Over at Hooded Utilitarian, the latest installment of my very irregular column, DWYCK, focuses on recent media controversies in Sweden over representations of race: Stina Wirsén’s empoyment of pickaninny stereotyping for her childrens book and film character Lilla Hjärtat and Makote Aj Linde’s infamous cake installation at Moderna Museet in Stockholm earlier this year.
The dicussion also touches upon the media kerfuffle a few months back over the projected removal of Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo to the adult section of the Kulturhuset library in the same city, as well as — inevitably — the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s a complicated set of issues that have implications of cultural integration and free speech and I’d love to hear your opinion, so pop over there and have a look.
Amidst the turmoil in Brussels, which I’ve found rather hard to make sense of, one piece of less equivocally positive news emerged this week, namely that Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has spent thirty years on death row in Pennsylvania has finally had his death sentence revoked in favor of life behind bars. This is a major symbolic victory in the struggle against the death penalty and in his personal efforts to prove his innocence. Convicted in 1981 for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner on the basis of highly dubious evidence and testimonies, his has become something of a cause celèbre for opponents of the death penalty and critics of the American penal system, a speaking, highly-articulate symbol of all that’s wrong with both (hear him talking about the “prison-industrial complex” in the clip above).
Abu-Jamal has faced execution several times in his three decades as a prisoner and each time he and his counsel succeeded in postponing what seemed inevitable for the longest time. To have the sentence deferred this way, especially after the disgraceful recent execution of the similarly dubiously convicted TroyDavis, is a victory for human rights. Abu-Jamal may be guilty, but he hasn’t been given a fair trial. The Philadelphia District Attorney didn’t seem disposed toward giving him one anytime soon when he announced the news, but we may still hope that it will happen eventually. For him and the many other people who share his fate in the American penal system.
As the Arab Spring is moving into its second, rather messy and somewhat disconcerting phase in certain countries, it figures that we would get another cartoon flareup. The firebombing of the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is yet another low point in the ongoing and increasingly polarized discourse surrounding free speech and religious iconoclasm today. In this post-Danish cartoons landscape, the despicably violent response of the anonymous firebombers naturally tends to get all the attention, but it is also the easiest part of the event to deal with, in that it can be condemned outright.
The real question, as I see it, is why Charlie Hebdo figured it was a good idea once more to trot out the “likeness” of Muhammad. I found Luz’ cover, showing the prophet threatening a hundred lashes to whoever didn’t find it funny, worth a chuckle, but what purpose did it really serve? Why, exactly, did we need this piece of satire? The extra-legal power exercised by Islamic extremists deserves to be mocked and condemned, but it is also something most of us can easily agree to despise (stay safe Charlie!). It seems to me, however, that the blunt instrument of depicting the prophet merely further encourages these maniacs, while broadcasting once again that the beliefs of millions of non-violent Muslims is apparently not worthy of respect here in the West.
Satire has no prerogative to be constructive, but free speech is such a potent idea that ceding it to this kind of bullying is unfortunate. Yes, we are entitled to insult whatever belief we like, religious or otherwise — and that is how it should be (good on Libération to open their offices to Charlie) — but it would reflect well on our principles if we also employed them to speak out against the general coarsening of what was once civilized discourse.
Gary Groth interviews R. Crumb. This is perhaps the quintessential Comics Journal interviewer/ee constellation, and although this time around is a little light-weight, it’s still the good and fun read you’d expect from these guys.