Last night, which happened to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I attended a lecture by Pulitzer prize winning comic book artist (or graphic novelist) Art Spiegelman. It was supposed to be a talk on tolerance and art, but he self-deprecatingly waved away these weighty subjects. “Everything I know I learned from comic books,” he said. “So I’m going to talk about comic books.”
And for the next two hours, that’s exactly what he did, talking and joking his way through a brief history of comic books, from the first old French comic strips to the now critically acclaimed “graphic novels” like The Watchmen, or his own masterpiece, Maus, which grapples in alternating humor and horror with his father’s memories of surviving Auschwitz, and his own turmoil in understanding that history.
Fortunately for the audience, the talk, like Spiegelman’s work, was not limited to words. On a giant screen Spiegelman guided us from one comic to the next–some his, many from others who he took inspiration from. And bit by bit, as he traversed the world of comics from the early days of racial caricatures to the modern world, where entire populations were subdued by the fear of Islamist reprisal over the Danish cartoons, (a subject he did a cover-story for Harper’s magazine on and which was subsequently banned in Canada) to the propaganda posters the Nazi’s used in the lead-up to the mass-execution of the Jews in Europe, Spiegelman drove home his overarching point:
These are not just lines on paper.
I never understood the old rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It always struck me that this was quite the opposite of the truth. A more truthful cliche might be “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Spiegelman’s talk led us to the concept of physiognomy, or the “assessment of a person’s character or personality from their outer appearance” which was once considered almost a science, but has, regardless of its lack of scientific merit, certainly been a tool used by illustrators and dictators alike to propagate stereotypes, either for humorous purposes, or for the seeding of hate within cultures.
In much the same way that Nazis exploited the tenets of Darwinism to promote their vision of the superior German race, Nazi propagandists used comics, and physiognomy, to create an impression that Jews were somehow sub-human. The image of the Jew as a rat has been ingrained into the international psyche. The Nazis used this to great effect, and as Spiegelman pointed out, we still refer to the Holocaust as the “extermination” of the Jews rather than as a mass-murder.
It could be argued that as we enter further and further into an era of mass-media and visual information, images will become even more important in how we view the world–what’s shown, as much as what isn’t. The Danish cartoons are an example of how in the name and guise of tolerance, fear can lead us to censorship. Of course, the Arab as a terrorist is almost as universal an image as the Jew as a rat. And so we come to that cross-roads: on the one hand, images were instrumental in so many horrible efforts, from segregation to the Holocaust; and on the other, that most prized freedom of speech. I suppose in the end we must take the bad with the good. There will always be hate, after all, but freedom of speech is a fragile and precarious right.
In any case, all of this leads to the question of Pope Benedict’s rehabilitation of Bishop Williamson into the fold of the Catholic Church. Williamson, as we all know by now, is an adamant Holocaust denier, who is on record stating that “the historical evidence is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy by Adolf Hitler.” Pope Benedict has been quick to decry such Holocaust denial in an attempt to quell the uproar over Williamson’s reinstatement.
Of course, there are words and then there are symbols. The symbol of Benedict welcoming Williamson back into the Church is a great deal more powerful than the words he’s used to whitewash the scandal. A picture’s worth a thousand words, remember. We refer to acts like this as symbolic gestures, and regardless of what the Pontiff says to the contrary, this new embrace of Williamson is a symbol of the very sort of thing the Catholic Church has been attempting to distance itself from–old hatreds, old divisions. The history of the Church and the Jews is not a pleasant one. John Paul II worked for years to change that, and it seems Pope Benedict is as determined to sabotage what his predecessor begun.
And yet, here we come again to that confluence of freedom and consequence. Freedom of religion, of speech, of practice, can often come into conflict with sensibility, cultural sensitivity, and so forth. After all, Holocaust denial is not forbidden by the Church even if one would hope that the basic precepts of Christianity would render it unthinkable, it should still be allowed as protected speech, however despicable. In Germany it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. In Canada, hate-speech is defined by the State, and can be banned outright. So do we give the State this power to define what is hate, what is free, which symbols and words are merely scribbles, and which are swords? Once upon a time the State in question was Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia. The State, after all, is changeable as are human hearts, and human words. Our best course is to keep them separate–a separation of Thought and State, no matter the drivel that can, and does, produce.
After all, none of these words, images, cartoons or symbols are mere “lines on paper.” They hold consequence; the power to destroy or heal; the power to stir a nation to war, or lull it to sleep.