Mea culpa – a cautionary tale

An alert reader’s correction of a factual error prompts some thoughts on collective memory in the age of the Web, and on what to make of people whose achievements may be offset by the repugnant ideas they embrace.

'The Dreyfus Affair and the Rise of the French Public Intellectual' is by Tom Conner.

Dear readers, I need to put things right after a blunder: In my June 8 column, “Getting to the point with pencils,” I mischaracterized the Russian-born French cartoonist Caran d’Ache. He did not “skewer” the anti-Semitism of late 19th-century France during the Dreyfus Affair; he helped foster it.

A reader set me straight – tactfully and helpfully. Thank you, sir. This episode has prompted thoughts on collective memory in the age of the Web, and on what to make of those whose valuable contributions must be weighed against repugnant ideas they also embraced.

Trying to find out why Caran d’Ache, the Swiss pencil- and penmaker, would use a transliteration of the Russian word for “pencil” as its name, I did what many people do: I checked Wikipedia and then followed its links to primary sources. “Caran d’Ache,” I learned, was the pseudonym for Emmanuel Poiré, an innovative satirical cartoonist. The company website confirmed all this. I thought I was done. But I should have pressed harder. 

Wikipedia didn’t call him anti-Semitic. Nor did the Larousse online encyclopedia, and certainly not the company website. Wikipedia did, however, say his cartoons defended military “honor.”

If the Dreyfus Affair sounds like a romance involving the actress playing Elaine on “Seinfeld,” here’s a refresher: Alfred Dreyfus was a French Army officer unjustly accused in 1894 of passing military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was arrested and imprisoned for years, and smeared in the press. Debate over his guilt tore French society apart.

One of the heroes of the affair was the novelist Émile Zola. His open letter in defense of Dreyfus, who was eventually exonerated, took on the establishment and led to one of the most famous headlines in history: “J’Accuse...!”

Caran d’Ache, meanwhile, seems to have been the anti-Zola. Tom Conner, for instance, in his 2014 book, “The Dreyfus Affair and the Rise of the French Public Intellectual,” called him “beyond doubt the most well-known anti-Semitic cartoonist.”

I had two blind spots here: One is that Jews have been so huge an influence in American comedy that “anti-Semitic cartoonist” just didn’t register. It sounds as oxymoronic as “Muslim brewer” or “vegan barbecue connoisseur.” And I should have known that even an innovative artist – a comic strip pioneer! – could have been on the wrong side of the Dreyfus Affair.

The filmmaker D.W. Griffith comes to mind. His 1915 Civil War epic, “The Birth of a Nation,” is hailed as a masterpiece. But its racism outraged African-Americans. In 1999, the Directors Guild of America decided to stop calling its highest annual honor the D.W. Griffith Award.

And Caran d’Ache, the company? Nine years after its founding in 1915 as the Fabrique Genevoise de Crayons, it was renamed for the cartoonist. For an anti-Semitic nut case? No, says spokeswoman Noémie Rossier, via e-mail; “by the 1920s, the public really remembered [Poiré] for his talent as a cartoonist rather than for his position on the Dreyfus Affair.... The management of Caran d’Ache has never promoted the political and social ideas of Emmanuel Poiré and will never do so.”

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