Je suis Charlie Hebdo, et aussi Michel Brown, et aussi Darren Wilson et aussi… As Teresa Prados-Torreira recently observed in this space, the last month has seen an international slurry of reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre from outraged officials, scampering journalists, erstwhile academics, dedicated peace-keepers, and, of course, the international community of artists, cartoonists, and satirists. Prados-Torreira astutely summarizes in her 20 January post, “at first glance, it seems obvious that the answer to this dilemma should be a wholehearted affirmation of the need to stand in solidarity with the French magazine, with the murdered cartoonists, and in support of free speech. But the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, their irreverent depiction of Mohammed and Muslims, have resulted in a cascade of critical essays online and elsewhere.”
Many have since noted that, for interpreters within and beyond French culture, the magazine’s scabrous treatment of all things sacred and sanctified could be labelled either courageous or irresponsible depending upon personal preference. One thing is certain, though, Charlie Hebdo was rarely, if ever, about discretion. Even more interestingly, a new angle on the extensive media coverage of the attacks has taken shape that inquires as to why the tragic murder of several talented artists has become, either incidentally or on purpose, a larger global issue and a much more public and popular rallying point than the rampant cruelties taking place in Nigeria involving Boko Haram?
Even more interestingly, we have to admit that slander, satire, and ridicule of Arabs, Muslims, and Islam are hardly rare in America mainstream culture. Consider the skirmishes that erupted over the years surrounding Johnny Hart’s abuse of Islamic and Judaic symbols in several episodes of his comic strip, B.C., especially the “potty humor” episode that fused the sacred icons of Islam with the half-moon of an outhouse door. Is this not Charlie Hebdo territory? With the rhetorical avalanche surrounding Charlie Hebdo just beginning to settle, we might wonder if any more discussion could possibly serve to alleviate the tension, fear, and uncertainty that has seemingly spread across an outraged global public.
It’s a very fair question, but instead, I would like use the terror attacks in France, and their subsequent influence, to explore a few more local and personal concerns about the deploying of satire, the power of cartoons, and the often unexpected inaccuracies of visual wit. Since the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices, there have been several inspiring statements of solidarity and strength in support of free speech and equal opportunity insult, most notably including the great public demonstrations in Paris, throughout France, and across the world.
Can there ever be a more heartening and honest sign that humor – especially in its most relentless, hostile form – deserves our attention, respect, and scrutiny? There have also been a wide variety of high profile reactions and commentaries throughout the intellectual honeycomb of bloggers, critics, and scholars. Much has been made of Joe Sacco’s somewhat disappointing Guardian catechism “On Satire.” Important statements have also arisen from doyens of provocative comics including Art Spiegelman, Keith Knight (who produced two suitably irreverent texts from very different perspectives), and Steve Benson, among many, many others. Scholars also have contributed valuable and sometimes revelatory insight into the complex legacy of French cartooning and its contribution to both Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policies and the violent reactions that it frequently instigated. Bart Beaty and Mark McKinney have offered reasoned and informative assessments that went largely ignored in the media frenzy following the attacks. Even richer and more comprehensive studies of the violent potential of editorial cartooning have also arisen from astute historians like Paul Tumey and Jeffrey Trexler. Cartoonists, of course, have been at the vanguard of the fight for freedom of speech, recognition, and reaction. From the very moment that news of the attack broke in France, powerful responses like this one were quickly finding their way around the world’s webs.
To be or not to be Charlie, that has been the question many academics and commentators have pondered for the last two weeks. At first glance it seems obvious that the answer to this dilemma should be a wholehearted affirmation of the need to stand in solidarity with the French magazine, with the murdered cartoonists, and in support of free speech. But the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, their irreverent depiction of Mohammed and Muslims, have resulted in a cascade of critical essays online and elsewhere.
“Why would anyone want to be identified with a racist organization such as Charlie Hebdo? ” wonders a colleague. Many observers have pointed out that the provocative images of Muslims as hook-nosed, dark-complexioned, sinister people with criminal intentions echo the anti-Semitic cartoons of yesteryear, and nurture the idea that Muslims are alien undesirables.
“But why are Muslims so thin skinned when it comes to religion?” complains another colleague.
For most Christians living in the Western world religion is not the defining factor of our identity. The fact that I was raised Catholic and still feel a cultural connection to Catholicism hardly affects my everyday life: Neither my social, political or professional life are determined by my Catholic upbringing. That is definitely different in the case of European Muslims who find themselves stigmatized, distrusted and powerless in their own countries. For faithful Muslims in France, religion is not a colorful ritual, something warm and fuzzy that is to be evoked during the holidays because it brings families together. Their religious background is at the crux of who they are and how they treated.
I dare to venture a guess that most history scholars have at one time or another used a political cartoon to make a historical point, be it in class, in a publication, or even privately in discussions with laymen. In fact, walking through a history department you are bound to find a political cartoon adorning a wall or a professor’s door. Political cartoons are indeed excellent historical source material. The problem is that most of the above uses are superficial and seldom live up to the standards of source criticism historians work by. Reading a cartoon, especially a historical one, is not a “natural” process; it takes work and an understanding of not only the period in question but of visual analysis, of the artist, and of the publication.
With proper methodology cartoons can be even more valuable material for historians than their neighbors on the op-ed pages of daily papers. This stems from the cartoons wide circulation among the readers (studies have found political cartoons to be among the most read parts of the paper), from their encapsulation of salient issues of the day, but perhaps most of all from the fact that a successful cartoon captures the contemporary mentality by essentially using already accepted, or at least, widespread ideas. A few more words on this last aspect; many scholars argue that cartoons have to communicate known ideas for them to be understood and appreciated. Cartoonists tend to agree; “the idea contained in a political cartoon must not only be easily understood but even be already widely established before the cartoonist uses it”, British cartoonist Nicholas Garland explains. Essentially the cartoonist encapsulates the public awareness of an issue and then adds a recognized commentary. This is one of the reasons Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed cartoons to be “often the truest history of the times”. As communication scholar Janis L. Edwards concludes; “political cartoons historicize the present and form a collective record of the social imagination regarding events in political life”.
Considering the frequent use of individual cartoons and the potential of cartoons as source material it is striking how limited historical research of political cartoons is. In fact, Kent Worcester goes as far as comparing the existing scholarship on cartoons to that on political campaign buttons. The most frequently cited reason for this lack of scholarship is methodology. In increasingly inter-disciplinary academia this is, however, no longer an acceptable position; historians must be able to utilize the theories and methods of art history as well as of humor studies and communication studies. A more pressing concern is the limitations the existing lack of scholarship on cartoonists constitutes for any research on their work.
Thomas Nast, the cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly who “took down Boss Tweed”, is generally accepted as the Great American Cartoonist, and indeed of him there are a few historical biographies ( I review Fiona Deans Halloran’s recent Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons in the upcoming issue of Studies of American Humor). Beyond Nast, the proverbial Hall of Fame for cartoonists is populated by talents such as Joseph Keppler, Homer Davenport, Rollin Kirby, Edmund Duffy, and Ding Darling. Of these earlier cartoonists and influential members of the American press there is some, if limited, historical research; Richard Samuel West’s work on Keppler and Darling, Leland Huot’s book on Davenport, and S.L. Harrison’s research on Edmund Duffy stand out among the few.
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?
My experience using political cartoons when teaching political or cultural history has been that when I find a drawing that is apropos for college students, it garners little if any reaction from the students. It makes me wonder, how many of the students actually understand the cartoon and what the artist is suggesting in its rendering? An article in Journalism Quarterly from 1968 probably answers my question—and the answer is a resounding—NO.
According to author Leroy Carl, only 15% of Americans understand the artist’s intended message, and another 15% of Americans partially understand the artist’s message. That leaves 70% of Americans in the dark. What that means is in a classroom the teacher is enlightening 15% of his/her students, confusing 15%, and frustrating 70% unless there is a way of teaching students how to better understand political cartoons.
Teaching how to better understand editorial cartoons presumes that the understanding of cartoons is not inherent (kind of like learning perfect pitch—you either have it or you don’t). If it is not inherent, how does one go about teaching it? On-line resources on how to teach political cartoons are pitching someone’s teaching resources more than explaining a process– except for an article by Jonathan Burack, a former history instructor and editor of Newscurrents. The problem with Burack’s system, found at http://teachinghistory.org/teaching-materials/teaching-guides/21733, is that it assumes students know too much.
The first things that students must identify is from the journalistic dictum of who, what, where, and when. After all, cartoons are journalistic opinions. After that, one can either use Burack’s system of analyzing “symbol and metaphor,” visual distortion, “irony in words and images,” “and stereotype and caricature,” but how many college frosh can pick out an irony—in anything? I suggest that there are two more steps: Many cartoons either make comparisons or exaggerate (or understate) a concept, or both. Ask students to identify the humorous effect that the artist is using—even if the cartoon is not humorous. Eventually, students should get to the “why” in the cartoon. Why is this important? What is the artist’s intended message? Finally, discuss whether the cartoon is fair to the subject.
Consider the following cartoon by Jeff Danziger and dated on January 19, 2014:
Who: Wall Street Bankers and investors
What: New York Stock Exchange and the movie Wolves of Wall Street. Note the sign: “Warning: Members New York Stock Exchange.” The pig denies that any of the brokers in the office are wolves.
Where: A broker’s office (note that it is the home turf of the brokers).
When: 2014 (when using historical cartoons that may be more difficult to ascertain, and some contemporary cartoons are actually set at some time in the past for reasons of comparison).
Comparisons: The movie title compares stock brokers to wolves, a carnivorous predator. The cartoonist compares stock brokers to vultures, those who prey on carrion; tigers, another carnivorous predator; snakes, known for their “cold-blooded killing,” and their trickery as depicted in Genesis in the Bible; and pigs, stereotyped as sloppy-eaters that consume whatever they can get their mouths on.
Intended message: The artist suggests that labeling Wall Street brokers and bankers as wolves is an understatement. They also have the characteristics of vultures, tigers, snakes, and pigs.
At this point, much of Burack’s discussion can be incorporated: The man is trapped by the body of the snake. What the pig says is ironic in that he denies his and his partners’ “wolfishness.” Discuss “anthropomorphism.” Would this cartoon be as effective if a human were talking and the animals were described as his/her partners? Do most signs identifying an entity as a member of the New York Stock Exchange carry a warning?
Finally, from Burack’s lesson, is this a fair statement about bankers and brokers? Why or why not?
The question is whether understanding political cartoons and the depictions therein is actually teachable? If it is, is it a necessary skill? If not, what do teachers do with the wealth of political cartoons that are in history books? I am going to try teaching American History using political cartoons, and I would like my lessons to be effective. Therefore, I welcome helpful comments from readers of this blog.
By Larry Bush
On the NPR radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” they discussed the origin of the folk rhyme, “Georgie Porgie.” Since WWDTM is a humorous news wrap-up, they gave the origin of the rhyme the most licentious interpretation they could find. Their conclusion about the rhyme is that it is about the sexual relationship between George Villiers and King Charles I. Although this interpretation is reinforced by some researchers and disputed by others, there is a strong likelihood that the subject of the rhyme is George Villiers and that it originated in the late 16th or early 17th centuries In England. The verse has appeal to children because the subject is named with a forced rhyme in the same manner as the term “heebie jeebies” has an appeal because of the forced rhyme. But, if there were a 21st century U. S. president who was a closeted gay man, would that person be subject to ridicule or are we beyond that? I think any ridicule in the 21st century would be directed at those who criticize a gay person’s sexual orientation.
A similar occurrence is in U. S. history. In 1802, James T. Callender revealed to the world that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children. Callender made jokes about the little slaves at Monticello that looked like miniature versions of the President. That joke and similar stories went viral, or as viral as could be in the early 19th century. While Jefferson denied the relationship and Hemings was mute on the issue, DNA testing has shown that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Hemings’s children. Again, jokes about inter-racial relationships have gone on the wane over the last few decades, but jokes about unequal relationships have not. Should Jefferson have taken the heat because Hemings was younger and black or because he, literally, owned her? Jefferson was a widower when he was alleged to have had the relationship with Hemings, but it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person in Virginia in the early 1800s. If they had wanted to pursue their relationship on more equal grounds, they could not have legally done that.
This month, another sensitive situation has turned into fodder for humorists. Liz Cheney is running for the Senate in Wyoming, and one of the planks in her platform is her steadfast opposition to same-sex marriage. Well, it would be steadfast if she had not attended the same-sex wedding of her sister Mary and wished them well. Since Liz has dissed same-sex marriage, Mary Cheney has gone on a campaign of her own—to point out the hypocrisy of her sister’s campaign. It has caused some very public tension. The fact of Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation also haunted her father, Dick Cheney, while he was Vice President, but the Veep was able to change the subject merely by shooting his hunting partner in the face. Actually, like Jefferson, Dick Cheney refuses to talk about family, and to this point, he has refused to say much about the controversy in his daughter’s electoral campaign, but that has not stopped the humorists. Apparently this is fair game. I have seen no editorials chastising humorists about their treatment of the Cheney feud. Perhaps, if it were happening in a less prominent family, it would seem more tragic, but the former second family is going to take it from the outside as they slam one another on the inside.
Following are two of my favorite Cheney sisters political cartoons:
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.
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…