Charlie Hebdo has the last laugh

A cartoonist tells us why mockery wins

 

Rob Pudim

I think of myself as the kind of guy who writes letters to the editor with a lot of exclamation points and question marks coupled with inappropriate capital letters. As a cartoonist, I am a sort of ink-stained, self-ordained, sonuvabitch preacher with a drawing board as a pulpit. I just stick my tongue out at elected officials or anybody at all, and I hope to make people think and maybe smile.

I do not believe in killing, or in dying, for a cause or an idea. I leave that to adolescents. I do believe in living for a cause. This is the first thing I want to say about the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, a story of freedom of expression attacked by religious absolutists.

I do not think of myself as heroic or even artistic. Cartoons are the most anti-intellectual feature of modern journalism, usually nothing more than a wisecrack, reducing a complex problem to a one-liner. They are designed to move the blood, not the mind.

My cartoon colleagues and I are “wise guys”: Nobody and nothing is considered sacred, and it doesn't bother us at all who we ridicule or offend. I have occasionally worried about being sued, but I have never worried about getting killed for what I do.

The certainty that your religion is the only right one, and it does not matter which religion -- Judaism, Christianity or Islam -- leaves no room for jokes or a sense of humor, and I have thought for a long time that that is what is wrong with religion.

Mohammad was just a man who received a message from God to relay to others. He never said he was God. He's not that special; a lot of people get messages from God. That's the second thing I want to say to the Charlie Hebdo killers.

That said, one of the few ways in dealing with the appalling explosions of hatred and mass violence that disgrace our world is humor. Humor and comedy allow us to step back from the tragedies of the world, get some psychic distance from it, and gain at least a sense of control. If you can laugh at it, it can no longer be so daunting. Humor can lift life's messes, no matter how heavy they seem, push them around a bit, flatten them and blast them into clumps and atoms. Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.

As for me, I would go crazy if I treated the world seriously. I draw cartoons to stay sane, although some friends have claimed that if I got too sane, I'd be out of a job. I like to think that doing a cartoon is my tolerant smile at the mutability of things and the swarm of humanity passing my door. I also know it is the best way to handle the bad stuff. Cartoons are one way to say important things that regular writers aren't saying in a regular way -- or, if they are, it is so regular and balanced that nobody bothers to read it.

Humor allows you to roll with the punches of life's stupidity rather than be knocked down by them. You may not be able to change what goes on around you, but you can react to it with humor, and in an uncertain world, there's a certain comfort in that.

Cartoonists operate in a two-level reality: The “real” world and the world “as if.”  In the “real” world, apathy, greed, anger and fear run things along with a sprinkling here and there of faith, hope and love. In the world “as if,” people are tolerant, you are judged by the content of your mind, bureaucracies are responsive to people, and laws are made for the benefit of others -- all that good stuff.

Cartoons get their tension from that dichotomy, by mocking things as they are, pointing out the ridiculous, hoping to elicit an “ah, ha!” moment. Optimists at heart, cartoonists seem to believe that if we can get your attention with a wisecrack or jibe that’s heard over the din of advertising and other claims to your attention, you will care and maybe, just maybe, change the way things work.

The third thing I want to say to the Charlie Hebdo killers is that they did not succeed at their goal. They failed. As Mary Pettibone Poole once said, “He who laughs, lasts.”

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He draws cartoons in Longmont, Colorado, for many publications in the West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.