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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.

By Marc Fisher |  February 4, 2006; 8:10 AM ET
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I thought Toles's cartoon made his point quite clearly although the Joint Chiefs seemed to have missed it completely. I think the drawing of the maimed soldier is tasteless but it certainly grabbed my attention. I've been reading Toles cartoons for many years (I'm from Western New York & so read him in the Buffalo News) and it is this type of cartoon that makes him such a great commentator. He makes people think & hopefully, talk.

Posted by: Lucy Clark | February 4, 2006 9:16 AM

Tom Toles always offends me. But leave his cartoons where they are and let him put whatever he wants there. I already know that section of the Post is Blue-State country.

My response to say how about some more cartoons from another perspective? Parody Ted Kennedy (too easy) or Harry Reid (easy) or Nancy Pelosi (a snap) or *gasp* Hillary. Run them every day.

Or someone more clever than I am could do a cartoon of Tom Toles making an inflammatory cartoon rubbing his hands like a silent movie villain.

The more the better.

Posted by: Truth B Told | February 4, 2006 12:21 PM

- for "Truth B Told" - anyone that considers the Post to be "Blue-State country" needs to not spend so much time on FOX News. Doing so clouds one's judgement of what is fair, balanced and objective. For one, the Post's editorial page supported the Iraq war. Second, the Post runs opinions from both liberals and conservatives. E.g. both EJ Dionne and Charles Krauthammer. The Wash Times doesn't do that sort of thing.

- Re: Marc - we all value press freedom, but there is clear social damage when cartoons strengthen the negative stereotyping and overall misunderstanding of a group of people. Even the Signe Wilkinson cartoon parodied Musilms instead of at least saying *Radical* Muslims. The Press has an obligation not to fan the flames of misunderstanding and division. We can, arguably, make the case that most of America is aware of, and understanding of, Jesus or the Star of David. A significant percentage of Europe does not understand Islam and these negative cartoons reinforce that. The unfortunate problems in Paris recently highlighted an example of what happens after years of misunderstanding (and other socio-economic negligence).

Is Marc insinuating that these cartoons empower the Muslims who live in fear already?

God Bless America...and Everywhere Else!

Posted by: Fair and Balanced | February 4, 2006 4:03 PM

F and B - The 7 or 8 column inches headed by Toles cartoons (e.g. Letters to the Editor) is the Blue State country. If you do some research to back up your opinions, try to search the letters to the editors for the name Krauthammer and the name Dionne. You will see that CK is the favorite whipping boy of that section on dozens of occassions, and EJD is rarely mentioned more than once or twice a year.

Despite what people think in Blog-Blogland, most people are not extremist. Just because someone disagrees with Democrats or thinks the Post has a more-liberal bent, it doesn't mean they are right wing nuts. And it doesn't mean someone's judgement is clouded because they don't buy into your views. You should be so lucky

The Post editorial support of invading Iraq was not a series of editorials supporting republicans or red-states. You should read those editorials a little more carefully. The were following a fairly radical notion that we should use our armed forces for social good even if it makes a fair number of American isolationists whine.

FYI, I haven't watched Fox news or read the Washington Times as long as I can remember and don't plan on it soon. My primary source of news is the printed and online Post. So please do not presume anyone who doesn't lock step with the fringe left is in lock step with the fringe right.

Posted by: Truth B Told | February 4, 2006 4:55 PM

I've found Boondocks mindless, racist, dumb, and asinine for years. But I'm white - not exactly high up on the P.C. list these days, so my opinion doesn't count for much; at least at the Washington Compost.

Posted by: hitter | February 4, 2006 6:20 PM

"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."
It used to be the Soviets who valued "order" over the rights of its citizens. But now its our American government that values order over freedom.

As John Kennedy once said:
"We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."
~John F. Kennedy

Cooper's quote is as close to official US government censorship as I have ever seen in this country, but not surprising coming from an administration that attacks and muzzles scientists as the Post's report on intimidation of NASA scientists shows.

Posted by: Sully | February 5, 2006 8:23 AM

Who is inciting these riots? The press? Do Muslims in Lebanon and Syria read Danish newspapers? Did those muslims burning the Danish embassy wake up and read the cartoon, then got out and riot?
No, it was others who were offended and incited the hatred, probably at that place where Muslims are willfully controlled by hateful clerics, the Mosque on Friday.

If the Bush administration does not protect press freedoms, then who will?

From a free American to Bush: You are either with us or against us.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 5, 2006 8:32 AM

I think you re stretching the argument a little thin just to take another swing at Bush.

Of course there needs to be press responsibility along with the free speech. In fact, in every corner of our lives, we excercize freedom of speech with responisbility. It's the shouting fire in a crowded movie theater argument.

Take the argument one step further. You have the legal right to publish a web site calling your boss the biggest idiot in the world and it may be true. But don't expect your key to the office to work for long. Free speech, but how responsible is that to your family who needs to eat and be clothed?

Take it even further: The neo-Nazis, the skinheads, the KKK all have their manifestos that would deeply offend any thoughtful person. Should the Post publish them on the op-ed page? No, because the Post acts responsibly. That is what Cooper was saying.

But let's be a little sophisticated here. If you take a nuanced view of his statement, he was saying the US must be a little diplomatic if it wants to make peace with the Muslim world. Picking this instance to take a stand would be irresponsible for the Bush administration at this time.

Freedom of the press will survive Cooper's statement, he knows it, you know it. But is this moment the time and place for the US to be confrontational?

Posted by: Truth B Told | February 5, 2006 10:48 AM

Coopers confrontation is not between the US and any Muslim country, its between the Bush administration he represents and the US press.

I understand about yelling fire in a theater, but comparing the violent Muslim reaction to the understandable violence of people fleeing for their lives is not a good comparison. It is an appeasement of sorts, saying that our press freedom must be checked to prevent the Muslim countries from rioting against the US. We do not hold the press' tongue when they make cartoons about China, or North Korea or France when sensitive situations. I think we should be standing with the Danes and not suggesting they did anything wrong.

In my mind it comes down to how easily Bush is prepared to control American's freedoms to accomplish his goals. Warrantless domestic spying and suggesting the press not "incite" the Muslims are examples. It shows me Bush is more about order then freedom, as were the Soviets and other authoritarian regimes and it is why we must protect our freedoms from this guy.

As for the Muslims burning yet another embassy, I think its time to tell those countries that have a propensity to willfully destroy other countries embassies that they will not have a seat at the UN if it continues.

Posted by: Sully | February 5, 2006 11:53 AM

Well, yes indeed, but I think you mischaracterize the Bush administration's position.

FYI, the Department of State has expanded on the comments in yesterday's press briefing:

QUESTION: One word is puzzling me in this, Sean, and that's the use of the word "unacceptable" and "not acceptable," exactly what that implies. I mean, it's not quite obvious that you find the images offensive. When you say "unacceptable," it applies some sort of action against the people who perpetrate those images.

MR. MCCORMACK: No. I think I made it very clear that our defense of freedom of expression and the ability of individuals and media organizations to engage in free expression is forthright and it is strong, you know. This is -- our First Amendment rights, the freedom of expression, are some of the most strongly held and dearly held views that we have here in America. And certainly nothing that I said, I would hope, would imply any diminution of that support.

QUESTION: It's just the one word "unacceptable," I'm just wondering if that implied any action, you know. But it doesn't you say?




QUESTION: Do you caution America media against publishing those cartoons?

MR. MCCORMACK: That's for you and your editors to decide, and that's not for the government. We don't own the printing presses.

Posted by: Truth B Told | February 5, 2006 4:38 PM

But to my earlier comment/question: How far do you want to take that argument? You say it is common to mock China and Korea. I agree and my wife is Chinese. She would love to see them.

But should, for exampel, the Washington Post print cartoons that are entirely offensive to gays, blacks, women, handicapped, etc.? I would say they have the right, but should exercise responsibility. Not to cower in fear of riots or reactions, but out of a sense of decorum.

And my point before was not the we should avoid inflaming Muslim violence, but that we should be mindful of our diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the Mideast and not endanger it over this relatively trivial cartoon. We need to pick our battles.

Posted by: Truth B Told | February 5, 2006 4:44 PM

The Danes who made the cartoons were not in a battle or picking a battle. They were paroding the Muslim faith with those who exercise violence in the name of that faith. That is a very appropriate political point and has been written about extensively and in this case was done with a cartoon. If the 1000 words each cartoon represents was written instead, there would be no riots today. Something to think about.

I understand your position but you see it as a battle for peace in the ME and we need to move cautiously. That is entirely appropriate for the government. But to say that newspapers or you or I should also pick our battles may be a good word of caution, but for our government to say publishing cartoons is unacceptable is itself unacceptable. Thank you for posting the above question/answer. I'll sleep a little better tonight. I also want to thank the news media for pressing the government on their irresponsible statement.

Posted by: Sully | February 5, 2006 5:35 PM

Reprinting these cartoons is not a sign of "courage." It's a sign of complete disrespect. If you could stop being ignorant for half a second, you'd know that the anti-Islamic movements in Germany, France, and Italy are very strong, and that it's likely that the cartoons were reprinted simply to piss off Muslims. But, oh, I'm sorry, that would require critical thinking and a little research, which don't seem to be things you're into.

I thank US papers for not reprinting them - they know they can, but they have enough respect for Muslims to not publish this utter tripe.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 5, 2006 11:45 PM

So what are you saying? That the papers did not have a right to print them, or that printing them brought destruction by people miles away? You are shifting the blame for the damage wrought here. No one in Europe burned or destroyed anything.

Once you begin to blame a freedom for a bad outcome you will then begin to outlaw freedom. Authoritarian systems start off with the best of intentions. If free speech is too much for you to handle, then you can live in any number of countries it is not practiced. I'd suggest Saudi Arabia or China to start. But DO NOT suggest that freedom loving peoples self censor themselves to stop Muslims from commiting acts of violence in other countries as a result of a cartoon.

You can ask for respect. You can ask for self restraint. But do not demand self censorship by threatening to burn buildings, death threats and civil strife. Demonstrate if you must, but do not use violence to achieve respect. It will never happen. It is no wonder that the ME Muslims, with the majority of the oil wealth of the world, life as though they were in the 5th century.

If you look at the history of the black civil rights movement in the US you might learn something. There were racist cartoons daily in newspapers in the US. But non-violence won the freedoms all blacks now enjoy in the US, not violence. Blacks put up with a lot, more than most Muslims ever have faced. And they stared down racism with defiance and resolve. It was the non-violence of Dr. King that brought both blacks and whites to realize what America was and what America should be. Blacks earned their respect by facing the tyranny of southern segregation with defiance, but rarely violence. And they won their rights.

If Muslims want to change the anti-Muslim feelings in Europe and elsewhere, they should not enforce those feelings by perpetrating violance against a cartoon that most probably have not seen but was described to them by their clerics with instructions on how to respond. To change attitudes they need to educate and reach out. Some muslims are taking this high road, but most of them are outside the ME. If violence is the only way Muslims can handle any disrespect, then they have a long road to go before they succeed like Dr. King or Ghandi succeded in leading their people away from violence and toward the freedom they now enjoy.

Posted by: Sully | February 6, 2006 12:12 AM

I think that when a cartoon is making fun of or satirizing any group, e.g., gays, Muslims, Christains, women, military, the focus should be on whether it was done to illustrate alarger point or was it done to just piss them off.

Posted by: Stick | February 6, 2006 9:32 AM

I agree with Stick that the focus of any anger should be on the reason for the cartoon. But in any case, no one should threaten violence and destruction in order to gain the respect they think they deserve.

Posted by: Sully | February 6, 2006 9:42 AM

I wonder why more moderate Muslims don't aggresively speak out against the connection between radical Islam and violence. It just can't be reasonble to anyone that someone responds to an offensive political cartoon by burning down an Embassy or attacking their neighbors. Non-violent protests and economic boycotts would certainly be a lot more effective.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 6, 2006 10:23 AM

American media doesn't seem to have a problem reprinting images that are offensive to Christians, but they won't reprint images that are offensive to Muslims.

Ummmmm, sounds like a double standard to me.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 6, 2006 11:04 AM

If a cartoon is inciting such violent reaction, I as a consumer of news, would like to see the cartoon for myself so that I can judge its offensiveness for myself. If you are REPORTING on this item, you are obligated to reprint the cartoon (provided it is fit for a "family newspaper"). I thought I was buying the Washington Post, not the Muslim Apologist & Handholder.

Posted by: RML | February 6, 2006 11:22 AM

There was a great discussion on this issue on the PBS News Hour last week with two extremely intelligent and articulate people whose names I've forgotten. The first,a Muslim man said that freedom should have responsible limits on speech and that attacks on Islam like this cartoon only ferment the radicalism that he and other moderate Muslims works to overcome. The other speaker pointed, however, that Muslim newspapers regularly include virulently anti-semitic and unfair cartoons and articles about Jews and Israel and few Muslims speak out against that offensive speech. Does anyone know if this is correct?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 6, 2006 11:34 AM

Oh yeah! Just follow the links sometime in the World Opinion blog when the issue pops up. According to the Arab media "the Jews" are responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened, no matter to whom it has happened.

Posted by: Stick | February 6, 2006 2:59 PM

Sully: obviously, nobody in their right mind thinks that the violence that's occurring is in any way a valid response to anything. However, there's still a lot of evidence to show that the papers that republished these cartoons did so simply to piss off Muslims; the reason US papers aren't reprinting the cartoons is because they have respect for their neighbors - not because they're not "courageous." Don't confuse the issues, and don't put words in anyone's mouth. The post previous to yours was pointing out that it is neither courageous to reprint disgusting cartoons (some of them were, some of them weren't, you can Google them if you haven't seen them yet). It was also pointing out the history of xenophobia in Europe, which has been going on since the Crusades. It was not shifting the blame for violence to "freedom loving" countries (two of which - France and Italy - banned an ad based on Da Vinci's Last Supper in March 2005 on account of it offending the Catholic Church).

Also, if you think there were no African American extremist groups during the civil rights movement, you might want to read up on the civil rights movement yourself. Just as those extremist groups were in no way representative of African Americans as a whole, the idiots causing violence are not representative of Islam.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 6, 2006 8:10 PM

Something a lot of you are missing here: the grotesqueness of the cartoons don't matter. In Islam, it's considered haram to make any kind of image of Muhammed. Most of the cartoons weren't that offensive, except that they went against a religious tradition (so it wouldn't be offensive to us, but it would be offensive to people who are Muslim). You'll also notice that, in all the nasty, highly offensive cartoons that come out of the Arab media, relatively few of them show images of Jesus or Moses. Apparently priests and rabbis are okay, which is still highly offensive, but the point is they (mostly) don't draw Jesus and Moses the same way they don't draw Muhammed.

The burnings and violence aren't right at all, but I'm willing to bet that, even if they were all "nice" cartoons, there'd be at least a little protest simply b/c it was a graven image. Not at this level, but there'd be something.

Posted by: STP | February 6, 2006 8:21 PM

After so much of Hullabaloo on the cartoons, now a thouroughly secular person like is also curious to see those cartoons. It is my right to be informed of the actual content on which the muslim world is so much fired up.

Posted by: KK GUPTA | February 7, 2006 4:36 AM

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