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In The Frame: I am not Charlie

Our cartoonist Tom Humberstone reflects on the Charlie Hebdo shooting and subsequent debates.

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I wrote this comic last Thursday before I'd read too many responses to the shootings and was trying to convey how I was processing the news. Teju Cole sums up my approach with this line in his excellent New Yorker piece: "Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions."

There's an interview with the wonderful Sara Pascoe in which fellow comedian Richard Herring asks her about her appearance on Mock the Week - a show on which most alternative comedians struggle to do well or simply don't want to be on. Pascoe explained that that was exactly why she wanted to be on the show:

I wanted to prove that you could be good and entertaining, but also be good-hearted and not make jokes about victims or easy jokes about weak people. I'll never talk about people's appearances. I won't call fat people fat or old people old or denigrate a politician by what they look like. I had such a strong ambition to be on that show and say 'see? It's OK, you don't have to be like this'.

That sums up a lot of the feelings I had when starting my weekly comic at the New Statesman. I knew I didn't want to draw vulgar caricatures of politicians because I've always felt it was a cheap, lazy way in which to make a satirical point. There's nothing big or clever about making fun of the way someone looks. It's bullying. And is part of the reason a lot of people are dismissive of political cartoons. I understand that style of political cartooning has a particular satirical lineage in Britain but it is one that feels, to me, to be quite antiquated.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Charlie Hebdo. I hold my hands up and admit to my ignorance of Charlie Hebdo. I'd never engaged with it before last week and most likely do not appreciate the cultural context for a lot of the content. But based on this clarification of the Boko Haram cover, Charlie Hebdo defenders suggest it is at best a satirical representation of the far right's idea of asylum seekers (and that couldn't have been satirised in any other way?), or at worst an example of Hebdo's 'punch up, punch down, punch sideways, punch everywhere' editorial policy. Or it could well be both at the same time. I got a little bored of the libertarian 'punch everywhere' defence after several years of Trey Parker and Matt Stone using it to defend everything on South Park. It struck me that it was starting to be used like the 'irony shield': to shut down conversation about the intent of the joke and who is necessarily being satirised before it can even begin. It also ignores the possibility that as much as one might think they are an "equal opportunity offender", one's own prejudices might actually be focusing on a particular religion or race more often than others. I think it is our responsibility, as satirists or commentators, to know exactly who we are targeting, and why, before we make a joke.

I've seen a lot of opinion pieces and open letters in the past few days explaining that Charlie Hebdo is an extremely left-wing, liberal magazine that has been misunderstood. Usually with a (possibly sub-editor led) provocative not-at-all-trolling headlines like "Why many smart people are getting it wrong". I can completely understand that there may not be racist intent behind a lot of the cartoons that are being shared but I think it's worth, at the very least, considering and listening to those who find these drawings to be troubling and hurtful. Cartoons, as with all culture, can shape the way we think about and view the world around us. Simply being left-wing does not give one a pass when it comes to perpetuating crude racial stereotypes that people of colour, who deal with racism on a regular basis, consider to be offensive.

I appreciate the show of solidarity that "Je suis Charlie" represents but I also completely understand why people bristle at the idea of aligning oneself with cartoons that they disagree with. It doesn't mean they condone the attacks. It doesn't mean they don't feel the emotional weight of the tragedy for those who died and their families. And those who try to suggest otherwise whenever the "Je suis Charlie" meme is critiqued are either being wilfully obtuse or shamefully manipulative.

There have been two major responses by the comics community to the attacks that have made me cringe. One response has been the barrage of well meaning cartoons, usually involving pencils daubed with the colours of the French flag, that argue the importance of satire and the power of the artist. No-one would disagree with that, and the sentiment is a good one, but I'd rather see some cartoons that show us the power of satire rather than tell us about it. Prove how important a good cartoon is to the debate.

The second response that infuriated me is the prevalence of comic artists taking selfies while posing meaningfully with a pencil or pen and captioning it with something like "weapon of choice". As if we are all suddenly heroic for drawing cartoons now. No-one is coming for our pencils or pens. We are not being told to self-censor or stop drawing. If anything, there has never been more attention on the opinions and responses of cartoonists. Let's not pretend otherwise.

But of course, these responses are just people trying to process and comprehend the events of last week. They are entirely legitimate emotional responses. Ways in which people are dealing with their grief and anger. 

Right now, it's important that we're good at our jobs. I'm looking forward to reasoned debates where we listen to each other instead of trying to score points. And I'm looking forward to seeing thought-provoking satire and nuanced cartoons that tackle big, difficult issues.

Tom Humberstone is an award-winning comic artist. "In the Frame" appears regularly in the Observations section of the New Statesman. See more of his work at www.tomhumberstone.com.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.