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Posted at 10:50 AM ET, 05/21/2010

THE RIFF: A day after 'Draw Muhammad,' the political cartoon gets a powerful reminder

By Michael Cavna

The power of the cartoon remains.

The ability of a single sketched image to provoke, prompt, incite, summon or inflame -- a virility and virality sometimes questioned in a new-media age -- is intact. Whether deemed to have been drawn nobly or irresponsibily, to enlighten or enrage, the cartoon that touches that precise nerve -- whether purposefully or accidentally -- still can quickly inflame an entire body of thought or an entire body politic.

If that sounds like an obvious, natural-born conclusion a day after "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day," the week after a Swedish cartoonist was attacked and his home was literally inflamed, the month after "South Park" animation sparked postings of Theo Van Gogh images, then perhaps you haven't been paying attention to those stretches when the political cartoonist is declared a dying profession and the newspaper cartoonist's format a relic of an inkier era.

No matter what side you come down on when it comes to Molly Norris, to Lars Vilks, to Matt Stone and Trey Parker -- whether you champion or condemn or dismiss their cartoons -- their work reminds with a nonpartisan certainty that sometimes, the shortest path to the brain is a line.

The late Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist Doug Marlette once likened editorial cartoons to rock 'n' roll in their primal power. Cartoons that have a political power are, like rock was once dubbed, the "jungle music" that, in their primal percussiveness, insist to be heard over essays and editorials and long "think-pieces" that wax orchestral.

As newspapers have rendered many political-cartoonist perches endangered or extinct in recent years, some observers have declared the modern political cartoon to be a shell of its former influential self -- the withered ex-bodybuilder who points to the glory days by pointing out pictures of previous titans. Thomas Nast flexing his cross-hatchings more than a century ago as he brought down Boss Tweed. Or Herblock depicting suspect footprints leading back to the White House within mere days after the Watergate break-in.

When the Library of Congress mounted its latest Herblock exhibit last year to mark the late Washington Post legend's 100th birthday, even some political cartoonists themselves pined for a previous era -- when being the right political cartoonist at the right paper covering the right events could perhaps mean wielding at least a whiff of the influence of a Walter Winchell or Walter Cronkite, if not an Edward R. Murrow.

That yellowed era of cartooning influence is supposedly lost to time and economic transition and shifting reading habits and broken business models. New media has changed the game. Yet some cartoonists contend that the very power and visual "portability" of the simple political cartoon make it one of journalism's most readily adapted elements for new media.

If nothing else, by responding to a cartoon show's censorship, Seattle's Molly Norris -- whether you call her reckless, feckless, courageous or an emblem of cowardice -- has inadvertently spotlighted just how tightly wired our world is. When a "one-off cartoon" (her words to Comic Riffs) posted on a personal website and forwarded to some prominent bloggers can spawn online pages that prompt an entire nation to block Facebook and YouTube (and reportedly parts of Wikipedia and Flickr) -- bans that have precedent in China and Turkey and elsewhere -- it's a white-hot reminder that new media isn't the enemy of the political cartoon. If anything, social networking is pure, 100-percent human growth hormone to the political cartoon as "withered" and "past-its-prime" bodybuilder. The dopes are the ones who don't realize that for cartoons, new media is the equivalent of legal doping.

Or "illegal" doping, as some would say of cartoons that are said to be more inflammatory than informative -- be it Norris's "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!" cartoon or Vilks's Muhammad-as-a-dog sketches that seemed design to inflame. It's a valid argument to say that most anyone can attempt the cartoon equivalent of Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" and -- by offending someone's God or gods or religion or personal doctrine -- stoke a strong reaction. The newspaper political cartoonist must traffic, too, in Tea Parties and Obamacare and Supreme Court nominations, if not "smaller" local and regional issues that are equally worthy in their own right.

Yet doesn't the right sharp dart of a cartoon aimed at oil-spill incompetence, say, still get Digged and "liked" and "shared" and Twitpic retweeted? A political cartoon needn't cause spasms of global reaction to strike a chord in readers and make a difference by stoking dialogue.

Thanks to new media, especially, the power of the cartoon remains enhanced.

By Michael Cavna  | May 21, 2010; 10:50 AM ET
Categories:  The Political Cartoon, The Riffs  | Tags:  Doug Marlette, Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, Herb Block, Herblock, Lars Vilks, Library of Congress, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Molly Norris, Political Cartoons  
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Next: The 'Riffs Interview: 'SHREK' animator Walt Dohrn steps into the oh-so-green limelight


What did Mohammed teach anyway? See:

Posted by: wpjunk | May 21, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Great article. Just to prove how powerful a cartoon still is, I link you this:

Posted by: EgonSpangler | May 21, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I know Molly Norris, both as a friend and as my former college student. I also live in Seattle, WA, ground-zero for the ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed’ cartoon she created. I believe this issue has morphed into something more than The First Amendment Right: it is about Political-correctness, which has now reached a critical mass.
Although I can’t read a cartoonist’s mind (yet), but after reading over 2,000 blogs on the subject, I believe that neither Molly Norris nor anybody else could have predicted the firestorm of vituperative commentary and protests---for and against how our ‘First Amendment’ Rights should be expressed and against whom. I am certain that Molly Norris did not intend to offend Muslims and has apologized profusely for having done so, believing naively perhaps, that this is our primo American Right.
However, This is not the first time (or the last) our freedom of expression has become incendiary, either (when the Ku Klux Klan expressed their “right” to march in the Jewish suburb of Skokie, IL; Rodney King and LA riots, for eg.).
Political-correctness, however, is the bigger issue, I believe. As a practice, post-seventies, this is nothing less than propaganda in action. Political correctness aims to censor us all: to say what sounds right, instead of what is right; to say that all opinions are diverse and equal, rather than some opinions have been earned through educating ourselves first.
Just because everybody CAN say whatever they wish, without the responsibility of using their real names, or the chance to respond in a reasoned dialogue, doesn’t mean that they should, as Molly Norris, in fact, did.
I know I sound like a Luddite here, but the internet network of blogs, Face Book, and the like have taken political-correctness to new heights, without all the original fuss-and-muss of speaking to each other in person, and owning what we say.
Page Faulkner Mordecai, The Front Porch Talker

Posted by: frontporchtalker | May 21, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

ollowers of Islam have brutally and repeatedly destroyed ancient monuments /temples/ carvings in the name of Allah. In India alone muslim invaders destroyed 30,000 ancient temples and countless cultural monuments ! That was the modus operandi of Islamic invasion. Slash/burn/destroy/terrorize then convert. Islam dictates its laws be followed universally , yet muslims through out the ages have no respect for non muslim beliefs. The religion starts with the assumption that every one is born a muslim, hence they must obey muslim laws !! How convenient. Whats more among the so called moderates there has never been an acceptance of the destructive nature of spread of Islam, or the violence inherent in Islam.

Posted by: margdale | May 21, 2010 11:58 PM | Report abuse

The first page got up to 100,000 supporters and was removed. The 2nd got up to 14,500 supporters before it was removed.

The overall 'protest' was a huge success, no one was splashed with acid, no one had their hands cut off with swords, no one was bombed.

We exercised our right to freedom of expression in the face of 'Hate Speech' mongers who masquerade as a "Religion of Peace".

Posted by: IdrewMohammadToo | May 22, 2010 12:49 AM | Report abuse

As much as I think everyone has the right to be free in this world, I am staunchly against western and middle eastern religion. Eastern religion gets an apprehensive pass because its more philosophy than mind control.
Which leads me to my point. Every religion, except one, has art work that represents their beliefs pictorally. The one that doesn't wants to ban art, music, singing, dancing, women's rights, social commentary, and free thought.
An ideological war is inevitable. I say we draw pictures of Mo everyday, by the millions. Perhaps that will foment war, bombings, attacks, and life will be lost. That will be tragic. However, they have already pursued that course, and continue to do so. Not drawing a picture for fear of being murdered is so asinine that we must draw the picture. The only way to beat the absurd is through absurdity.
Just as Monty Python.

Posted by: oo7 | May 22, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

*Just ASK Monty Python.

Posted by: oo7 | May 22, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

In Quran, (V,92) creating any images of any ‘living’ creature (human or animal) is prohibited. Because on the day of judgement the painter or cartoonist will be called upon by god to put life into it, and upon confessing his inability he will be sent to hell. The conception underlying this doctrine is that, the painter usurps the functions of the creator. So when somebody draws muhammed, first of all, he is not drawing a living creature. Hence, muslims should not protest. Secondly, this restriction is only for those who believes in muhammedian belief system. So what’s the problem if its drawn by non-muslims? why attack these non-muslims??

Posted by: anku6 | May 22, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Molly, is acting cowardly now. Like Comedy Central. Instead of writing only that she did not sponsor the FaceBook pages (fair enough), she is on her knees to apologize your use of free speech. She inspired other people. Now she sends a message of fear. She says she was wrong and her use of free speech should be shamed. She is the coward like Comedy Central and Viacom. The one-off apology doesn't age well in history and her backpedalling is shameful, however her one-off cartoon will age well.

Posted by: onthepost | May 22, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I know Molly Norris. She is my friend and my former college student. I also live at 'ground-zero' of the EDMD, Seattle, WA: FRACAS-CITY.

Molly Norris sent her now infamous cartoon to Dan Savage, national blogger, and sex advice columnist for "The Stranger," Seattle's alternative weekly. Although Molly asked Savage to withdraw her cartoon, he ran with it for his own agenda; EBMD on Facebook.

For those of you unfamiliar with the antics of Dan Savage, let me give just one example: he publicly boasted 'attempting to infect a Republican public figure with his flu virus!' Do your homework: (this from a professor); then decide if this is REALLY the cause for which so many people have suffered lately.

Although I can't speak for Molly Norris personally, I can tell you that her original intention has been wildly compromised. I was horrified to see the bigotry and hatred, and even violence spurned by all the depictions of EBDM.

I am ashamed to be an American. I feel great compassion for those who have been scape-goated by the antics of fundamentalists and fanatics from the full spectrum of the political agenda. What good can come from juvenile, mean-spirited cartoons that incite violence and further censorship?

"We the people" are ALL reasoned people who, from whatever religion or politic, who respect each other enough to have a dialogue. "They" are all the fanatics who hope to win, 'by any means necessary--' even violent means.

This isn't 'free expression:' this is Political-correctness! Ironically, this 'blogger-fest' dares to quote Ghandi, the champion of Non-violent protest, while inciting violence through hate speech. Political-correctness IS censorship because it is about AGENDAS, NOT FREEDOM. It is ALWAYS about AGENDAS, NOT PEOPLE.

Do you honestly believe that this will somehow liberate humans from the barbaric acts of fanatics (of every religion), or further the cause for freedom?

Here's a question for my next quiz: Does anybody remember why we were looking for Osama Bin Laden, or where he's hiding-out now? (HINT: probably not on FB)

Posted by: frontporchtalker | May 22, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

" When you attack black people they call it racism. When you attack Jewish people they call it anti-semitism. When you attack women they call it sexism. When you attack homosexuality they call it intolerance and homophobia. When you attack your country they call it treason. When you attack a religious sect they call it hate speech. But... when you attack the Prophet (PBUH) they want to call it freedom of speech! "

Your idea of 'free speech' is nothing but hypocrisy. Hurting the sensitivities of more than a billion people only shows how insensitive you are, and how intolerant. You dont like it that Muslims dont allow the drawing or depiction of their beloved Prophet, but you want to force it down their throats just to show how 'liberal' and 'enlightened' you are. It only shows how intolerant and cowardly you yourselves are. If you have the guts, then write your full name and address when you submit a cartoon. OWN IT, instead of slinking behind a computer and enjoying hurting others.

Posted by: marakapoor | May 23, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: itkonlyyou77 | May 23, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

To be racist is not a crime. To be anti-semetic, homophobes, or sexist is not a crime. No matter what you call it, the fact is, though repulsive as it may be to express such views, they are not crimes because of Freedom of speech. We as Americans have the right to be stupid, insensitive, and foolish if we choose. That's what freedom is. The problem here that Americans have is that you want to restrict these freedoms. Some even by threatening violence. That's what's not acceptable. There have been sacrilegious depictions of Jesus and believers get outraged but no deaths nor death threats have followed. We have to accept that there are people who insist on being stupid no matter what you say. Fortunately, and in those cases and in this case, unfortunately, it is their right.

Posted by: lolito83262 | May 24, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Are terrorists born that way? No, they are indoctrinated into their faith. Terrorists start with no faith. Then they begin to have a small faith, which grows until it leads to fundamentalism and then their faith leads to being a full fledged terrorist.

The pool which terrorists are recruited from are liberal, moderate and fundamentalist Islamic followers. This is true for extremists of any faith.

The solution? Everyone Islamic-liberal, moderate and fundamentalist needs to denounce their faith as the mythology it is. This is the only thing which will take away the fuel from the terrorists.

In fact, the time is now (due to religious extremists and the scientific age we live in) for every person of every faith to admit their faith is false, simply ancient mythology of old. The world would immediately become a better place.

If this happened--imagine--religion could never divide friends, families, partners, potential partners, communities or nations, ever again.

What happens to kids who realize Santa Claus is not real? Do they suggest a moderate belief in Santa Clause? I'll believe in the reindeer and the sleigh but not the man? No, they go on to lead productive adult lives. They can live without their belief.

Posted by: NeverDevalueYourHumanity | May 24, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

RE: 'Everybody Deny the Holocaust Day': A Meta-spectacle of Human misery

Well, I do see the backlash connection with 'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,' etc. One offense against humanity (seems to) deserve another.
An eye-for-an-eye: I get it. This is where the reactionaries step in and (rightly or wrongly) fight back. It's a fringe thing on the internet, which will bring-on more rioting and violence.

It's ALL wrong; so, you know that most of the world knows this, right?

This has become a spectacle now. Well, it was already a spectacle with EBDMD, but now it's been escalated to a Meta-spectacle!

I have visited Dauchau, in Germany. As you enter the death camp there is a sign that reads: 'Arbeitet Machen Sie Frei!' ('Work Makes you free!')

The world is filled with horrors: The Spanish Inquisition; Slavery; Tortures of every kind by every religion, race and sex.

I guess it's time to revisit history in order to move from one extreme to the other, then back in the middle again (Hegelian Dialectic).

Maybe, after all is said and done, it will awaken humanity again and we'll all have learned a valuable lesson. Or to further humanity in the face of extremism.

On the other hand, I saw nothing valuable about EBDMD--nothing to further humanity--just extremism.

And, while visiting Dauchau, Germany I saw not awakened souls--just tourists taking photos and movies of their families posed for the camera as they stood by the 'death showers' and the 'ovens' and in the bunkhouses where the survivors were housed.

Is nothing sacred? The world has shed too many tears, me thinks.

A bit of wisdom from the Jesuits here (I know! The Catholics and the Inquisition): the 'offenders' are not most responsible for a terrible offense, because they MUST be crazy.

However, it is we--the rest of humanity--who carries the burden of responsibility, because we watched it all happen, but didn't act (peacefully)to stop all of the insanity!

Page Faulkner Mordecai

Posted by: frontporchtalker | May 25, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

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