One of the primary concerns of those who have fallen victim to the satire of political cartoonists is that there is no way to refute the allegations that the artist has suggested in the cartoon. It is why newspapers receive angry letters and cartoonists receive threats. That is also why riots erupted in the Middle East over the Danish Mohammad Cartoons which were published in September 2005 (the riots happened in 2006, so there were other dynamics at work as well). Cartoonist Steve Bell put it this way, “There is no comeback. It confirms me in my belief that since most of us lack the capacity to answer a cartoon with a counter-cartoon, the cartoon target’s frustration and sense of impotence may be what leads to implosion.” That is true most of the time. However, the unfocused cartoon is not impregnable by prosaic argument.
If a cartoonist cannot come up with an idea to specifically criticize or goes on a long weekend and must fulfill an obligation to his/her editors/syndicates, it is very likely that the resulting image will be so generalized that it can be plugged into any situation and impress only those who are staunchly opposed to the object of the criticism. Take the following recent cartoon by Bob Gorrell for example:
By Bob Gorrell – October 17, 2014
The “O” in “incompetence” is drawn like the symbol of the Barack Obama campaign. So, does the artist suggest that everything Obama does is incompetent? Does that extend to his golf game and basketball skills? Has he proved himself incompetent in all of his administrative duties? How far back does the artist suggest that his incompetence extends? Does it extend to the Benghazi incident? Does it extend to his ordering of the assassination of Osama bin Laden?
Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others). Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity. Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.
I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue. What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.
I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.
I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by Norton & Company. When my grandfather gave me the book it was still new scholarship, and I was no scholar, but the text fascinated me. Densely illustrated, the Potter edition uses marginalia to communicate the context of both the novel and Hearn’s Introduction like an analogue prototype for the internet. I was a babe in the woods, looking through the first book I ever owned that did not involve talking animals or a young sleuth by the name of Encyclopedia Brown. I was proud that someone thought me ready for such an impressive text, but make no mistake, the pictures helped. As a child I was not a strong reader, but I was wildly artistic. And the first page I opened had a caricature of two men, in nightgowns, with nineteenth-century facial hair, collecting clocks.
I don’t think I can reproduce it here for legal purposes, but Roman numeral lvi (56) of the Norton edition will show you the two figures identified as the authors George W. Cable and Mark Twain, drawn by Thomas Nast, on Thanksgiving, 1884.
There was no other description behind the cause of their act, collecting clocks at five before midnight, besides: “The two spent Thanksgiving at Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, New Jersey.” I cannot fault Hearn’s lack of insight, because it sparked the first real academic inquiry in my young mind: What the hell is going on?
I can tell you that later I learned:
On Thanksgiving Eve the readers were in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were entertained by Thomas Nast. The cartoonist prepared a quiet supper for them and they remained overnight in the Nast home. They were to leave next morning by an early train, and Mrs. Nast had agreed to see that they were up in due season. When she woke next morning there seemed a strange silence in the house and she grew suspicious. Going to the servants’ room, she found them sleeping soundly. The alarm-clock in the back hall had stopped at about the hour the guests retired. The studio clock was also found stopped; in fact, every timepiece on the premises had retired from business. Clemens had found that the clocks interfered with his getting to sleep, and he had quieted them regardless of early trains and reading engagements. On being accused of duplicity he said: “Well, those clocks were all overworked, anyway. They will feel much better for a night’s rest.” A few days later Nast sent him a caricature drawing—a picture which showed Mark Twain getting rid of the offending clocks. (Mark Twain, a Biography, vol. II, part 1, 188)
But all this postdates my first academic thought. Before I knew Huck, Jim, the Mississippi River, or the author who sent them down it. I saw a picture and knew the name of the man who drew it. Thomas Nast. I remember I wanted to know more, and now I can share some of it with you, in context.
Most of the time, politics is a serious business. People tend to take the government fairly seriously–our laws, our government, our rights. True, traditionally Congress has been an object of fun, and politicians–from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin–have been the butt of jokes. But the importance of political humor–from parody to cartoons to satire–might best be seen as a reflection of how seriously people take politics.
In this highly political year, I have been very interested in questions of how political humor functions in American society. Recently, I discussed the satire of the RNC and DNC conventions on the Daily Show. Similarly, Self Deprecate’s contributions to our site and his site have tackled the current state of political humor.
One political issue that I have been increasingly concerned with this year is distinctly not funny: voter suppression. While proponents of voter ID and other voting laws argue that voter fraud is a real issue (apart from their clownish attempts to prove voter fraud by committing voter fraud), critics of these laws have argued that they are better explained as politically motivated efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, the poor, and the elderly. As John Dean argued in a blog post entitled, “The Republican’s Shameless War on Voting“:
There is absolutely no question that Republicans are trying to suppress non-whites from voting, throughout the Southern states, in an effort that has been accelerating since 2010. It is not difficult to catalogue this abusive Republican mission, which unfortunately has spread, in a few instances, to states above the Mason-Dixon Line as well.
Other stories back up this argument:
Recent developments in voter laws in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states also testify to the seriousness of this issue. Those with any historical sense hear echoes of past efforts to restrict suffrage for political gain and based on cultural prejudice. Serious stuff.
Where does the humor come in?
Let’s start with Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strip from July 23 of this year:
And from the next day:
But that wasn’t all…
Check out Self Deprecate Political Humor for more political cartoons!
Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin-R, who is now trailing 9 points in his race for a Senate seat, has had one hell of a time, lately. No one told him that you can’t spout nonsense data, not supported by science, as justification for the legal oppression of women in this country. Todd Akin, from the same party that brought us the 2012 Republican War on Women, is even getting dirty looks from within his own ranks. Not because of what he said, but because people are upset that he said it. Go figure.
As strategists on both the left and the right celebrate the inclusion of Paul Ryan on the 2012 GOP ticket for what seem like a lot of the same reasons, I suppose that we can also add humorists and cartoonists the list of beneficiaries of this nomination. So for the moment at least, everybody is winning.
Many of this first round of editorial cartoons also emphasize the marquee name of Ryan, whose ideological convictions and actual specificity when it comes to stuff (like, you know, budgets) threaten to eclipse whatever it is that Romney was predicted to one day have had from the beginning. It’s not surprising, then, that many cartoons adopt pretty a reasonable approximation of Ryan’s star status, as though betraying a certain ironic accuracy in Romney’s own recent gaffe that, when introducing Ryan at a rally, the attendees were meeting “the next president of the United States.”
One of the more curious trends among Romney/Ryan cartoons, however, is that of violence, in the sense that Ryan’s proposed budget is set to (or threatens to, or is thought to) significantly curtail federal spending, which forces us to consider the vocabulary with which we address financial reform — “slashing the budget,” for example, or “trimming the fat,” or the seemingly benign, “budget cuts,” which nevertheless implies a sense of slicing, incision. When, however, cartoons begin to give a visible body to what in language has become almost innocuous or unremarkable, the results can be a little literally gruesome, as we see in this telling cartoon by Dale Cagle:
Although Cagle’s may be the most extreme example, there is a certain stab-happiness and almost Shining-grade blade-eerieness to the way in which sharp implements signify Ryan’s fiscal conservatism.
Born in 1843, died in 1916. Henry James remains one of the most studied figures in American literature, possibly the most studied, according to a recent story on the amount of scholarship on American authors. But relatively little scholarship seems to discuss James’s relationship to humor. I am not a Henry James scholar, so I will not hazard to say much about the subject, except to state that I believe it is an important subject that I would like to hear more on. Are there books, articles, or other resources that people can recommend on the subject?
Of course, there is the famous passage from James’s Hawthorne, from the “English Men of Letters” series by MacMillan from 1879, in which James discusses Hawthorne’s American diaries. America, James wrote, held no romance for the author. As Hawthorne had stated, “No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.” James wrote:
The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! Some such list as that might be drawn up of the absent things in American life—especially in the American life of forty years ago, the effect of which, upon an English or a French imagination, would probably as a general thing be appalling. The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains—that is his secret, his joke, as one may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his national gift, that “American humour” of which of late years we have heard so much. (44)
Continue below for Constance Rourke’s view of James…