A weekend of graphic storytelling, animation and music took place in the Sydney Opera House on the 21st and 22nd of August. American illustrator Robert Crumb was supposed to be one of the main attractions of the festival, but he decided not to come to Sydney after The Daily Telegraph and Hetty Johnston described Crumbs work as “perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind“, and instigated nothing less than a moral crusade against Robert Crumb and his work.
A crusade against an artist that draws images. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Kurt Westergaard can testify of what upheaval a drawing can cause. His drawing of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban caused Islamic protests, some of which escalated into violence, including the bombing of the Danish embassy in Pakistan and setting fire to the Danish Embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, which resulted in a total of more than 100 reported deaths. In addition several people were arrested plotting to kill Westergaard or do him harm, including a man who made his way into Westergaard’s home with an axe and a knife.
Some would argue that comparing the cases of Westergaard and Crumb is a case of comparing apples with oranges. But I beg to differ.
In both the case of Robert Crumb and that of Kurt Westergaard, a hostile climate was created by authorities of a conservative nature: Imams and other ambassadors of Islam were responsible for creating a hostile climate in relation to the Mohammed cartoon, Hetty Johnston and the moralists of The Daily Telegraph are responsible for doing so with Robert Crumb. The newspaper however denies creating such an environment.
In the article ‘Freedom of speech is not just for Crumb’, the Staff Writer makes the observation that “readers of this newspaper are savvy enough to understand the complexities of questions of art and free speech. They are not guileless drones, to be guided by their intellectual overlords in the press“. It is crystal clear however that none of the controversy around Robert Crumb’s planned visit to Sydney would have ever existed if The Daily Telegraph, in it’s own view in no way the “intellectual overlord” of its readers, would not have started this discussion among its “savvy” readers in the first place. In the same way, the Muslim world would not have paid attention to page 3 in Jyllands-Posten if Imams and other dogmatic ambassadors of Islam would not have told them to do so. In the same article the Staff Writer, in an equally dogmatic way, adds to this that “the truth is that some people simply don’t like Crumb’s work”. With this statement the Staff Writer effectively illustrates the complete opposite of what he said in the sentence before this: surely only an intellectual overlord would be able to tell its readers, not to be considered guileless drones, what the truth of the matter is.
It is no wonder that Robert Crumb chose not to come to Sydney, although the Staff Writer of The Daily Telegraph is of the opinion that “Crumb could fly into Sydney tomorrow and be feted by those who admire his work” and ridicules the fact that Crumb fears for his safety.
It is however not that ridiculous to think that some nutcase conservative moralist would try to harm him. In the same way that dogmatic Islamic leaders managed to create hostile environments in which violence erupted, so have the right-wing media and politicians created an environment in which a Democratic member of the House of Representatives in the United States got shot in the head and 77 young social democrats got murdered on a Norwegian island.
Perhaps the people at The Daily Telegraph are ignorant of the fact they might be stirring up dangerous passions, another possibility is that they simply do not care. In either case, they should know better.