Reviving the Power of Cartoons
Between the letter from the Joint Chiefs of Staff whining about Post cartoonist Tom Toles' commentary on the progress of the war in Iraq and the angry response in parts of the Muslim world to editorial cartoonists' depictions of Muhammad as published in a Danish newspaper, we've suddenly found ourselves in a place where cartoons matter more than they have in far too long.
This is excellent news, and it's at least a momentary restorative in a news biz in which all too many companies have been cutting way back on cartoons or eliminating them altogether. Part of the motivation for the cuts over the past few years has been economic--as circulation drops, too many newspaper companies respond in exactly the wrong way, by giving people ever less of a reason to buy the paper--and part has been a reflection of the takeover of the industry by huge companies that seek above all to be inoffensive.
Cartoonists exist to be offensive; their job is to push the envelope, to use common, stark imagery and startling, searing juxtapositions to push readers to see the world in a different way. Alas, we live in a world in which it has become chic to take offense over everything and nothing, and to react so violently to such offense as to preclude useful conversation.
This is something the West and the Muslim world have in common--a growing desire and propensity to take offense because it has somehow become socially acceptable and even empowering to be perceived as the victim of offensive commentary or behavior.
Here's a fine cartoon by one of my favorite cartoonists, Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, that I'd bet wouldn't see the light of day today. Sig took a lot of heat for that cartoon, in a similar, though far less organized and threatening, fashion as the Danish paper is now experiencing.
Sig's tools are wit, irony and the courage to take on topics that lead others to censor themselves.
But Sig, who is also a strong and persuasive writer, argues now that while it's heartening to see European newspapers rally around their Danish colleagues and the principle of free speech, we might want to consider whether we'd be quite as willing to stand up for offensive imagery if we were talking about Jesus or the Star of David, rather than the prophet Muhammad.
Her bottom line, however, is that a cartoonist must be prepared to risk being called anti-Muslim or anti-anything. The idea is not to set out to use derogatory images of any group, but rather to make your point in a dramatic and effective manner. So if a cartoonist wants to speak out against violence and suicide bombing committed in the name of Islam, she has the right and obligation to do so, regardless of the possible response.
Which raises the immediate question: Why have European newspapers had the courage to reprint the Danish cartoons, while few if any American papers have done so?
Editors in this country have become much more timid about using ethnic stereotypes or imagery that any group might find offensive. Surely the response to the European newspapers adds another level of hesitation. And I've heard editors at various papers wondering whether the Danish paper was deliberately seeking to provoke Muslims to make a political point. But all of those are just excuses: One need not take an editorial stance to illustrate a news story on this controversy by giving readers a peek at the cartoons that have brought thousands of protesters onto the streets.
In today's story in the Post, our own government seems to endorse the idea that editors should quash the cartoons. "We . . . respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility," said State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper. "Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."
But frankly, that is none of the State Department's business. Look at the cartoons: They express no hatreds of any kind. They're not particularly clever or witty; they're not even very good. But they're well within any reasonable definition of rational commentary and they are meant to wonder why and how some Muslims have allowed their religion to be used to justify violence. They ought to be seen, discussed and yes, even protested if some folks find them outrageous. But cowering at the possibility of setting off a violent reaction is no way to make decisions about freedom of expression.
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