pakistan. It created massive problems for Pakistan, amounting to several deaths of policemen and protesters. Imran khan tried to lobby the Muslim world into pressurizing the European countries to introduce blasphemy laws in their respected constitutions. Apart from Imran khan among the other Muslim nations, Erdogan was a key player in anti French campaign. He called macron a mentally deranged person and that he needed mental treatment. Macron recalled his French ambassador to Turkey as a retaliation for such remarks. Erdogan asked for other countries to boycott French products despite keeping Turkey’s trade ties well alive with the French. The boycott never succeeded. No govt responded to that, rather it were just mere individuals boycotting French products from their personal positions. But that didn’t quite have any significant effect on French trade. Iran asked the international community to put tough sanctions on France for disrespecting Islam, but that too never saw the light of the day.

The reason I have so focused and elaborated on France because France is the only country who was most hard bent on the issue of protecting their rights to satirize despite massive global pressure. The practice of caricaturing is so mired within their history that it has become integral to French identity. The vigor with which French society defended their rights to freedom of speech and the rights to satirize any social issues they feel like, is unparalleled. Its not like that other countries do not have such passionate cartoonists. They do, but stirring up global tensions on such mass scale and striving for the rights of cartooning despite diplomatic backlashes were only seen from the part of the French Republic. Like France, Denmark too had their fair share of cartoon related diplomatic troubles. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy for example. The Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten posted 12 cartoons on prophet Muhammad which were met intense backlashes. Massive riots followed globally leaving hundreds of people dead. Embassies were attacked, ambassadors were recalled, massive boycotts and assassination attempts were followed. Whereas on the other hand, many publishers of other western countries decided to reprint the cartoons as a retaliation to the hostility that erupted throughout the whole world. The countries included France, Norway, Sweden, Ukraine, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, USA, UK etc. The diplomatic tensions grew so severe that the Danish Prime Minister compared the diplomatic crisis with the one that followed after the second world war broke out. The events were so huge that summing them up would require a whole new article. I am therefore dropping the link down below for anyone who is interested in knowing the full timeline of the whole crisis.

Keep in mind, all of this happened just because of a bunch of cartoons, 12 to be precise.

Another such diplomatic furor occurred way back in the times of second world war. The spark was caused by a UK based caricaturist David Low. Low used to specialize in creating political cartoons. He published a lot of cartoons on Austrian civil war, Spanish civil war, Italian invasion of Ethiopia and many other political events prior to second world war. Low specially rose in fame for his acerbic caricatures on Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin in times of second world war. But it was Hitler who took particular issues with Low’s caricatures on him. Low’s cartoons were banned in Germany and in Italy. But Hitler could never move on from Low’s stinging depiction of his. According to British Foreign minster of that time, Lord Helifax, the German officials used to go crazy as soon as any copy of the Evening Standard reached them. After getting their hands on the paper, phones used to buzz, everyone’s tempers flared up, fevers mounted, and the whole system used to go in a frenzy. Germans banned the paper, but the officials used to get some copies to understand whats happening in the UK. And the relentless cartoons from Low irritated them a lot. It irritate them to so much that Helifax had to request Low to go a little easy on Hitler and the Nazis. Because the cartoons were impeding the peace process between Germany and the UK. Low hesitantly had to agree, since he didnt want to be escalate the world war tensions. Hitler on the other hand was plotting a different plan with his foreign press secretary, Ernst Putzi. Since he couldnt just silence the Evening Standard and David Low, so he sought out other damage control methods. It was Putzi’s idea that they bring out a paper debunking all the gross allegations made by the antagonizing cartoons. And that they did. They published Hitler in der Karikatur der Welt: Tat gegen Tinte (Hitler in the World’s Cartoons: Facts Versus Ink). You can compare it with modern day fact check. They used to pick up cartoons and fact checked it. Like when a Cartoon depicting Hitler as the grim reaper in the paper “The Nation” suggested that Hitler was a warmonger, Putzi added the facts that Hitler was on the contrary trying to make his ambassadors sign up peace agreements (The four powers pact) in order to establish peace between France, Germany, Italy and the UK. But verbal response to visual cartoons were doomed to fail and that it did. People don't get enticed into checking snopes just as much as they are enticed at seeing silly memes and ‘The Onion” articles. Same thing happened there. The cartoons were always triumphant over fact checking by the Nazis. No one liked to read big essays debunking a cartoon. The project failed.

Georges, “The Grim Reaper,” The Nation (1933)
David Low and the Dicators. The cartoon expressing that Hitler and Mussolini are scared to tears at the ink of David low.

It was not only cartoonists like Low who created wartime propaganda but satirists from all aspects did. Low specialized in creating still images. But there were motion pictures, animations which took a hit at the rival countries too. An abundance of propaganda animated cartoons were created, with Walt Disney, Warner Bros leading the industry at that time. The propagandas were made to manufacture public consents for war, for helping out the military into getting more recruits for war. These cartoons, animations all served as driving forces for people joining in the military. One of the most notable propaganda cartoon has to be the Ductators of Looney tunes where it takes a hit on Hitler, Mussolini and Hideki Tojo.

It would be unfair not to include Walt Disney propaganda too. The time when Donald Duck becomes a Nazi in his dreams. Pure classic!

There were propaganda from the soviets against the Americans too but none matched the strength and comedy wit of the American industries. Also it can be attributed to the fact that anti Nazi alliances had more freer and less restrictive environment for cultural practices.

But it was not only Hitler who used to get a fit looking at cartoons. This paranoia about cartoons are universal. But some system are good at suppressing them, whereas some aren’t. Thomas Nast for example, took a hit on Boss Tweed and his cronies. Nast pointed out with his cartoons how cunningly tweed and his allies were stealing from the public fund. Nast’s savage depiction exposed his corruption under broad daylight. Tweed understood the power of Nast’s pen. And he instinctively tried to do everything possible from his part to stop Nast. He anguishly asked the papers to stop Nast from publishing his cartoons. “ Stop them damn pictures”, he famously said, “ I don't care a straw about your newspaper articles, my constituents cannot read. But they can’t help seeing at those pictures”. Nast was even offered an art scholarship worth 500,000$ to stop targeting Tweed an his gangs with his cartoons, which Nast respectfully refused. Tweed’s fear ultimately came to be true. Nast’s cartoons mobilized public opinion so much that even people from far and beyond got to know who tweed and his gang were despite having to do nothing with them. Tweed and his gang were eventually thrown out of the office, stripped off their roles, were charged with swindling money and were awaiting trial. Tweed escaped in Spain, living there as an exile, as a seamen in a ship. But a Spanish customs official recognized him from one of Nast’s drawings. Tweed was recaptured and brought back to justice.

Boss Tweed, depicted as so greedy of an individual, that a sack of money replaced his head
Nast on the Tweed ring. Each of the ring blaming each other for the theft of public fund

That's the power of cartoons that every powerful people fear. It possesses the power to strip them naked under broad daylight, that otherwise might not have been possible. It can mobilize public opinion so much that it works as a purveyor of political change.

Although it would be wrong to think all these times the establishment were in completely good terms with cartoonists, since they helped spread their version of propaganda in wars and other efforts against the enemy. There were times when cartoonists took a stance against their own nations doings. The masses were such a magazine spearheaded by Art Young. There were many other contributors like Robert Minor, Carl Sandberg, Amy Lowell etc. But the themes was what was important. The masses was anti war and in most cases, anti capitalist. The cartoons of the publication were greeted with great public appreciation. But it was met with hostility from the establishment. Art young and the Masses along with Eastmen were charged with sedition and espionage. The court asked if they tried to undermine war efforts and create hurt the recruitment process by swaying people’s sentiment away from the war? Young wasn't ashamed into admitting that he was anti-war. Though the jury couldn't come up with a verdict, but nonetheless the publication had to stop functioning any longer. Young was a hero to the public, so despite the masses being short lived, his imprint remained fresh till this day, as a pioneering anti war figure.

Art young’s caricature on jesus published at The Masses. The cartoon was aimed at criticizing the government for persecuting anyone who preached peace and stood against the war efforts.

Dissenting Cartoons were prevalent in Germany too. From George Grosz to Kathe Kollowitz to John Heartfield all were some of the dissenting voices of that time. But all of them were suppressed with the rise of fascism. These cartoonists had some communist leanings and were anti war. Hence they fell under the radar of the Nazi government. Grosz fled the country sensing a rise of fascism taking place, while heartfield was forced into exile. Heartfield’s office was vandalized and all cartoons were destroyed prior to that. The Nazi government on the other hand, had one or two propaganda cartoon publication too. Der sturmer for example. It alone outchampioned all the other publications thank to govt patronizing and suppressing dissenters. The paper spread hatred on the jews, capitalists and communists and helped the Nazis rise to power. All the left leaning anti war publications couldn't match up with its might and could not prevent the Nazis from rising to power. The paper mostly targeted at Jews, blaming them for all the world’s problems.

Der stumer cartoon portryaing a greedy jew with both capitalist and communist leanings pressing his butt against the globe.

It was one of the biggest and the most successful purveyor of antisemitism in Nazi Germany. It showed Jewish ritual murders, Jewish criminality, Jewish connection with devils and demons, Jewish goal of global domination, Jewish conspiracy against the whole world and what not. It also showed Jewish as filthy communists, rapists, greedy capitalists, seducer of Aryan women, and portrayed the Jewish intellectuals as untrustworthy, dishonest, secretive, disloyal. All of those were instrumental into building public opinion against the Jews which eventually paved the way for mass Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany. The publisher of Der Sturmer, Julius Streicher, earned millions selling the anti semitic propaganda. Streicher regularly authorized articles and cartoons demanding the extermination of the Jewish race in Der Sturmer. Nazi politicians of that time had this to say about Der Sturmer,

With pleasure, I say that the Stürmer, more than any other daily or weekly newspaper, has made clear to the people in simple ways the danger of Jewry. Without Julius Streicher and his Stürmer, the importance of a solution to the Jewish question would not be seen to be as critical as it actually is by many citizens. It is therefore to be hoped that those who want to learn the unvarnished truth about the Jewish question will read the Stürmer

Streicher’s ambition of a global annihilation of the Jews didn’t go unpunished. After the fall of Hitler, at the Nuremberg trials, Streicher was put to justice. He was found guilty of war crimes and hanged to death.

But Der Sturmer raises an interesting question. On free speech grounds, should Der Sturmer have been spared? Cartoons demonize and stereotype their targets all the time. It attacks politicians, ideologies, socio-political movements, communities, cultural niches, and any other thing that exists in the society. If cartoons need to be free, it should be free for all. Thus creating a legit paradox. The paradox of tolerance. Even France, the country which protects the freedom of expression of it’s satirical publications like a hawk protecting its chicks, banned cartoons on the holocaust. It also restricts cartoons from antagonizing certain groups of people. Even the French agree that absolute freedom cannot be granted, lest a Der Sturmer case reappers. But on the legality of the rights of Charlie Hebdo and Jylland-Posten, the argument was that, cartoons should free to attack any ideologies. No individual ideology should be singled out and given special rights over the other. Since religion is a ideology, hence it falls under such category. If cartoons on Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism etc. can be accepted then singling out Islam would be an unfair thing to do. And not only the big Abrahamic religions but any religion can be made fun of, since at the end of the day these are just mere ideologies like any other. Ideologies aren’t just restricted to religion, but there are many others. Political and Social ideologies are abundant. Feminism, Communism, Liberalism, Neoliberalism, Libertarianism, Conservatism, Secularism, Environmentalism, Fascism, Ecofascism, Nationalism, Anarchism, Syndicalism, Transhumanism are just one of the many. To grant one group immunity from criticism over the others would be showing inconsitency and appeasing to a portion of demography over the other. Macron says ideologies politicians all should be subject to criticism for the better good of mankind. That's how problems are exposed, talked about while mobilizing the society towards a change. But revisiting history such as the holocaust are banned because the trauma are still fresh on the genocide survivors. The genocides are not a concept but rather an actual happening in human history. In most cases, the genocide denials or mockery are done with political motives. For example, in Bangladesh the ones downplaying the genocides of 1971 are done by the anti liberation forces or Pakistan loyalists. Same with the holocaust deniers. Usually people who are Nazi sympathizers, or just basic antisemites espouse such views on the holocausts. The neo Nazis of the west for example. And then there are the orthodox Muslims and hardline Christians who are at odds with the Jews for their orthodox religious views. Iran for example, are notorious to poke at the authenticity of the holocaust. President Ahmadinejad was constantly on somewhat denial when pressed by the journalists on the holocaust issue. The new president Hassan Rouhani takes a softer line but nonetheless the prevalence existed for ages in Iran. Apart from religious reasons, another reason here is political. Iran and Israel both are the mightiest in terms of nuclear power on the middle east. And both of them are arch enemies, which dates back to the Arab-Israel war. Hence any tragedies of Israeli Jews are bound to be undermined by Iranians because the misery of the enemy is always an advantage (Remember Schadenfreude?). Hence other Muslim nations, especially the ones with whom Israel aren’t at odds with acknowledge the authenticity of the holocaust for as it is without any hesitation, except for Iran, who are still at somewhat denial coming from their national level officials. When the Danish cartoon incident happened, Iran was one of the fiercest opponents. Iran held International Holocaust Cartoon Contest in 2006 as a response to jylland-posten. The reward for the best cartoons were 5000$-12000$ for the top 3 winner while 3 gold coins for each 9 that followed. The organizers sought out to continue this initiative for as long as Israel does not cease to exist. But it didn’t get continued. Instead the 2nd International Holocaust Cartoon Competition occurred after the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2016. Such politics of genocide denials which affect its survivors and their lineage is what makes them abhorrent in the eyes of the international community. Denying other genocides or making cartoons on them are equally prohibited in most countries. In Bangladesh, 1971 genocide denial or revisiting history will land one in jail with maximum prison term let alone making cartoons on them. This is to honor the genocide survivors and halt the anti liberation war politics led by the Pakistani loyalist blocks. Genocide archives and repertoires are usually well substantiated. Most of the denials don't spring out from goodwill rather to distort the truth for political ambitions. Hence Iranians aren't practicing free speech when organizing International Holocaust Cartoon Competition but poking through the fresh wounds that the Nazi genocide survivors still have in them, for sadistic and political purposes. Its not only holocaust survivors but hate speech against any communities are not greeted well. Its one thing to criticize an ideology and another thing to go full on Der Sturmer. Most people confuse between these two. They conflate ideological criticism with mindless bullying and nefariously curated ethnic demonizing. But to think like this is perfectly normal, since understanding the nuances would require understanding the contexts which might seem daunting. Charlie Hebdo when asked, asserted that they published cartoons as per their policy. They pushed criticisms through cartoons, attacking ideologies from all ends. They didn’t agree to singling out Islam whereas they regularly published cartoons on Christianity Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and others. It would be unfair, they claim, to give one community immunity under the pressure and threat of terrorism while blasting all the rest. They delineated free speech from hate speech and ethnic demonizing. Macron uttered the same thing when he sat for an interview with al jazeera with regards to this specific issue.

Another notable diplomatic row happened in the eighties when Margaret thatcher was in power of the UK. The incident occurred with the assassination of a Palestinian cartoonist Naji al Ali. Naji al ali was born in Palestine but had to move into exile into Lebanon after the Palestinian war. He grew up in many parts of Lebanon but afterwards he moved to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and then finally to London for the shifting nature of his career and jobs. He was deeply entrenched in the Arab nationalist movements and portrayed a lot of layman Arab opinions through his cartoons. His cartoons were so genuinely reflecting of the average Arab voice that the guardian labelled him as “the nearest thing there is to an Arab Public Opinion”. Naji al ali was famous for his iconic cartoon “Handala”. It is the symbol of Palestinian defiance against the oppression pressed upon them. Handala has a rich legacy. It has been so widely adopted that Palestinian streets are filled with this symbol. Walls, buildings poles and what not. Handala can be seen in jewelry motifs too. It also served as a mascot for boycotts, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement, and also as a mascot for Iranian green movement.

Handala graffiti in palestinian streets

Naji al ali was a critic of both Israeli and Arab politicians earning him disfavor from both sides. But thats not Naji al ali. That was reflective of the whole arab population living in the west bank, gaza and palestinian refugee camps. Everybody were fed up with the arab leadership for failing them as well as remaining harshly bitter to the israeli occupation. But acting as the representative of such critical opinion concentrated the wrath of the politicians on Naji al ali specifically. He was working for international newspapers which posed a threat the arab-israeli leadership’s political image. In 1987, Naji al ali was assasinated under broad daylights outside the office of the Kuwaiti Newspaper Al Qabas where he worked for. It is still unclear who commissioned his assasination but it is widely believed that PLO was responsible for his death. Although many hands point to Force 17 who worked for Yasser Arafat. But the troubles arose after involvement of Mossad was exposed. After the capture of some suspected assailants, it was found that they were working as double agents. Despite being on the hit team working for the PLO, they confessed to collaborating with the Mossad too. It was then revealed that Mossad knew beforehand about the assisnation project that was to be carried out against Naji al ali. But they chose not to intervene. British intelligence were heavily displeased with this. Mossad’s decision to remain uncooperative on this matter with their british counterparts by not sharing information prior to the assasination attempt, paved the way to the gruesome death of Naji al Ali. British govt expelled three israeli diplomats as a retaliation. Margaret Thatcher was extremely infuriated and ordered the closure of the Mossad’s Base in London.

To note a positive aftermath of diplomatic conflagrations caused by cartoons, libya comes in mind first. Gaddafi and his regime falsely accused 5 buglarian nurses and a palestinian medical intern of conspiring to inject 400+ children in a hospital at Benghazi with the HIV Virus. They tortured and forced confessions out of them. After spending 8 years in jail and trials after trials, they were sentenced to death by firing squads by the libyan high court. Novinar, a bulgarian daily, chose to print some cartoons as a criticism to Danish government for not pressuring libyan government enough to rescue their citizens. It antagnoized and demonized Gaddafi while critiquing Bulgarian government. The cartoons caused immense uproar, mobilized public opinion all around. Gaddafi could realize the potential it was gaining. Libyan foreign minister summoned bulgarian ambassador and asked that the cartoons were hurting libyan image and they would like it to be stopped. The embassy ensured that they distanced from the cartoons and are in no way endorsing them. But the damage had been already done. The cartoons were phenomenal and an instant sensation. It stripped gaddafi and his regime naked to the public eye. Upon pressures from all around, gaddafi agreed to extradite the prisoners to bulgaria where afterwards the bulgarian president proceeded to pardon them . Had it not been Novinar, an alternate reality might have easily occured. Oh and by the way, did I forget to mention that Novinar was the first and only paper who had reprinted all the 12 danish cartoons in defiance to the response of the islamic communities.

Gaddafi, writing thank you for your quiet diplomacy to bulgaria, while 5 gallows dedicated to the bulgarians lurk behind. Published in Novinar

Diplomatic tensions are big incidents, hence make the breaking news. But an abundance of domestic tensions arise due to cartoonists picking up domestic targets and satirizing them. Churchill for example ordered an investigation into Daily Mirror to look out for cartoonists who were hurting national interests by publishing demoralizing cartoons. The cartoonist on target was Philip Zec who published a cartoon critical of Churchill administration for jeopardizing human lives in their pursuit of war over oil. Churchill’s home secretary summoned the daily mirror’s chairman, editors to talk over this issue. He compared the cartoons to Nazi era propaganda. The matter even went into the parliament inducing there a heated debate. The paper was threatened to be closed down but after the govt got too invested in the war, the issue was thrown under the rug. Zec went back to his drawing board. Bill Maudlin was another anti war caricaturist who exposed the grim reality of the war. He was too pressurized to tone down his caricatures because it was hurting wartime recruitment processes. Maudlin’s anti war, anti propaganda rhetorics through his cartoons were swaying people away from joining the war. Censorships weighed in from the editors too. Out of 246 cartoon submission of his in the post war period, 40 were weeded out. Editors unjustly erased off his cartoons, alleged him for red baiting politicians and having communist ties. Another Cartoonists Herblock was also a significant force against the prevalent red scare of that period. Herblock was one of the originators who came up with the term McCarthyism. McCarthyism referred to persecution of people based upon unfounded, unsubstantiated, suspected allegation of cooperating with the communists to subvert national interests. It mainly targeted govt and federal employees, labor union leaders, academics etc. charging hundreds and leaving them jobless or imprisoned. The allegations were mostly false and fabricated and serves as an historical case of paranoia over communism in the modern US. Maudlin caricatured this paranoia to show how absurd it was. He also bitterly depicted Richard Nixon when his Watergate scandal broke out. Nixon, upon seeing the cartoon, cancelled subscription of the Washington post out of his sheer outrage. Maudlin even got his name enlisted into the infamous “enemies list” of Richard Nixon, which was a list of his assumed political enemies whom he later targeted to destroy. Cartoonists getting into hit lists arent anything new. Before Maudlin, David low was one of the cartoonists to get into the hit list of Nazis. Naji al ali got into the hit list of Palestine Liberation Organization. Sri Lankan cartoonist Jifry Yoonos was stabbed, beaten and terrorized for caricaturing then president of Sri Lanka Renaisighe Primadas. Iranian Cartoonist Manouchehr Karimzadeh was sentenced to 50 lashes, ten years in prison and a hefty for caricaturing creating a cartoon resembling the young ayatollah khameini.Argenitian cartoonist Cristian Dwoznik was kidnapped, robbed and threatened not to satirize the president through his cartoons. Cameroonian cartoonist popoli was dragged out of his car by security forces, beaten up mercilessly and jailed for caricaturing the first lady of cameroo. Sri lankan cartoonist, Pragneeth Eknaligoda was forcefully disappeared. Syrian cartoonist Ali fezrat was abducted, fingers cracked in retaliation over his cartoons on Bashar al Assad by Syrian forces. Another Iranian cartoonist was Mahmoud Shokraye was sentenced to twenty five lashes for creating cartoon on an member of parliament of Iran. A Belarusian cartoonist oreg minich was forced to choose between serving 5 years in prison or permanent exile. Such are the examples which only further illustrate the power of cartoons.

Apart from getting into hit lists or enemies lists, there are multiple occasions where cartoonists were persecuted by leaders. French far right political leader Marine le Pen for example sued Charlie Hebdo for cartooning her. South African president Jacob Zuma sued a cartoonist in court, who depicted him as a rapist raping lady justice. The cartoon insinuated that Jacob Zuma was manipulating and destroying the sanctity of the justice system. Same thing happened with the prime minister of UK, John Major. There was a gossip in the press about Major that he was having an affair with his caterer Clare Latimer. Platt, an editor of new statesman published a cartoon on this gossip under the headline, “The Curious Case of John Major’s ‘Mistress’ ”. Major sued the new statesman, which pushed the new statesman towards bankruptcy, and got platt fired from his job. Although Major had the upper hand in the case because there were no concrete proof of major’s affair at that time, but 10 years later it was revealed that indeed he had. When Platt was asked to reflect on the past about his cartoon on the Major he says,

I should have realized that no one protests so loudly as the crook who is rightly accused, but can claim innocence in particular circumstances

Truly, only the paranoids have the loudest voices.

The tradition of chasing down cartoonists by prime ministers, presidents or presidential candidates are still alive till this day. When Barry blitt published his new yorker cartoon on the Obamas, Obama had to pause his campaign works and address the issue regarding the cartoon. Usually pausing down an election campaigns to address an specific issue, when other pressing things are at hand to be dealt with, insinuates that its a major thing that cannot go unaddressed. That's how cartoons even shake the chair of the mightiest. But the Barry blitt’s cartoon in new yorker wasn’t understood in context, which gave rise to the problem. The cartoon showed Obama fistbumping Michell Obama while wearing jihadist clothes. This was considered racial stereotyping and straight on demonizing. It was harmful for Obama’s campaign too since it fueled the suspense and conspiracy theories around him. Hence Obama took the time to pause his campaign and denounce the cartoon. But the cartoon, on the other hand, was intended to satirize the right wing viewpoint of Obama at that time. Right wing supporters viewed Obama as a covert islamist agent set to destroy the west, for his name “Barack Hossain Obama”. But the context was misunderstood and hence severe backlashes followed. President trump also tried to pin down a cartoonist for satirizing him. Trump’s legal team tried to take off a cartoon from the internet by exploiting IP rights. The cartoon showed trump fooling his followers with pseudoscientific cures for covid, like kool aid, hydroxychloroquine and Clorox. The followers were shown to have wore MAGA hats. Trump campaign’s legal team used the “MAGA” hat part of the cartoon and cleverly exploited it for legal persecution. They claimed it to be intellectual property of trump campaign and hence to be immediately removed from the internet. It was the time before the 2020 election so it can be easily presumed why the paranoia could’ve been triggered in the trump campaign.

The world have advanced a lot. Abduction and forced disappearances or assassinations aren’t a wise way to respond to cartoons if you are in powerful position. These could be obviously weapon of the vigilantes but powerful people can’t afford doing unlawful things to take personal revenge. What they instead do is resort to the law. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan once was jailed for 4 months for reciting a satirical inflammatory poem. He was seen to be the beacon of free speech, but after assuming office, he became the very thing he wanted to destroy. He sued a cartoonist and the publication Cumhuriyet for portraying him as a cat entangled in a ball of wool. He then sued another newspaper Sakarya for reprinting the cartoons. Another time he took another paper Evrensel to court for portraying him as a horse. For animal loving Turkish people, Erdogan does seem to be deviating a lot. He once charged and led to the arrest of 4 Turkish students for portraying him alongside animals which Erdogan resembled in a graduation ceremony. There was a time he even sued a doctor for sharing a meme on the internet which compared him to the fictional character “Gollum” from Lord of the rings.

Erdogan as a cat entangled in a ball of wool on the right, and as gollum from the lord of the rings at the right.

Erdogan didn’t keep his persecution spree domestic only. He went international with his suing strategy. He once sued A Dutch Far right politician for portraying him as a terrorist. Then he pledged strict lawsuits against Charlie Hebdo for defaming him through their cartoons. Erdogan’s intolerance for cartoons only earned him more criticism since he was once viewed as a champion of free speech and human rights when he was an active advocate of those while not in power. But getting power changes the equation. Intolerance arises. As they say, a free press is an opponent’s dream but an incumbent’s nightmare. Indian minister’s have their fair share too in this case. Recently on the course of West Bengal election a BJP worker was arrested for sharing a meme on Mamta Banerjee which morphed her face into Priyanka chopra’s face, with an intent to mock. She was later released but it raised a countrywide furor over the attack of freedom of speech. But it was not the first time for Mamta Banerjee’s party to sue others for ridiculing Mamta Banerjee. Before this 2021 election, in 2012 a professor from Jadavpur university, Ambikesh Mahapatra was too jailed for sharing a cartoon on Mamta Banerjee. But what's funny is, the opposition party, BJP, who blamed Mamta for intolerance, took a cartoonist to court for caricaturing their leader Narendra Modi. In 2011, Harish Yadav was sued in court for a cartoon on Narendra Modi where it shows him refusing a skull cap from a Muslim cleric. This is the 21st century way of dealing with hurtful cartoons, i.e take people to courts.

Mamata Banerjee’s meme that caused the furor

But to blame politicians only and spare the community would be wrong too. Sometimes community acts as a force to pressurize cartoonists from depicting things they value. Sometimes a politicians stake is carried out by his/her over-enthusiastic supporters. Sometimes when ideologies or groups are satirized, collective actions follow. For example when David Levine drew Henry Kissinger screwing the world, he got severe backlashes from his co workers alleging the cartoon to be sexist. David Levine was working for the Nation at the time. When majority of the Nation’s staff revolted the only strong supporter of the cartoon remained was Christopher Hitchens who too was a contributor of the Nations. The letter signed by The Nation’s stuff wrote,

As workers at The Nation, we protest the publication of David Levine’s cartoon in the February 25 issue. The problem is not that the drawing is sexually frank; it is that a progressive magazine has no business using rape jokes and sexist imagery (he screws, she is screwed) to make the point that Kissinger revels in international dominance. Kissinger is a man, but the globe is not a woman. The artist’s intention may have been to dramatize the confusion between sex and power in the mind of a powerful white, middle-aged man. But the publication of his drawing shows that The Nation itself is imbued with that mentality. No wonder seven out of ten of our subscribers are men

to which Christopher Hitchens wrote,

How depressing that so many Nation colleagues should confuse the use of a stereotype, even as an artistic satire, with the reinforcement of a stereotype. The only safeguard against such a literal mentality would be the adoption of the Islamic code which, in order to be on the safe side, forbids all depictions of the human body as profane. The last sentence of their letter is just silly

“Henry Kissinger, screwing the world”, by David Levine

Then there was a time when Art Spiegelman, a cartoonist inspired by David Levine, drew a cartoon mocking policemen who fired fourty one bullets at an unarmed New Guinea immigrant. From the mayor to the governor, all denounced it. Hundred of police officers revolted, picketing the new yorker’s (the publisher of the cartoons) office. They even went as far as publishing an op-ed in new york post as a response to the cartoons saying,

If you’re burglarized or your family is menaced by thugs, you should be consistent. Call Al Sharpton instead of 911. See where that gets you, Spiegelman, you creep.

Then there was a time when “The Nation” was heavily lampooned for a cartoon made on Abraham Lincoln by Robert Grossman. The cartoon was “Babe Lincoln” which portrayed Abraham Lincoln as a cross dresser, based on the rumors around his sexuality. It was denounced as homophobic garbage and was alleged to fuel up the tensions and violence against the homosexuals. But it was actually just putting rumors into context as per Grossman and the meaning was completely upto the audience to decipher. Another cartoonist Raymond Jackson was a target of the mob too. He was a popular target because he didn't used to target individuals but rather groups. That's how he managed to offend so many numbers of people. One time he caricatured power workers who were protesting for meeting up with their demands. It led to such fury that they threatened to shut down the Evening Standards through blocking power supply to the press. He even satirized Irish people when IRA had bombed in London killing 8 people. It drew heavy backlashes from the Irish diaspora. It also gave rise to debates on the thin line between and non racism when it came to the rights of cartooning.

To mention something from the recent times, Patrick Chappatte’s parting away with the nytimes comes to mind. Patrick Chappatte was a cartoonist from the nytimes who were had a rich legacy of covering cartoons from conflict ridden areas. Nytimes once published a cartoon from a famous Portuguese cartoonist about a blind trump administration being guided by the Israeli administration. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was portrayed as a dog with an Israeli locket hanging from it’s neck. And a blind Donald trump was portrayed as being guided the dog (Israeli PM). The cartoon sever backlashes from all over, with nytimes being charged with antisemitism. There had to be a lot of damage control being done by the nytimes. Nytimes didn’t even have a meeting with its cartoonists or other editors, but rather decided on to go with banning all political cartoons from then on. Under public pressure Nytimes had to stop a cartoon critical on the relationship of US-Israeli relationship. In stark contrast to the power of cartoons, an angry mob outweighs it all. On the brighter side, it paved the way for a wonderful TED talk by Patrick Chappatte. It was one of my early inspiration to dig deeper into the world of cartoons. Had nytimes not fired Patrick Chappatte i would have never got to see such an illuminating TED talk (thanks nytimes, i guess). Chappette perfectly explains how mob culture suppresses the cartoons and cancels the artists if they don't see it fit. In other words, he explains the tyranny of the majority pretty well.

The article by Patrick Chappette, in his blog, was a wonderful read too.

There was also a case where a group of policemen were under fire for sharing a George Floyd cartoon in their group chat. George Floyd case was a sensitive case in the US where a black man named George Floyd was killed under a police knee-on-neck restraint. The incident of sharing a meme on George Floyd was leaked and the officer who shared the meme in the police group chat was fired. There are countless such scattered cases where people got “canceled out” for their questionable sense of humor which others deemed inappropriate, especially in the United States. Its not a bad thing per se, to hold people accountable for being menacing views, but nevertheless, it is definitely a form of censoring through social pressures.

But keep it in mind that, all of these instances are coming from very much liberal countries. Lets not talk about the conservative countries all over the world where cartoonist enjoy even less and less freedom. When it comes to Bangladesh, the biggest incident to happen was in 2007. The newspaper prothom alo published an editorial cartoon in its satirical magazine Alpin’s 431st edition. The cartoon was drawn by a 20 year cartoonist Arifur Rahman, under the title “Naam”

Arifur Rahman
Alpin Cartoon that gave rise to the 2007 cartoon controversy in Bangladesh. First frame: the elderly person asks the boy his name and the boy replies “my name is babu”. Second frame: The elderly person instructs the boy to say “muhammad” before saying someone’s name. Third frame: The elderly person asks what is the boy’s father’s name to which the boy replies, Mohammad Abu. Fourth frame: The elderly person asks the boy what is the creature in his lap to which the boy replies, “ Mohammad Biral”

This cartoon created massive riots across Bangladesh. Clerics met with the highest government bodies asking for the revocation of the license of prothom alo. They demanded the arrest of Prothom Alo’s editor Matiur Rahman and the editor of Daily star Mahfuz anam. The cartoonist was arrested under emergency laws and dhaka court sentenced him to imprisonment for hurting religious sentiments. After two months of rigorous imprisonment he was let free on bail. Arifur Rhaman later was granted political asylum by Norway and he continues to live there in exile. Alpin stopped circulation, the editor of prothom alo apologized and launched a new satirical magazine roshalo following the closure of Alpin.

Bangladeshi cartoonists always had to work in an environment of fear. Since the country has very poor police and legal framework and are filled with conservative and political hardliners it is very tough to maneuver and publish cartoons. Although there were a rich culture of caricaturing in our country but it slowly saw a sharp drop. Each newspaper used to be filled with editorial cartoons but with the introduction of draconian laws and constant attack on the free press, it became tougher and tougher to continue the political caricaturing culture. There was a cartoonist Shishir Bhattacharjee who used to create political caricatures regularly on notable leaders in the leading dailies. Now they seem to be non existent. Previously the laws weren't so draconian but with the recent implementation of the digital security act (DSA) the culture of fear grew even more stronger. Now political cartoons are on life support. Even if someone tries to draw something they have to be very careful as not to wake up the lion. Cartoonists have to self censor a lot of things in order to avoid troubles or just basically draw things that are benign, non political, non religious. Satirizing religion have been completely banned, so that part remains untouched. Its understandable, since a country full of hooligans cannot be kept calm without the introduction of some sort of draconian laws. With the boom of internet and better connectivity, justification behind the laws become more apparent because a simple agitation can create instant ripple effects and result in devastating riots. But although it could put a huge leash on the cartoonist’s hands, and could halt further 2007 Alpin controversies from happening, it restricted cartoonist’s freedom even more. Anyone can use DSA if their feelings get hurt to lock up cartoonists. Satirizing the prime minister have been completely banned. Even MPs sue cartoonists for hurting their feelings. A famous case, the wounds of which are still sharp, is the case of Ahmed kishore and Mushtaq Ahmed. Kishore used to draw cartoons critical of the government. especially the handling of the covid crisis, loan defaulting etc. Mushtaq was a writer and an online activist. They both were charged with sedition and spreading propaganda. After immense tortures in the jail, writer mushtaq died in prison. the whole world broke out in criticism of the bangladeshi government for attacking freedom of speech and stifling dissenting voices. From Amnesty to HRW to all the human rights think tank, everyone condemned this move. After the death of mushtaq, upon enormous local and foreign pressure, cartoonist kishore was freed on bail.

Cartoonist kishore (left), Writer Mushtaq (right).

The washington post even published a full page ad from the CPJ advocating for the release of cartoonist kishore.

Now this is not something that suddenly happened. It was the result of a decade old attack on the freedom of press and the implementation of the draconian law that is the Digital Security Act. One of the leading magazine in Bangladesh is Unmad led by Ahsan Habib. Unmad had been here since the dawn of the eighties, 1978 to be precise. The magazine was hugely inspired by “Mad Magazine”. Unmad used to feature a lot of political cartoons too. But slowly that tradition dwindled out, because as per Ahsan Habib, they wanted to play things safe. The magazine still publishes a lot of great stuffs but its domain have been curbed to a lot. Without being granted a substantial amount of freedom, cartooning loses its value. Hence we don't have a sorel or a levine or a david low. all we have are benign soldiers. And that's exactly what the establishment always wanted. To avoid unnecessary troubles by the likes of strong caricature vigilantes like Thomas Nast, whose cartoons propelled the downfall of Boss tweed and his cronies.

Unmad making political covers, but only the ones that wont get them sued.

But its not a sudden incident that just took place. The culture of persecution and intimidation piled up for generations. This is just the result of it all. In a talk popular talk show “Ajker Bangladesh”, the host of the talk show Khaled Mohiuddin aired an episode on Political Cartoons. He invited notable cartoonist Shishir bhattacharjee and Ahsan Habib along with professor Golam Rahman and journalist Abed Khan for a discussion over the culture of caricature in our country. The guests revealed how they sweeten down cartoons and captions to avoid making unnecessary agitation and spare themselves the troubles. Shishir Bhattacharjee mentions how they avoid making cartoons on the highest political figures of the country (except for when emergency cases, when massive mobilization are present in the streets). Golam Rahman elaborates on the culture of political intolerance of our country as well as of our neighboring country which is a root cause of intolerance towards cartoons. Ahsan Habib explains how he sweetens cartoons according to the country’s tolerance atmosphere. They also discuss on the trajectory of the whole cartooning culture in Bangladesh, its present and its future scenario. They also chuckle on the fact that they have so many libel cases against them amounting to crores that it makes them burst out in laughter that someone at least thought of them of being millionaires. But shishir bhattacharjee mentions an interesting thing. The caricature of expediency, i.e. caricaturing after risk assessing. This is a vital to every cartoonist in the world for their own protection. But it only gives a measure of how “free” a society actually is.

Shishir Bhattacharjee mentions another instance from his memory which I thought should be included to add some more context to a statement previously made, that a free press is a weapon for the oppositions, but a threat to the incumbents. He recalls a time when Saifur rahman newly appointed economist minister, a person who liked his cartoons once turned against him because he took issue with a particular critical of him. He threatened shishir with punitive actions. Shishir later came up with a rejoinder expressing his deep apologies to do damage control. Good thing that he didn’t hold the grudge, otherwise god knows what could have happened — shishir says. He only highlighted how tough it was becoming day by day to caricature our democratically elected leaders and hold them accountable. Saifur rahman even tried to stop the circulation of a newspaper “Bhorer kagoj” by intervening with the printing process of the press which printed the paper. So the attack on cartoons and free press is nothing new. It dates way back. Its just because of the increased connectivity and increased exposure, that the control mechanism on the press have been further intensified.

But despite the love and hate relationship between the politicians and the press, it does serve the politicians a lot. If you are a subject of being cartooned constantly, it implies that you are getting a good amount of public attention and a matter of public priority. This induces a sense of supremacy in oneself. Even if the cartoons are bad , being depicted on a frequent basis means that you are occupying a huge share of public’s attention. Ralph Steadman understood this psychology and so once he pulled out a manifesto as response to politicians complaining too much.

I urged all cartoonists in the world to stop drawing. I considered that if all cartoonists did that, even for one year, politicians as we know them would change. If we denied them the benefit of our attention, insight, and wit, they would suʃer withdrawal symptoms of such withering magnitude that the eʃect on their egos could only be guessed at. Not even a tyrant can survive the whiplash of indiʃerenc

Steadman halted from doing political cartoons for 23 years but after some months later he broke his abstinence by drawing three cartoons on Margaret thatcher.

Cartoons serve politicians in a different way too. For example, in the 2016 US election, Donald Trump’s election victory is believed to have been largely influenced by online memes exploding on his behalf. There were domestic and internationally conducted meme campaigns on social media. Specially Russian trolls, who were found to be operating from Moscow through fake Facebook and twitter handles, spreading propaganda memes with popular conservative tropes. Their target were the average churchgoing Christians, military veterans, working class white people and most of those who were the center of trump campaign’s target voters. The memes included Christian and Jesus trites, Clinton depicted as Satan with budding horns, hypernationalism, rampant islamophobia, communist paranoia, xenophobia, guns & beers and freedoms, American dream and uncle sam references, and all other textbook republican selling points. Although trolling are just a part of the bigger picture. Trolls alone cannot bring one to power, but can merely cement an already existing sentiment. After all the point of cartoons and caricatures is to take some elements from the real word, amplify it and induce within it some sense of humor. “We memed a president into existence” was a popular talking point of memers and trolls of that time, raging from 4chan to twitter to Facebook. One of the most trending memes of those times were “Pepe the frog”. A children’s cartoon character, Pepe the frog, created by Matt furie, was gradually adopted by the internet as a meme character. Prior to 2016 elections, it started to get appropriated by the right wing circles. Donald trump tweeted a meme showing a version of pepe the frog personifying him, quoting, “You Can’t Stump the Trump”. Internet broke down with creative right wing pepe meme from then on. It turned into such a frenzy that it quickly got adopted as being the mascot meme for the right wing political diaspora. Merches were being sold like crazy, for example Alex jones who benefitted a lot out of the pepe hysteria. Matt furie, the creator wasn’t fascinated with this of course. He despised the fact that his creation was appropriated by people who ideology he felt to be despicable. he didn’t want to see his creation get further polluted in the mainstream. So, he sued alex jones over copyright claim. The case was closed after backdoor settlement worth 15k was made and Alex jones pledged never to use Pepe the frog in his works again in his political advocacies and merch sells. There is a whole documentary based on this whole “Pepe” fiasco. The documentary is named “Feels good man”, and can be accessed through Amazon Prime.

To know further, on how satires can influential elections, check the article below which clearly articulates the dynamics of satires and their influences on the 2016 election.

But its not just that Donald trump only benefitted from freelance trolls working on behalf of him. His later years in office were stained with counter trolls who were constantly making fun of him on social media. But this time not just trolls, but whole media ganged up on him. All the popular talk show hosts, comedians, cartoonists all ganged up on Donald trump. Although there were some fair share of satirists from the republican aisle, but that's was too insignificant to counter the satire wave against Donald trump in mainstream media. Saturday night live used to hold at least some episode each season mocking Donald trump. Alec Baldwin became a household name for doing Donald Trump impressions. SNL overdid the sketches so much that Donald trump started to become indistinguishable from alex baldwin doing his impression. Now as i said earlier, politicians always had a love and hate relationship with satirists. So did Donald. He once even hosted Saturday night live. His monologue can be still found on YouTube. But after SNL targeted him, he became too salty about SNL.

After so many coordinated attacks from mainstream media outlets like nytimes, economist, newyorker, washingtonpost etc. and through constant satirizations through late night talk shows, comedy shows, caricatures, online memes etc., public opinion gradually started to skew towards the democratic aisle. It became a “cool” and “trendy” trait to satirizie trump. Although the satires were well deserving since Donald Trump is actually a living joke, but dehumazining him so much was more of a manufactured dominno effect or a hysteria you can say, rather than a natural progression of events. This gave Joe Biden an edge and rose him to power eventually. Donald trump’s blunders were so much in his career, that right wing satirists were getting cornered by conscience and communal pressures. It was being increasingly tough to create right wing political cartoons without being deemed as an associate of stupidity. But cartoons and satires were always targeted towards the intelligent, who can calculate out the humor. This vaccuum of right wing cartoonists were easily filled in democrat leaning cartoonists who had conscience to back them up. Right wing cartoonists had to defend, while their opponents had to attack. And attack is the basis of high impact cartoons. Remember “Schadenfreude?’ Thus history flipped for Donald trump in the 2020 elections and he was eventually thrown out of the office. And lets not forget the impact “South park” had towards a relatively young audience. Although south park takes a centrist approach in every issue, but when they went for trump they could do anything but be centrist. Because of course, the reality was so absurd, and every action of trump demanded a joke. How could they tilt towards his side, when Donald trump was supplying them with incessant pool of contents. South park turned their long running character Mr. Garrison into a personification of Donald Trump and it was in anything but approving of him.

Like south park another great centrist satire group were the onion, who targeted both of the sides. The onion was and still is a widely acknowledged sensation. It lives on the absurdity of events which regularly unfold into American politics. Onion shows absurdity in such a trustable way, that even the most naive people and even politicians get baited into believing it. Onion articles, videos contain layers and layers of irony. Onion format of ironical humor have been adopted widely by other parts of the world too. To name one such, Earki from Bangladesh comes in mind. The online satire portal is directly influenced by Onion’s ironical humor style. Although Onion propagates no views of their own, Earki injects their views at intervals of their humors. Onion on the other hand remains completely ironical 24/7 with no clear, unironical messages to it’s audience. For example take a look at this onion video satirizing conspiracy theorist of the Al qayeda terror attack. Check the layers of irony working in this place.

The ironies are so hard to catch that it fooled a lot of people including donald trump, us congressmen, fifa executives and who not.

Thus a free press converges to a point of check and balance by itself, through each sides constantly satirizing the other sides exposing their absurdities. It is an evolution towards a condition where less absurdity remains, because the more absurd something/someone gets, the more vulnerable target it would become for satriziations. Because the fuel for satires is the absurd and no one wants to supply the other side with a generous amount of fuel. But this can be only done in a healthy democracy. In autocratic countries, there are no check and balances. There is always a leash that the powerful and the influentials put onto the cartoonists, who are dictated at their every move, their every penstroke. There are no checks and balances of narratives here. On the other hand, there are linearization of narratives. The evolution towards less absurdity therefore don't get mobilized. hence making way for an ocean of absurdities to stay alive. Autocrats are the most memed/caricatured in everywhere but their country. The more resistance they show the more they are made fun of. Xi jinping is famously parodied to be Winnie the pooh. This got so widespread, that the Chinese authority cracked down on social media sites. The Chinese social media completely blacklisted any references to winne the pooh. Kim Jong Un is even mocked by world leaders, “Rocket Man” as trump mentioned of him in the United Nations. Cartoons are a resistance towards autocratic suppressions. They are symbol of the people’s will. Thats why they say “The freedom of cartoons and satires in a country is the measurement of it’s democracy”. No wonder cartoonists in autocratic nations suffer more than any other representative democratic countries. This reminds me of the cartoon of General Yahya Khan in the liberation war of Bangladesh. The cartoon was drawn by ‘Patua’ Quamrul Hassan showing Yahya khan as a beast. This became an emblem of Bangladeshi defiance against pakistani aggression.

Caricature of Pakistani despot Yahya Khan in times of Bangladeshi Liberation War.

The demise of caricatures is always a grim signal towards a dying democracy. In Egypt for example, Bassem youssef, a satirist who drew inspirations from Jon Stewart, launched a late night talk show in Egypt. The talk show was basically designed to be a copy of Jon stewart’s talk show but for Egyptian people circling around Egyptian affairs. But Egypt was not a democracy. Despite Muslim Brotherhood gaining power through a democratic process, most of their actions were in a sense anti-democratic but merely populist. Bassem Yousuf’s studio was vandalized, he was prosecuted and arrested and later pushed into exile. Iranian show “Parazit”, which too was influenced by he “Daily show” in America faced the same fate too. It was launched before the presidential election and was basically a comedic political commentary like the daily shows. The show lasted for 3 years until it had to be packed up following domestic pressures. The daily show format had appealed not only to Americans but towards the whole world. In Russia, Navalny, the political opponent to Vladimir Putin launched a similar thing. He made youtube videos in the style of daily shows, exposing the corruption of the putin government. And as autocrat nations go, it too did not go well for navalny. He was poisoned with a deadly nerve agent Novichok by the Russian authorities while he was in a flight, and was left in a critical condition. He survived but it only increased his domestic approval even more. Navalny had been a global sensation after this, earning him a huge amount of domestic and international political clout.

And then there are Bangladeshi satirists like Naveed Mabub. Although he modeled his comedy talk show following the model of late night talk shows in America, but his satire serves very little purpose. The comedy is stale and benign, mostly dad jokes. The jokes are non offensive so that he may stay on the safe side without falling out of favor with his hosts. Without the “schadenfreude”, it is obvious that the show would not be much funny. Satires need to be bold, not cowardly and catering to the powerful. And submitting to fear never gave rise to a good comedy. Naveed Mahbub’s show fails from all aspects. Then there are people who export the late night talk show culture into other countries. Pilot Media intiatives were such a team who had undertaken such a project in Nigeria. The whole journey was such challenging, to train the Nigerians and to manage everything perfectly for airing the first episodes, that it deserved a story of it’s own. The result of the project was “The other news” hosted by Okey Bakassi. It too was a comedic commentary on Nigerian politics. The show was an instant hit among nigerians. Okey Bakassi even aimed at running for president in 2019 elections being so hyped with his indulgment in Nigerian politics. Satire, thus was used to cement Nigerian democracy. All these satirists take elements from the regular public and create satires along with that to earn maximum public approval. Thus further cementing democracy of theire corresponding regions.

Now although it may feel mean to make satires on others or the beliefs they hold. My friend Mrinmoy voiced the same concern to me. But that will only leave us with comedies like Tom and Jerry. The satires with socio-political components are bound to be preserved. They keep our democracy in check, gives the voiceless a voice, makes the powerful and influential accountable. It also gives a cathartic release to the people derived of power. If you can’t do anything or take actions against something unfair, unjust or just plainly absurd, the best you can do is expose all its absurdity and laugh your hearts out. When others share the same feeling with you, your laughter increases thousandfold, because of the group sentiments you all share of course. Like agitation, laughter is contagious. And unlike agitation it actually keeps the mind and body healthy. Many government even prefer that. By giving somewhat freedom to cartoons they give a sense of free press. Political unrests follow whenever people take it to the streets, get agitated that is. But letting the agitation turn into cathartic laughter you can easily deter people from coming out. If you let people just laugh at their homes, tone down their adrenaline with dopamines, you can control riots from breaking out in the streets. This is something cartoonist Dwayne Booth agrees to as well. “ he government wants you inside the house, laughing at petty jokes”, as he says. But nonetheless political cartoons are important. Against a powerful person or a powerful ideology one might feel himself helpless, but a cartoon can help him vent away his frustration. Also it helps mobilizing public opinion and cementing the already rebellious sentiments among a bunch of agitated people. But It acts more like fueling the fire than instigating the fire. If the fire is already there, the fuel only puff up it’s flames. Steadman famously said, “The only things of value is the things you cant say. thats why drawing is so important, it gives you a way to express what cannot be put into words”. Steadman also corroborates the claim that cartoons help in venting frustrations or disappointments. He once aspired to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States. But after getting to caricature him, his willpower vanished.

“It’s a form of assassination”, he says, “What you want to do is to cause that person damage. But not lethal, physical damage. If you can psychologically damage someone then you are really doing something. I’m all for that. It’s the story of every serious satirist.” — Ralph Steadman

Who knew our inner schadenfreude feature would evolve us into making such humors and satires which would navigate us towards cementing our democracy and channeling our suppressed emotions, giving voice to the voiceless, to the powerless. It holds the mighty and the powerful accountable, mobilizes social opinions and glues the commonfolks even more rigidly. This sheer impact of political cartoons and their potential of social transformation is what makes it the strongest of all forms of painting. This is why despite the risks, political cartoons yet have not relinquished. Even if it they go relinquished in mainstream platforms, there will always be vigilante platforms through which they will find their way out. Facebook for example. Most of the dissenting voices can be seen on facebook which dont make their way to the mainstream publication. Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit with their liberal policies gave host to more dissenting voices than any government could grant it’s citizens. Arab Spring was an outcome of massive social media mobilizations too. Also, it was a breeder of immense cartoons against tyranny and dictatorship in the age of Arab spring. Satires and Caricatures would always find their ways our and be immoral.

But if you ask my stance on censorship, I have somewhat ambivalent views. I do acknowledge the fact that anti semitism or islamophobia, racism, homophobia or sexism is blatantly wrong. But I also acknowledge the fact that these tropes have been really unfairly used to silence cartoonists from making cartoons even a bit critical of their ideology or their group. For example Patrick Chappatte and his cartoon department at nytimes who were accused to be antisemite were shut down, or the Charlie hebdo magazine whose staffs got gruesomely murdered amidst gross accusation of islamophobia, or the Cartoon by David levine which got backlashes for sexism, or the Babe lincoln cartoon which was branded as homophobic, or the Irish cartoon by Raymand Jackson which was accused to be racial stereotyping, or Kishore’s cartoon which were deemed to be seditious landing him in torture cell of the government. What we need is to understand the context before jumping to conclusion when speaking of satires. Many times the contexts are overlooked which creates big misunderstandings. We also should show some bits of tolerance so that caricaturists get the the maximum freedom to exhibit their creativity, while paraelly keeping close watch so that no new Der sturmer case may reappaer which would lead towards another holocaust like event.

But tolerance is something which apparently is a lot to ask for.



Fattah Fathun Karim

Love to explore and learn interesting things. This blog is a way to organize my thoughts on certain topics and communicate them with my friends and peers.