I've been a political cartoonist on the global stage for the last 20 years. Hey, we have seen a lot of things happen in those 20 years. We saw three different Catholic popes, and we witnessed that unique moment: the election of a pope on St. Peter's Square — you know, the little white smoke and the official announcement. [It's a boy!]
We saw four American presidents. Obama, of course. Oh, Europeans liked him a lot. He was a multilateralist. He favored diplomacy. He wanted to be friends with Iran.
And then ... reality imitated caricature the day Donald Trump became the President of the United States of America.
You know, people come to us and they say, "It's too easy for you cartoonists. I mean — with people like Trump?" Well, no, it's not easy to caricature a man who is himself a caricature.
Populists are no easy target for satire because you try to nail them down one day, and the next day, they outdo you. For example, as soon as he was elected, I tried to imagine the tweet that Trump would send on Christmas Eve. So I did this, OK?
[Merry Christmas to all! Except all those pathetic losers. So sad.]
And basically, the next day, Trump tweeted this:
[Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don't know what to do. Love!]
It's the same!
This is the era of strongmen. And soon, Donald Trump was able to meet his personal hero, Vladimir Putin, and this is how the first meeting went:
[I'll help you find the hackers. Give me your password.]
And I'm not inventing anything. He came out of that first meeting saying that the two of them had agreed on a joint task force on cybersecurity. This is true, if you do remember.
Oh, who would have imagined the things we saw over these 20 years. We saw Great Britain run towards a European Union exit.
In the Middle East, we believed for a while in the democratic miracle of the Arab Spring. We saw dictators fall, we saw others hang on.
And then there is the timeless Kim dynasty of North Korea. These guys seem to be coming straight out of Cartoon Network. I was blessed to be able to draw two of them. Kim Jong-il, the father, when he died a few years ago, that was a very dangerous moment.
[That was close!]
That was —
And then the son, Kim Jong-un, proved himself a worthy successor to the throne. He's now friends with the US president. They meet each other all the time, and they talk like friends.
[What kind of hair gel?]
Should we be surprised to be living in a world ruled by egomaniacs? What if they were just a reflection of ourselves? I mean, look at us, each of us.
Yeah, we love our smartphones; we love our selfies; we love ourselves. And thanks to Facebook, we have a lot of friends all over the world. Mark Zuckerberg is our friend.
You know, he and his peers in Silicon Valley are the kings and the emperors of our time. Showing that the emperors have no clothes, that's the task of satire, right? Speaking truth to power. This has always been the historical role of political cartooning. In the 1830s, postrevolutionary France under King Louis Philippe, journalists and caricaturists fought hard for the freedom of the press. They were jailed, they were fined, but they prevailed. And this caricature of the king by Daumier came to define the monarch. It marked history. It became the timeless symbol of satire triumphing over autocracy.
Today, 200 years after Daumier, are political cartoons at risk of disappearing? Take this blank space on the front page of Turkish opposition newspaper "Cumhuriyet." This is where Musa Kart's cartoon used to appear. In 2018, Musa Kart was sentenced to three years in jail. For doing what? For doing political cartoons in Erdoğan's Turkey. Cartoonists from Venezuela, Russia, Syria have been forced into exile.
Look at this image. It seems so innocent, right? Yet it is so provocative. When he posted this image, Hani Abbas knew it would change his life. It was in 2012, and the Syrians were taking to the streets. Of course, the little red flower is the symbol of the Syrian revolution. So pretty soon, the regime was after him, and he had to flee the country. A good friend of his, cartoonist Akram Raslan, didn't make it out of Syria. He died under torture.
In the United States of America recently, some of the very top cartoonists, like Nick Anderson and Rob Rogers — this is a cartoon by Rob —
[Memorial Day 2018. (on tombstone) Truth. Honor. Rule of Law.]
they lost their positions because their publishers found their work too critical of Trump. And the same happened to Canadian cartoonist Michael de Adder. Hey, maybe we should start worrying. Political cartoons were born with democracy, and they are challenged when freedom is.
You know, over the years, with the Cartooning for Peace Foundation and other initiatives, Kofi Annan — this is not well known — he was the honorary chair of our foundation, the late Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Laureate. He was a great defender of cartoons. Or, on the board of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, we have advocated on behalf of jailed, threatened, fired, exiled cartoonists. But I never saw a case of someone losing his job over a cartoon he didn't do. Well, that happened to me.
For the last 20 years, I have been with the "International Herald Tribune" and the "New York Times." Then something happened. In April 2019, a cartoon by a famous Portuguese cartoonist, which was first published in a newspaper "El Expresso" in Lisbon, was picked by an editor at the "New York Times" and reprinted in the international editions. This thing blew up. It was denounced as anti-Semitic, triggered widespread outrage, apologies and a lot of damage control by the Times. A month after, my editor told me they were ending political cartoons altogether.
So we could, and we should, have a discussion about that cartoon. Some people say it reminds them of the worst anti-Semitic propaganda. Others, including in Israel, say no, it's just a harsh criticism of Trump, who is shown as blindly following the Prime Minister of Israel. I have some issues with this cartoon, but that discussion did not happen at the "New York Times." Under attack, they took the easiest path: in order to not have problems with political cartoons in the future, let's not have any at all.
Hey, this is new. Did we just invent preventive self-censorship? I think this is bigger than cartoons. This is about opinion and journalism. This, in the end, is about democracy.
We now live in a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm. The most outraged voices tend to define the conversation, and the angry crowd follows in. These social media mobs, sometimes fueled by interest groups, fall upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow. They send publishers and editors scrambling for countermeasures. This leaves no room for meaningful discussions. Twitter is a place for fury, not for debate.
And you know what? Someone described pretty well our human condition in this noisy age. You know who? Shakespeare, 400 years ago.
["(Life is) a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."]
This speaks to me. Shakespeare is still very relevant, no? But the world has changed a bit.
You know, social media is both a blessing and a curse for cartoons. This is the era of the image, so they get shared, they get viral, but that also makes them a prime target. More than often, the real target behind the cartoon is the media that published it.
[Covering Iraq? No, Trump!]
That relationship between traditional media and social media is a funny one. On one hand, you have the time-consuming process of information, verification, curation. On the other hand, it's an open buffet, frankly, for rumors, opinions, emotions, amplified by algorithms. Even quality newspapers mimic the codes of social networks on their websites. They highlight the 10 most read, the 10 most shared stories. They should put forward the 10 most important stories.
The media must not be intimidated by social media, and editors should stop being afraid of the angry mob.
We're not going to put up warnings the way we do on cigarette packs, are we?
[Satire can hurt your feelings]
[Under your burkini you could be hiding a sex bomb]
Political cartoons are meant to provoke, just like opinions. But before all, they are meant to be thought-provoking. You feel hurt? Just let it go. You don't like it? Look the other way. Freedom of expression is not incompatible with dialogue and listening to each other. But it is incompatible with intolerance.
Let us not become our own censors in the name of political correctness. We need to stand up, we need to push back, because if we don't, we will wake up tomorrow in a sanitized world, where any form of satire and political cartooning becomes impossible. Because, when political pressure meets political correctness, freedom of speech perishes.
Do you remember January 2015? With the massacre of journalists and cartoonists at "Charlie Hebdo" in Paris, we discovered the most extreme form of censorship: murder. Remember how it felt.
[Without humor we are all dead]
Whatever one thought of that satirical magazine, however one felt about those particular cartoons, we all sensed that something fundamental was at stake, that citizens of free societies — actually, citizens of any society — need humor as much as the air we breathe. This is why the extremists, the dictators, the autocrats and, frankly, all the ideologues of the world cannot stand humor.
In the insane world we live in right now, we need political cartoons more than ever. And we need humor.