by Mark Steyn
Ave atque vale
Bill Leak, the great cartoonist of The Australian, died of a heart attack in the early hours of Friday morning. He was 61.
Like Andrew Bolt, I feel not only terrible sadness at his premature death, but also anger and resentment. Bill Leak was not gunned down at his office, like the writers and artists of Charlie Hebdo, nor did a murderous Somali axman break into his home, as happened to Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish Mohammed cartoonists, nor did he have his last public appearance shot up by a killer jihadist, as did the Swedish artist Lars Vilks. But, as much as any of those, Bill was a target of what he called (at right) “the Cartoonists Hit List” and the wider war on free expression that has rampaged across the west this last decade.
Last October, he woke up to find that, after a cartoon arising from a then current controversy on Aboriginal policy, he was to be investigated by the Australian state’s thought-police. Indeed, the government’s Race Discrimination Commissar, Tim Soutphommasane, was so anxious to haul Leak up on a charge of “racial stereotyping” that he was advertising for plaintiffs:
He urged anyone who was offended by it to lodge a complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act.
As Bill’s mate Tim Blair observed:
This is extraordinary. The Human Rights Commission is now preparing to sit in judgment in a case clearly already decided by one of the HRC’s most senior officials. As Homer Simpson once asked: ‘Who made you Judge Judy and executioner?’
In the way of sleazy apparatchiks everywhere, Commissar Soutphommasane insisted that his verdict-first-trial-afterwards approach was all part of the vigorous public debate of a healthy democracy:
Cartoons will be subject to all matter of public debate. It’s a healthy part of our democracy that we have that debate.
To which I responded:
Sorry. A legal action is not a “debate”. Mr Leak is being “subject to” not debate but state thought-policing – because ideological enforcers like Soutphommasane find debate too tiresome and its results too unpredictable. Which is why he gets a third of a million a year from Australian taxpayers to prevent debate.
Gillian Triggs, the Chief Commissar of the Australian “Human Rights” Commission, complained that Bill had refused to send her a written response “justifying” his cartoon. Good for him. As I wrote in The Australian, you don’t get into a debate with someone whose opening bid is “You can’t say that”: It’s not a dispute with someone who holds a different position, but with someone who denies your right to have a position at all – which is what Commissars Triggs and Soutphommasane are saying when they require you “to justify an 18D basis for the cartoon” (18D is the relevant section of Australia’s crappy anti-free-speech law). In healthy societies, the state does not require artists to “justify” art.
That was five months ago – the last five months, as it turned out, of Bill Leak’s life. So all that “healthy part of our democracy” didn’t turn out that healthy for him. As I always say, the process is the punishment, and in this case it may well have proved fatally so. I can’t say for certain what toll the Section 18 complaint took on him, but I know something about the strain of being caught in the commissars’ crosshairs from my own experience with Section 13, Canada’s equivalent. I remember one day reading a legal analysis of my case that was all “Steyn this” and “Steyn that” and eventually concluded “It will probably be appealed to the Supreme Court”. And I realized that that “it” referred to “Steyn”, to me. I was no longer a “he”, a flesh-and-blood human being called Mark, but an “it” – a legal matter that happened to share my name. I wonder if Bill ever felt like that under his cheery exterior: You become your case; the case gets bigger and bigger, and the real you becomes smaller and smaller. And, even as your life shrivels, far too many people who should know better swallow all that guff about how “it’s a healthy part of our democracy”.
Bill Leak was not his case. He was a brilliant observer of the scene, an inventive joker, and a superb draughtsman, which these days too few editorial cartoonists are. The picture below, for example, is on a familiar theme, at least to me – the left’s indulgence of Islamic supremacism. But it’s made by the detail – the beard, the earrings, the pose, the trouser color – and the contrast between the infantilized teacher and his pupils in their neat little English school uniforms.
Australia is not yet beheading infidels, but it does drag apostates of the multiculti pieties into court – which is a difference merely of degree. As Tim Blair wrote, Bill Leak was “one of the sweetest, funniest and most generous people I’ve ever met” – but he was also braver and tougher than men of his prominence have found it prudent to be in this cowardly age. Two years ago, after the Charlie Hebdobloodbath, I got pretty sick pretty quickly of the bogus solidarity – not just the #JeSuisCharlie humbug hashtaggery but also the response of the victims’ fellow cartoonists around the world, with their fey, limpid drawings of pencils shedding tears, and pens mightier than swords, and other evasive twaddle, all of which would have made the dead of Charlie Hebdo puke. Everyone wanted the frisson of courage but without having to show any. Bill Leak’s attitude was truer to the spirit of the slain: The cartoon at top right is beautifully drawn – the beard protruding from the burqa is a very nice touch – and, if you have to hold candlelit marches through the streets, #JeSuisMohammed would have made a much better slogan.
But you can also sense in it the difficulty a cartoonist faces in a world retreating into silence: You have to come up with something your newspaper will be willing to print. Can you draw Mohammed? Whoa, not in a western newspaper, no. Can you suggest that someone in the cartoon might be Mohammed? Possibly – if you put him in a burqa, with a beard dangling. What if your editor responds to the cardboard placard by saying, “Hang on, mate. Isn’t ‘Je Suis Mohammed’ French for ‘I am Mohammed’?” Well, maybe your line is “No, no, that’s just someone showing solidarity with Mohammed” …like Dame Helen Mirren wearing her “Je Suis Charlie” brooch to the Golden Globes.
It’s an ingenious solution in an age when, with or without Commissar Triggs and Section 18, “justifying” your cartoon now goes with the job.
But that wasn’t the cartoon Bill gave his readers in the days after the Charlie slaughter. He drew the “Je Suis Mohammed” beardie-in-a-burqa piece a few months later to accompany a speech he gave on the role of humour in today’s world, and it nicely skewers the cartoonist’s predicament in our times. In January 2015, in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, he offered a far more direct image: No burqa, no ambivalence, just God and Mohammed shooting the breeze in the hereafter.
To their credit, his editors published it. At a time when every other major western newspaper was professing solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo dead yet refusing to show the reason they died – the Mohammed cartoons – The Australian actually published a brand new Mohammed cartoon.
Unlike the jihadists in Bill’s picture, the real ones couldn’t see the joke. So, after a gag about a “Cartoonists Hit List”, the cartoonist wound up on an actual hit list, from ISIS. Distinctive-looking persons started showing up around his house. “What do you mean, ‘distinctive-looking’?” asked the coppers. So he got out his pencil and drew them. On my visit to Oz a year ago, Bill told me, in confidence (though he later went public with it), that as a result of death threats he and his family had been forced to leave their home, and live in a strange house in a new town under police protection. This is the life of an Australian artist in the 21st century: You exist in a kind of precarious semi-liberty. Having friends over for dinner is a gamble – because if a careless friend mentions it to a friend of a friend, you’ll have to move again, to another house in another town, further and further away from what used to be your life. There is a price for not taking refuge in bland, self-flattering hooey about weeping pens mightier than swords.
Bill paid it without complaint. Last year I gave a speech in Sydney, followed by the usual book signing. It was a very long line that night, and you get a little punchy, head down, staggering from one autograph request to the next, one photograph to the next, and all you see is the guy at the front, not the fellows waiting patiently behind. So I didn’t spot Bill Leak until he was at the head of the queue, bantering amiably with those around him. “Who’s next?” I asked, and the bloke whose book I’d just signed said breezily, “Australia’s best cartoonist.” Which is true.
I told Bill he needn’t have stood in line – not because he’s under ISIS death threats (I didn’t yet know that) and waiting in a slow-moving queue for an hour makes you a very inviting target even for the most incompetent jihadist, but because he could have pulled rank and demanded of the helpful young ladies of the IPA that he get the VIP treatment. Come to that, we’d have been happy to let him have free copies of the five books he’d very generously purchased for friends and family. He scoffed at the suggestion, and gave a characteristic Bill Leak response:
“That’s not how we do things in Australia, Mark,” he said, and grinned.
I would like to believe that. I really would. But “how we do things in Australia” – and France, and Denmark and the Netherlands and Sweden and Canada – is what’s at issue here. The ISIS savages said “that’s not how we do things in the new Caliphate” – and the Leak family was forced to move house. And a few months later the goons of the state grievance industry decide to remind him just exactly “how we do things in Australia” these days: A man who is already living in hiding because murderous thugs don’t like his cartoon has to be further tormented because hack bureaucrats and professional grievance-mongers don’t like some other cartoon. As I said that night in Sydney, these are merely different points on the same continuum: The Islamic State and the Australian state are both in the shut-up business, and proud of it.
But for Bill this must have exacted an awful, cumulative toll. The “human rights” investigation was later quietly abandoned after the plaintiff – “a white Aborigine living in Germany” – decided to withdraw: The thought enforcers had made their point, they’d pinned the scarlet letter on him, and persuaded fainterhearted artists and writers that here’s one more topic you might want to steer clear of. The silence of so many Australian journalists and cartoonists these last five months was more shameful than the accusations of his enemies.
I doubt this is how he thought his life would end up when he first came to public attention in the Seventies. He was a skilled and sensitive portraitist of Sir Don Bradman and other great Aussies, and you can see in his paintings what he loved and cherished. He could have led just as successful a life far more quietly. But, when the Islamic Statists and the Oz statists alike decided to target him and his art, he didn’t flinch. He understood the malign alliance between Islamic imperialism and a squishy, appeasing west. One of his cartoons shows a spotty T-shirted kid announcing he’s off to join ISIS in “the war on western freedoms”. “No need for that, son,” says his dad. “They’re giving them away.”
And so we are.
Thirty-six hours before his sudden death, Bill Leak held his last book launch, for a collection of cartoons called Trigger Warning. He was by all accounts on great form, calling political correctness “a poison that attacks the sense of humour” and that “infects an awful lot of precious little snowflakes”. Other eminent Aussie freespeechers such as Anthony Morris, QC were present. But I wonder, in the circumstances, given the state commissars’ efforts to de-normalize him and criminalize his work, if his favourite moment during the event wasn’t the moment when proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of Australia’s iconic cultural ambassador Sir Les Patterson:
When they play the racism card against you, you always worry that, even if you win, the word’s got out that you’re no longer quite respectable or mainstream, and the wobblier A-listers among your mates will decide that discretion is the better part of full-throated support. Good for Barry Humphries for putting a stained and sodden arm around Bill Leak on his last night out.
When I wrote my column on Leak’s travails for The Australian, I quoted a report in The Economist on my own battles with the “human rights” commissions:
Much of Canada’s press and many broadcasters are already noted for politically correct blandness. Some fear that the case can only make that worse. Mr Steyn and others hope it will prompt a narrower brief for the commissions, or even their abolition. As he put it in his blog, ‘I don’t want to get off the hook. I want to take the hook and stick it up the collective butt of these thought police.’
And I added:
Canada’s Section 13 was eventually repealed. If I can get my hook past Australian Customs, I would be honoured to assist Mr Leak in performing the same service for Australia.
I meant that. Section 18C is a squalid and contemptible law incompatible with a free society. I hope one day that it will be gone – because “that’s not how we do things in Australia”. But, to return to where we came in, I am bitter and angry that for Bill Leak, a very great Australian, his long overdue victory will be a posthumous one.