Spiegelman and Sacco on the Cartoon Controversy

In The Nation, cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco discuss the cartoon controversy.

Should this controversy really be framed as an issue of freedom of speech?

SACCO: All societies have their taboos. Are these editorial cartoonists going to rush to the defense of anti-Semitic cartoons? I doubt it, frankly. There are countries in the so-called West–Germany, Austria–where depiction of Nazi imagery is against the law, and even doing a Hitler salute–you could be imprisoned for something like that. It’s a hot time on this planet, and tempers are going to flare, and people are going to get hurt with these sorts of things. Freedom of the press, or the idea that you can depict anything–we simply don’t subscribe to that when it comes down to it. I mean, child porn is not allowed. There are certain barriers or borders we all sort of agree, or most of us agree, where you are taking things too far. I personally don’t necessarily think that attacking a religion is taking it too far, or even working within the imagery of religion to attack it. But you have to judge each instance, and what it means.

SPIEGELMAN: There has to be a right to insult. You can’t always have polite discourse. Where I’ve had to do my soul-searching is articulating how I feel about the anti-Semitic cartoons that keep coming out of government-supported newspapers in Syria and beyond. And, basically, I am insulted. But so what? These visual insults are the symptom of the problem rather than the cause.

In 1897 politicians in New York State tried to make it a major offense to publish unflattering caricatures of politicians. They were part of a Tweed-like machine who didn’t like insulting drawings published of themselves, so they spent months trying to get a bill passed and to make it punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

What happened?

SPIEGELMAN:It got killed. We have this thing called the First Amendment that was in better shape, maybe, then than now.