By Bill Diem

Jean Plantu has been drawing editorial cartoons for French newspapers since the 1970s. He recently spoke to the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris about his career. The police bodyguard with him sat quietly in the back of the room while Plantu showed cartoons he wanted to talk about to journalists like me.

Why does he need a bodyguard? His cartoons have angered people.

Cartoonists in Denmark in 2005 had drawn cartoons making fun of Mohammad, causing death threats by crazed Muslims who believe that making an image of their prophet is a mortal sin. The French satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo later ran the Danish cartoons to support the freedom of expression, and on the cover put a caricature of a sad Mohammad saying, “It’s hard to be loved by jerks.” Le Monde, a French newspaper, ran a cartoon by Plantu a few days later that was a caricature of Mohammad made up of repeated cursive sentences “I will not draw Mohammad.” In 2016, after years of lawsuits, two terrorists invaded the Charlie Hebdo office and killed 12 people, eight working at the magazine.

That’s why Plantu rates a bodyguard, but it’s not the only reason.

You might think Plantu is an anti-Islamist, but he is not. His cartoons critical of Israel’s colonies in land that is supposed to be Palestine brought accusations of anti-Semitism. When a Pope came out with a non-statement on child abuse by priests, he drew a cartoon of a pope abusing a child under the headline, “The Pope takes a position on pedophilia.”

Plantu makes fun of the powerful when he believes they are in the wrong. To combat what he sees as their overreactions, he organized “cartoonists for peace,” a collection of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cartoonists from around the world, trying to teach us that irony and satire are not the same as bullets and bombs.

So while I listened to this, I thought about America, and the notion that some people, like Florida’s governor, think we should continue to teach children only the American myths. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slaves? That the Civil War was about the southern states defending slavery? That Andrew Jackson freed up land for white farmers by forcing eastern Indian tribes to move west to Indian Territory? Later the rules changed again, and Indian Territory was opened up to whites, who rushed to stake claims in what became Oklahoma, the 48th state.

My Oregon-born friend reminded me that when Oregon became a state in 1856, slavery there was forbidden but it was to be “a white Utopia” with no blacks allowed. And I believe that we are really lucky to have Ojibwa reservations in Chippewa County, because Ohio just has Indian place names to remember peoples like the Delawares.

When I was a kid, I thought the phrase “Indian giver” was about an Indian giving you something, then taking it back. Now, I know that the United States government was the Indian giver. Treaties were not worth the paper they were written on.

Plantu was telling me that irony and satire help us think about things.