Alberta Needs Charlie Hebdo

Wednesday’s massacre of eight journalists, five of whom were political cartoonists, at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo unleashed a torrent of “We are Charlie Hebdo” editorials across the world.

Newspapers fell all over themselves in an effort to demonstrate solidarity with the slain cartoonists—but they had a concern. Was it enough to simply describe Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons or did they have to reprint examples of the magazine’s work?

Some reprinted the cartoons, others did not, arguing that reprinting an offensive cartoon would be disrespectful to Muslims.

In both cases publishers reassured themselves (and us) that when it came to being fearless purveyors of the truth, they are doing a fine job.

But are they?

Political satire

Effective political satire highlights hypocrisy and the abuse of power. It is sharp, insightful and humourous. Anthropologist Margaret Mead says it matters because making fun of people in authority is the difference between democracy and tyranny.

Political cartoons are the most powerful forms of political satire because they’re instantly accessible—and this makes them dangerous.

Philipon’s cartoon of King Louis Philippe as la poire (slang for fathead) landed him in prison

In 1829 the French interior minister Francois-Regis de la Bourdonnaye said political cartoons “act immediately upon the imagination of the people, like a book which is read with the speed of light; if it wounds modesty or public decency, the damage is rapid and irremediable”.

The only way to rein in their magical power was to make them illegal.

Over time the laws became less repressive and mainstream political cartoonists were free to express their views on pressing political problems however they chose.

So why don’t they exercise this freedom more effectively in Alberta?

Political cartoons in Alberta

Our trust in government has been under siege for decades. The arrival of Jim Prentice on the scene made things worse, not better. And yet if you scanned the political cartoons in Alberta’s major newspapers you’d never know that democracy is seriously off kilter in this province.

Malcolm Mayes political cartoon

During Premier Prentice’s first few months in power he violated the public trust at least three times:

  • Prentice allowed Mr Dirks, his unelected education minister, to engage in electioneering by giving voters in his riding first dibs on school portables despite the fact they were seventh on the priority list. The Ethics Commissioner said Albertans would be hard-pressed to view Mr Dirks’ actions “as honourable, respectful and ethical”.
  • Prentice proposed legislation (Bill 10) that forced students to go to court if a school board refused to let them form gay-straight alliances. In response to public pressure he removed the requirement of going to court;  instead students would be required to appear before Mr Dirks, the education minister—the one we’re hard-pressed to view as honourable, respectful and ethical.
  • Prentice made a mockery of the democratic process that relies on the Official Opposition to hold the government to account by attempting to take over the entire Wildrose Opposition while the Legislature was in session. Given his rationale—the reunification of the two Conservative parties—it appears he used government resources, notably his Chief of Staff, to conduct PC party business.

What would Charlie Hebdo do?

Given Charlie Hebdo’s penchant for incendiary graphics one suspects that Albertans would have seen cartoons of the education minister turning his back on a sardine tin packed to the gills (pun, sorry) with children and overwrought teachers while he slipped shiny new portables into his voters’ pockets, and drawings of students begging a glowering education minister for permission to hang out with their gay and straight friends on school property; and caricatures of Jim Prentice and Danielle Smith leading a lamb called Democracy to the abattoir.

Malcolm Mayes political cartoon

The best that Alberta cartoonists could offer was a Wildrose car rear-ending an Alberta Tories semi, a broken Wildrose Christmas ornament and Prentice clipping the stem off a wild rose.

Alberta’s political cartoonists are not as inflammatory as Charlie Hebdo (and perhaps they shouldn’t be) but unless they’re prepared to reflect Alberta’s one-party petro state in a wicked satirical mirror they’re certainly not Charlie Hebdo–they’re Charlie Brown and their cartoons should be moved back to the comics page where they belong.

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18 Responses to Alberta Needs Charlie Hebdo

  1. ABCanuck says:

    The Calgary Herald in particular has a serious problem with its editorial page editor and member of the Editorial Board Licia Corbella whose is mainly responsible for the choice of insipid editorial cartoons that appear on the Herald’s editorial page.

    Corbella is the one who waxed editorially eloquent that Jim Prentice reminded her so much of Peter Lougheed.

    It is perhaps no coincidence, as has been pointed out by a clever acquaintance, that the Italian verb “corbellare” means “to mock, ridicule, make fun of.” Unfortunately for Licia much of the “corbella”ing is directed at her.

    • ABCanuck: you’ve got that right. It was Corbella’s editorial entitled “Sadly, we are (not) Charlie Hebdo” that set me off. While she admits that mainstream media editors are “not even close” to being like “the brave journalists at Charlie Hebdo” she goes on to say “When it comes to being fearless publishers of truth, we do a pretty good job much of the time. We will criticize Christians, Jews, our politicians, police and other sources, even those we like and respect, when necessary. The worst they will do to us is stop talking to us or write a letter to the editor.” Two things came to mind: (1) criticism is only effective if it’s thoughtful. Instead of banging on about Rob Anderson quitting Corbella and crew should be focusing on what Prentice did and how he justified it and (2) the worst that can happen to a reporter with integrity is that he/she will get fired because he/she dares to say something that goes against the party in power and those who put it there. Courageous reporters will take that risk.
      PS your clever acquaintance is clever indeed.

  2. John Smith says:

    Political courage is in short supply in Alberta.

    • John, the lack of courage plays out in so many ways. The political satirist/comedian Mort Sahl had a glorious career until he lambasted JFK’s Camelot. In the blink of an eye he was shut out of all the clubs he used to perform in and his career faded. It’s hard to believe that our journalists would suffer the same fate, but if that’s the case then all the more reason to expose those who would silence them. Frankly, I think it’s self-censure in the name of career advancement, but hey, what do I know.

  3. Frank Horvath says:

    Yes, Ms. soapbox. What kind of democracy can we hope for if our media are too timid to challenge government on its reckless use of power? Seriously! The Fifth Estate in Alberta has been bought and sold many times.

    • Frank,”bought and sold” is likely at the root of all this timidity because it’s certainly not illegal to do investigative reporting in this country. On the topic of illegality, as late as the 1960s any satirical performance group (eg Second City, etc) who wanted to perform in the UK had to submit their material to the Lord Chamberlain, Britain’s censor, who would determine whether it contained anything that would “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and of a nature calculated to shock common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind.” This is no longer the case here and I’m not suggesting Alberta cartoonists or satirical writers have to push the boundaries as hard as Charlie Hebdo, but they can certainly do better than the milquetoast efforts we’ve seen so far.

  4. Malcolm says:

    Alberta needs a Bob Edwards and his (in)famous “Eye Opener” – even if it is published only “periodically”

    • Malcolm, wouldn’t that be brilliant! Apparently in addition to doing the Calgary Eye Opener for two years he published a periodical promoting tourism in the French Riviera. Wouldn’t you love to read it? I can’t help but think that his humour would be just beneath the surface of his reviews of where tout le monde go to be seen.

  5. Kyle says:

    The Globe cartoon on the ‘merger’ was pretty good, with an Adams family reference too!

    • You’re right Kyle, the Globe cartoon was good. The Addams family reference was perfect because the merger was weird and creepy. Prentice was perfect as Gomez praising Smith/Morticia as she snips the head off the Wildrose at his behest. Once again the Globe “gets it” much more clearly than the Herald and the Journal.

  6. Carlos Beca says:

    It is very touching to watch our politicians being so cuddly with the French, everyone is a ‘Je suis Charlie’. All of them such great defenders of Democracy. Somehow we move mountains to defend other countries democracies. We even find money to waste to protect the children and especially the women enslaved to those brutes in the the Muslim World.

    I was very impressed with Stephen Harper’s ‘Paris attack an attack on Democracy’.

    When it comes to our democracy and our government, democracy just does not seem that important.

    1) How democratic is to have a majority with 39% of the vote?
    2) How democratic it is to muzzle Canadian Scientists?
    3) How democratic it is to appoint Senators?
    4) How democratic it is to approve an omnibus bill?
    5) How democratic it is to implement free trade deals without any consultation with Canadians?
    6) How democratic it is not answering Question Period?
    7) How democratic is to have members of the government caucus cheating the voting system?
    8) How democratic it is to ignore our murdered native women and be so concerned with Muslim women around the world?
    9) How democratic it is for the opposition to become government without an election?

    and on and on ……

    It seems that only attacks with weapons are considered important assaults on our democracy, everything else is game.

    • Carlos, I was reading about Richard Fadden, the former head of CSIS that Harper just named to be the National Security Advisor. I get the feeling that the democratic principles we hold dear are going to be stretched to the limit under Fadden. He made a speech in 2009 which starts with a call for more debate about issues of national security but then swings off into strange comments about “our elites” (whoever they are) who “avert their eyes” and the media portraying terrorist attacks as political acts “of revolutionary charm” rather than criminal acts. I’m not sure what this is based on but it’s a pretty strange bias for the head of CSIS let alone our new National Security Advisor.

      I wonder how Faddon will do with his call for more debate given that (1) Harper doesn’t debate anything, he just rams it down our throats in omnibus bills and (2) Faddon sees terrorism as a criminal act but Harper sees it as an act of war, which would put it back into the political, not criminal arena wouldn’t it?

      Fadden also says the debate should include a discussion about the extent of oversight of CSIS and Parliament’s role in that oversight. I’m guessing Fadden and Harper will be perfectly aligned here–they both want little or no oversight from anyone.

      Let’s hope that the federal election changes the balance of power in Ottawa so that Harper doesn’t squeeze the life out of the democratic principles we still have.

  7. segmation says:

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, a political cartoon could be considered a lengthy editorial, right?

    • Well said Segmation. By strange coincidence the Herald ran an op ed today by Karin Klassen in which she denounced “Teflon” Dirks and Prentice for Dirks’ blatant political opportunism in the “modulars-for-votes” scam. The article was about 650 words long. I’ll bet most readers didn’t get to the end. But if the Herald ran a witty little political cartoon they’d have gotten the point in a nanosecond.

  8. ABCanuck says:

    Regarding the character of Jim Prentice, his Conservative/Wildrose cronies, and Ms Soapbox’ famous “Top Ten Reasons Why Jim Prentice is Nothing Like Peter Lougheed”, let me add an eleventh, and perhaps most important, reason:

    The Alberta Bill of Rights was Peter Lougheed’s first formal act as Premier in 1971.

    Quoting from the British Journal of Canadian Studies: “By 1971 it had been common to hear stories of Jews being denied services; landlords refusing to rent apartments to blacks; hotels with policies banning Aboriginal peoples; and women required to quit their jobs when they married or became pregnant.” And, “The rights revolution emerged in the province beginning in the 1970s following the election of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1971. Many of the issues that typified Alberta’s rights revolution were unique to this region: censorship, eugenics and discrimination against Hutterites, Aboriginals, Blacks and French Canadians.”

    Bill 10, restricting the rights of children to form support groups in school, such as gay-straight alliances, was Jim Prentice’s first formal act as Premier.

    Need anything more be said?

  9. Carlos Beca says:

    Very well said ABCanuck. It is astounding that in 1971 we had a premier more progressive then the one sitting on the throne now in 2015.
    Alberta is on the verge of a recession AGAIN. We have seen this at least 4 times in the last 3 decades, all in the hands of the PCs. All because of an almost religious dogma that does not allow current conservatives to think. Thinking well and developing wisdom are the currencies of the 21 century and beyond and here we are stuck with people that blindly believe in market fundamentalism. It is horrible to look back and realize the opportunities we have missed and scarier to wonder if there is any future for those coming after us. When I was young I left a failed state due to lack of political and social reason and it sickens me to think that my kids or grand kids will have to do the same in the future.

  10. ABCanuk, nothing more need be said, but as Carlos points out it is shameful that the premier we had in 1971 was 10 times more progressive than the one we have 43 years later. Is it just me or is Mr Prentice beginning to sound like a flip-flopper? First he was sticking to the 2016 fixed election date, now he’s not. Then he was going to implement the sunshine list for 200 agencies boards and tribunals, now he’s not. Then he categorically ruled out a sales tax, now it’s on the table. And the ultimate in doing a “180” is his assertion that the oil price slump is “unprecedented” like nothing we’ve ever seen before, but no, we’re not heading into a recession, no matter what the Conference Board of Canada thinks. Not exactly the steady hand on the tiller when we need it most, is it?

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