Sunday, February 22, 2009

Racist Cartoons

This week's now-notorious New York Post "monkey" cartoon -- the one showing two policemen standing over a dead monkey they've just shot and saying "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill" -- has raised storms of protest. Whether the artist intended the monkey as Obama or not, the implication is hard to miss.

The controvercy raises a deeper fact. Political cartoons in America have a long history of treading into racism, zenophobia, and bigotry. And some of the worst have come from our most celebrated, main stream journals.

Thomas Nast (above right), for instance, is celebrated as the brilliant young 1870s artist for Harper's Weekly whose ridicule destroyed the regime of New York City's Boss William M. Tweed -- easily the era's most corrupt pol. Nast became the most famous, widely-read, and politically influential graphic artist of the Nineteenth Century, able to sway elections and make or break Senators. But his cartoons seethed with bigotry, against Catholics, against Irish, against immigrants, against Democrats.

Before closing the book on the current controversy, here are a few samples. The point is not to make excuses for the New York Post. Rather, to me, it's the opposite. These examples show how dangerously easy it is for artists and journalists to let passions over today's hot spot issues get in the way of good sense. Editors have a duty to to work hard, not to censor talented artists, but to make sure they express themselves clearly -- and not to allow what might have started as a simple satire against the Stimulus Bill (obvious fair game) cross the line into ugliness.

As for Thomas Nast:
He enjoyeed portraying Catholic clergy is vile creatures, in this case as crocodiles.

He consistently drew Irishmen as semi-human gorillas, never far from a whiskey bottle and shackled to political mahcines. (The fellow with the whip is Peter B. Sweeny, famed chieftain of New York's Tamman Hall from the Boss Tweed era.)

And for political enemies like Tweed, he considered capitol punushment just fine:

1 comment:

Bruce J said...

The implication is hard to miss

Most of your response is very measured (though I do not entirely agree). But I do not understand that line. it seems to be built on a pack of assumptions, assumptions that are hardly justified if you know how legislation comes about and knew the OTHER news in the papers at the time of the cartoon.

The monkey was included in the cartoon because of the concurrent news piece about the police shooting of... a monkey! The political cartoon examples you cite were clearly directed at groups of people; the same is not evident here, where the original story involved an actual monkey! (double entendre is theoretically possible, but ought not simply to be assumed).

The main basis for the image in this cartoon is an old but still living notion - NOT of people of this or that ethnic or racial group as sub-human, but of the (in)ability of monkeys to write something intelligible (as in the claims about 1,000 monkeys over a long period of time typing, by accident, the works of Shakespeare). I have no idea whether someone, at some point, used that specific trope for racial purposes (I suspect someone has), but there is no grounds to see it in the current incident.

Does it not rather undercut the case when you have to go to the 19th century for illustrations? Why should we connect the cartoon with old unfamiliar images instead of with clearer ones that are still in use, and that perfectly suit the point the cartoonist was making about the quality of a piece of legislation

Perhaps not as central, but still relevant, the insinuation that the cartoonist intends specifically to portray the President, assumes that he thinks the President wrote the legislation. But legislation ordinarily is written by Congressmen (with a lot of work by staffers), and that was the case this time too. (Sure, the cartoonist might possibly think otherwise, but to simply assume he thought thus is not justified.) The cartoon makes perfectly good sense as NOT directed at an individual.

God help us if every time something like this happens, pundits & bloggers start raising charges of "racism".

Oh, I see now it's already happened again... and again...

Someone (a Democrat, if I understand correctly!) made a cartoon with the President made up like the Joker... That surely must be. . . oh wait, precisely the same was done with his predecessor. So what do we call THAT?

Then there was the "witch doctor" cartoon, again read as racist. Yet the image is a familiar one (used before) NOT to make a racial comment, but to criticize what the President is 'prescribing' as regards healthcare. (Agree or not, it's perfectly legitimate, and not racist, to express such a view.) In the context of a healthcare debate, why should use of that image be so surprising?

It truly does seem that there is a current determined to perceive and charge racism for almost ANY criticism of the current President, even though precisely the same sort of language, imagery, etc. and much worse, was considered perfectly permissible when directed at his predecessors, esp. the one just preceding him.

I don't like or agree with all of these (no matter who they are directed at), but for pity's sake, let's stop these nonsensical charges.

(Written as I watch the embarrassing spectacle of a former President trying to tar as many Republicans as possible as primarily motivated by racism when opposing Obama's policies.)