Bill Leak: the Germans have a word for him — ‘zivilcourage’

2018-09-09T16:06:57+00:00

The Australian March 13, 2017
HENRY ERGAS , Columnist, Sydney

 

Henry Ergas is an economist who spent many years at the OECD in Paris before returning to Australia. He is Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility.

Bill Leak: the Germans have a word for him — ‘zivilcourage’

Some years ago, rummaging through a pile of second-hand books, I came across one I immediately knew was for Bill Leak: a copy, in mint condition, of Henry James’ magnificent monograph on Honoré Daumier.

Last summer, we had a chance to discuss it. Now, as I mourn Bill’s death, our discussion of Daumier resonates even more loudly in my mind.

Daumier was not only an extraordinary artist. He was, like Bill, an indomitable defender of freedom, using his mastery of caricature to denounce the arrogance and hypocrisy of 19th-century’s France’s governing caste.

In 1832, when he was just 22, his portrayal of Louis-Philippe as a gargantuan, swallowing the ¬tribute of sycophants while spraying medals from his posterior, earned him a prison sentence.

Undeterred, for the next 35 years his cartoons burst on the country like thunderclaps as the hopes of the 1848 revolution faded into Louis Napoleon’s autocracy.

By 1869, Daumier was blind, exhausted and destitute; but he firmly though quietly rejected the regime’s offer of a medal, and its hint of a pension, as incompatible with the values that had guided his life.

Yet for all the hardships, Daumier’s public impact was immense.

This was a time when the illustrated press was coming into its own; and if journalism was, as James put it, “the greatest invention of the age”, Daumier proved that “social and political caricature is journalism made doubly vivid”.

Combining irony with a “grimness, imagination and pity” that strips away everything that is ¬redundant, caricature does not merely portray the petty tyrants it mocks — it “embalms” them.

Soon enough, James prophesied, those tyrants will be forgotten, but the “few, masterly strokes” of the drawing that exposed their hollowness will shine “long after its occasions have been swept into darkness”.

Little wonder then that caricature is subject to fierce attack: if there is one thing on which autocrats and fanatics have always agreed, it is that being laughed at is far more dangerous than being hated.

What is surprising, however, is the scale and intensity of the ¬contemporary assault.

Wolinski, whose work I loved in my youth, was butchered with 11 others at Charlie-Hebdo.

Just in the past 24 months, ¬cartoonists have been arrested, beaten and deprived of their livelihoods in countries that range from Tunisia to Venezuela, Greece to Senegal, and Turkey to Burkina Faso.

In Australia itself, we have had the farce that ensnared Bill as its ¬victim.

No doubt, that assault partly ¬reflects the global retreat from democracy.

When intolerance and demagoguery are on the rise, freedom of expression is always the first casualty. Nor is the illness confined to the developing world.

Many American presidents have criticised the media; until now, none had thought to accuse journalists of being “enemies of the people”.

There is, however, more to it than that.

In every crisis, a piece of the world, some thing we have in common, is destroyed; in that which has gripped the West for the past decade, it is the authenticity of ¬political speech that has been ¬shattered.

To say that is not to claim that politics and truth ever marched arm in arm.

But the doublespeak, the refusal to call things as they are, the replacement of fact by cant, have progressed so far that only caricature — which to succeed must ¬express what common sense tells us is really there — retains its grip on reality.

Like a divining rod, the attack on caricature therefore points to where the cave-in of our common world has occurred.

The ancient sophists, Hannah Arendt once wrote, could be satisfied “with a passing victory of the arguments at the expense of truth”; their contemporary counter¬parts seek a more lasting victory at the expense of reality.

But unless and until they stifle the cartoonists, that victory will be neither durable nor secure.

Bill Leak was one of those who stood in the way.

To some extent, his work’s echo is a symptom of the state we’re in: one in which each government, defying all expectations, manages to sink to new lows.

Vladimir’s declaration, in Waiting for Godot, that “I get used to the muck as I go along”, must ¬encapsulate the numbness many feel each morning as they glance, disbelievingly, at reports of the ¬latest nonsense.

Set against that backdrop, Bill’s cartoons offered what Robert Frost once said a good poem ¬provides: “a momentary stay against confusion”.

But if Bill’s work was so widely admired, it was also because of the genius he brought to the task, not merely in terms of technical virtuosity but of deep thought.

Socrates spoke of thought as being like the wind, sweeping the dust from our vision; its most important fruit is not knowledge of timeless verities but the ability to tell right from wrong.

Every bit as much as the artistry, it was that moral sense — and the indignation that goes with it — that Bill shared with Daumier.

Like many of their greatest ¬colleagues, they had the unflinching willingness to speak out that the Germans call zivilcourage.

And like many of their colleagues, they bore its costs.

Towards the end of his life, as his eyesight faded, Daumier painted a series of paintings of Don ¬Quixote. There is, in those paintings — which Van Gogh admired so much that he called Daumier “the teacher of us all”— a dignity and tranquillity to the Spanish knight as he pursues the unworldly goal he never abandoned.

Daumier, who never lost his zest for life, also pursued an ¬unworldly goal he never abandoned: that of building a house for the truth. In Bill Leak, he had a worthy companion.