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Drawing fire and ire

June 8, 2003

Was the recent Dick Locher political cartoon in the Chicago Tribune anti-Semitic? Lots of people think so. George Bush is down on one knee spreading dollar bills to entice Ariel Sharon onto a bridge leading to peace. A big-nosed Sharon, with a Star of David on his suit, peers down at the money and says: “On second thought, the pathway to peace is looking a bit brighter.”

Most of the elements of classic anti-Semitic cartoons are there — the nose, greed, the invitation to laugh at the Jewish people’s alleged lack of principle. But I have a question. Suppose you are not a fan of either Sharon or Bush, and you think that Bush really is bribing Israel to go along with an unworkable peace plan. Is it anti-Semitic to have this opinion? Or is it OK to think it but not OK to do a cartoon about it?

Granted that Locher and his editors should surely have recognized that the images are familiar ones in Nazi propaganda. They didn’t because political cartooning is a form of pictorial assault that depends on exaggeration, and editors tend to get used to exaggeration and over-the-top metaphors from cartoonists.

Because the possibility of going too far is built into the business, it’s important to know a cartoonist’s track record before screaming for his head. Locher has no reputation for nastiness or anti-Semitism. Another cartoonist, Steve Kelley of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, told me: “He would have had to be an idiot to deliberately insert an anti-Semitic message into the Tribune, and he is not an idiot.”

One obvious problem with a controversial cartoon is that you can’t fix it by taking one or two things out, as you can with a column or a news report that goes too far. You have to kill it or let it be, often without realizing how incendiary it will seem to some people. This means editors are often torn between a form of censorship-like monitoring and an anything-goes acceptance.

Syndicated cartoonist Doug Marlette drew loud protests from Muslims for a satirical version of the evangelical Christian campaign against gas-guzzling SUVs (“What would Jesus drive?”). Last winter, he depicted a Muslim at the wheel of a Ryder truck carrying a nuclear bomb. The caption said, “What would Mohammed drive?” After Muslim protests, Marlette said he was not attacking the founder of the Muslim faith, as he certainly seemed to be. He said his target was the distortion of Islam by murderous fanatics.

Marlette got in trouble with Roman Catholics, too, for a cartoon that dismissed the pope as a rockhead for not allowing female priests. When he was at New York Newsday, he ran these words of Jesus, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” with an arrow running from the text to the pope’s skull. A few days later, Newsday issued a “memo” of regret “that many readers were given an unintended message.” Marlette called this “regret” the first apology ever offered on one of his cartoons in 22 years. He announced that he had encountered more timidity and censorship in New York than in his native South.

The classics of over-the-top cartooning include a 1999 Sean Delonas effort in the New York Post showing a Jewish doctor attempting to remove a cancerous tumor from Louis Farrakhan by sawing off his head. Five months after 9/11, Mike Marland of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor drew a cartoon of George Bush flying an airplane into the twin towers (marked “Social Security.”) Marland apologized (as he should have), and his editor was fired.

On the right, in his usually very funny comic strip B.C., Johnny Hart, an evangelical Christian, did an Easter cartoon that offended many Jews. It showed a menorah fading into a cross, accompanied by Jesus’s dying words and an open tomb symbolizing his resurrection. Hart insisted he was trying to honor Jews as well as Christians, but the burned-out candles of the menorah seemed to tell Jews that their religion was defunct.

On the left, Ted Rall regularly produces wretched-excess cartoons. One dismissed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as “house slaves.” Other Rall strips attacked some widows and relatives of 9/11 victims, as well as the widow of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and murdered by fanatics in Pakistan. Rall depicted Pearl’s widow as a publicity hound, making pointless and tacky appearances on many shows. He depicted her at a microphone, saying, “It’s a bummer that they slashed my husband’s throat — but the worst was having to watch the Olympics alone.”

Rall, who positions himself as a sort of Howard Stern of cartoons, has naturally attracted many detractors. I don’t much like his work, but there are many columnists and authors who go too far without attracting posses determined to eject them from the local paper. Let’s avoid sensitivity censorship. Let them be.

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