Cartoon outrage is becoming tedious, as is the need to explain once more why being offended is not just cause for battle.
This time it’s not Muslims rioting in the streets, but the Rev. Al Sharpton leading protests against a New York Post cartoon that he and others consider racist.
Drawing on two events in the news cycle – a violent chimpanzee felled by police, and the stimulus bill – cartoonist Sean Delonas sketched a dead chimpanzee lying in a pool of blood in front of two cops with a smoking gun. The balloon read: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”
If you don’t get it, there’s a good reason. It was a bad cartoon. It didn’t work. The connection between the two events simply wasn’t organic enough to evoke the necessary “Aha!” Moreover, the images carry too much free-associative freight.
The mind’s eye sees the word “stimulus” and thinks President Barack Obama. The bill may have been written by congressional staff, but it’s Obama’s stimulus package. The mind’s eye sees a dead chimpanzee and … strays off course, away from the news of the animal attacking a woman to a history of dehumanizing blacks.
It may be subliminal, but it’s there. And dehumanization is never funny.
Cartoonists rely on readers’ collective understanding of symbols and metaphor and on their unconscious connecting of images to ideas. Given that dependence, cartoonists have to be aware of the many ways those symbols might be linked within a given time and context.
The Delonas cartoon was offensive for other reasons unrelated to race. No sane person enjoyed seeing or reading about police killing the chimpanzee. They may as well have killed Bonzo. Compounding the horror of this poor animal drawn dead and bleeding was the knowledge of its gruesome attack on a woman, who at the time was in critical condition.
Let’s add even another layer of cultural understanding – the too-oft read headline: “White cop shoots unarmed black.” One can parse the circumstances in each case, but the statistical evidence is that these shootings happen too often.
Do I think Delonas meant to convey all these layers of meaning? Not at all, though cartoonists have unconscious motivations like everyone else. He may have considered the possible racist interpretation and justified his decision because he didn’t mean it that way.
Cartoonists make artistic and editorial judgments every day, though some cartoonists have better judgment than others. Even so, outrage is out of proportion to the offense, and demands for retributive justice are more dangerous than a lousy cartoon.
Everything I know about cartooning I learned during many long conversations with the late political cartoonist Doug Marlette, a giant of the industry and one of journalism’s most eloquent explainers. At times like this, I wonder what he would say, though I think I know. I took notes.
If he were alive, I doubt that Marlette would find anything defensible in the cartoon in question. Although he was an equal opportunity offender, especially when it came to religion and politics, being offensive was never his objective. The goal was to be effective; offense was the occasional byproduct.
Delonas was offensive without being effective because he had nothing to say. Cops-kill-chimp/stimulus-bill-bad is not the stuff of revelation. It is literal, blunt and unclever.
If (big if) Marlette had considered the chimpanzee as a vehicle for some larger point, he never would have made it a pivot point for anything that could be associated with the nation’s first African-American president. No one was more attuned to the workings of the unconscious mind, nor more profoundly moved by the civil rights struggles against the terrorist sons of his native South. Two cops shooting an animal historically employed to portray blacks as less than human – in the context of a black president’s seminal piece of legislation – would have been not only morally repugnant, but just not funny.
Nonetheless, Marlette also would have defended the cartoonist’s right to fail and to offend others in pursuit of an ideal. He would have reminded all those upset by this cartoon that the freedom to offend is the very same freedom that allows them to protest when their feelings are hurt.
Be careful, he might have said, lest we lose for winning.