The Right to Ridicule



Victor Navasky is a founding member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, publisher emeritus of The Nation, and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His new book, The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and their Enduring Power (Knopf, 2013) explores the polemical art of caricature. I recently met with Professor Navasky at his home in New York City. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.


This interview is part of The Mantle's series Against Censorship.



DAVID KORTAVA: You describe yourself as a “free-speech absolutist.” Is nothing sacred or beyond ridicule?


VICTOR NAVASKY: It’s a term of art. In law school, a free-speech absolutist is generally thought to be someone who has the strongest presumption against ever quashing free speech. It’s generally believed, for example, that you should prohibit someone from shouting fire in a crowded theater. Well, I don’t know about that. I’m at the far end of the spectrum of those who believe that free speech is the best way for a society to deal with its problems, to discover the truth, and to give people not only a sense that they’re part of the discussion, but that they have a role in determining their own fates.



What of hate speech?


I believe in the power of the better argument in the public sphere. The way to overcome bad ideas is with better ideas. The way to overcome bad speech is not by suppressing it, but with good speech. As an editor, I of course don’t believe in publishing hate speech, but I don’t believe it should be outlawed either. Cartoons and caricatures, even hateful ones, are part of the marketplace of ideas, and so should not be suppressed.



Is there ever a time when, for security purposes, it would be good editorial practice to censor parody and satire?


I think that 99 percent of the cases where the government censors something for what it claims to be reasons of security, the real reasons for doing so are strictly self-serving. Can parody and satire jeopardize security? In principal, yes it can. Does it? Almost never.



So what does drive contemporary governments in Iran, Turkey, India, and elsewhere—as well as religious and political groups the world overto persecute artists for satire of this sort?


A lot of people don’t take political cartoons seriously. They think they’re trivial and irrelevant. The targets of cartoons, however, take them very seriously. When I first started looking into this, I was astonished to find that [nineteenth century French artist] Honoré Daumier was thrown into prison for his famous “Gargantua” [a caricature of King Louis Philippe]. In 1987, the greatest Palestinian cartoonist, Naji al-Ali, was murdered outside the office of a Kuwait newspaper in London. We still don’t know who did it. A couple of years ago, one of the leading cartoonists in the Arab world, Ali Ferzat, had his hands broken in Syria, we think by thugs of al-Assad. I have a timeline of some of the things that have happened to cartoonists over the years, everything from subscription cancellations to lawsuits to murder.


Caricatures evoke such ire because they are, by definition, exaggerations—sometimes grotesque and very mean-spirited exaggerations—and the more grotesque a caricature, the more emotion it elicits in the observer. And, unlike with an editorial or a column, there’s no way for most people to answer them. You can write a letter to the editor if you don’t like something, but there is no such thing as a cartoon or a caricature to the editor. An adequate rebuttal to a caricature is almost impossible.



What do you make of the decision of editors at The New York Times and other publications to not reproduce the Danish Muhammads?1


There are competing values here. You want to publish them because you don’t want to be intimidated by threats of violence and you want to support the principle of free speech. On the other hand, you want to respect the sensitivities of minorities.  Look, I understand the impulse behind what is called "political correctness," but I think the institutionalization of political correctness is dangerous and undesirable. The Left is a victim of it, and it’s a self-inflicted wound.


If I had been given my druthers, I would have republished them in the book myself. However, if a publisher believes that booksellers are going to be put at physical risk, and that books stores may be bombed, it’s very difficult to tell them that they have to put other people’s lives at risk.



How do explain the uproar over the self-evidently satirical July 21, 2008 cover of The New Yorker?2


Well, it wasn’t self-evident for everyone. People read their own meanings into cartoons. Of course the cartoonist, Barry Blitt, did not mean to assert that the Obamas were terrorists. As the editor David Remnick explained—after he got thousands of complaints, including one from Obama himself—it was a satire against people who held these views about the Obamas. Anyone of any sophistication knows the Obamas are not Muslims or terrorists. It was a parody on folks who thought they were. Caricature often lends itself to misinterpretation. That’s what happened here.



You quote Bill Mauldin defending his cartoons depicting despondent soldiers in World War II by arguing, flippantly I suspect, that “Soldiers who see a cartoon that expresses their gripes are less, rather than more, likely to cause problems in the ranks.” Do you find plausible this “letting off steam” theory?


Yea, I think it’s true that catharsis can replace action. Ralph Steadman, for example, said he originally wanted to assassinate Reagan, but after he drew Reagan, he no longer wanted to assassinate him. He had done him psychological damage in his drawing and that was good enough.


But, you know, I think there are a lot of things to worry about in this world. That political cartoons might dissipate some tension and, in so doing, forestall action is one of the ones I’d put at the least worrisome end of the spectrum.



Do you have a favorite?

I love Art Young’s “Christ Wanted” poster and I love Robert Minor’s “The Perfect Soldier.”



  • 1. In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad, sparking riots and violence.
  • 2. The cover featured a cartoon of Barack Obama (as a radical Muslim) and Michelle Obama (as a black power militant) fist-bumping.
Against Censorship, Comedy, Free Speech, Journalism, Satire, Victor Navasky