Friday, February 20, 2009

More on That Cartoon

I'm cross-posting here a piece that I put up at the Newsarama blog (comics website, for the uninitiated). I blog over there daily, and invite you all to come play, but this one seemed relevant to the AD audience, so I'm posting it here as well:

To build off Caleb's post below, as well as something I've written about before, today, Here and Now on NPR featured cartoonists talking about Obama and race.

Wednesday’s New York Post cartoon has sparked a national conversation about the role of race in cartooning. On Monday - two days before the Post cartoon came out - three editorial cartoonists shared their views on race in cartoons in a forum at the JKF Museum. We hear a piece of their conversation and then check in with one of the cartoonists, Joel Pett, to see if his opinion has changed in the light of the Post cartoon.

The audio is available on the site, and the segment on the cartoons comes in at 29:25. Pett notes that part of the reason to interpret the cartoon in a negative light is, frankly, the reputation of Delonas, the cartoonist.
"The guy was either so insensitive as to not be able to anticipate this reaction or he anticipated it and just didn't care. Either way it's a terrible cartoon."

"There's a difference between free speech--you can draw a stupid racist cartoon and walk around the streets showing it to people. But that doesn't mean that you necessarily get a place in the profession and get paid for it. If you do that, you gotta expect to be held to some kind of standard of decency."

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post said on MSNBC (at about 3:55 of the video) that the problem might've been caught if there was better diversity in the workplace. For example, I'd be willing to bet that many of the people who defended the cartoon on Caleb's post were white. I'm not trying to beat up on anyone for being white--I'm white. But the thing is, being white, we simply don't deal with racism the same way. This is what diversity does: it provides multiple viewpoints, multiple frames of reference for the same subject. This doesn't mean controversial subjects should be avoided at all costs, but that fraught images like this one can be examined from different perspectives, and that perhaps a better critique of the stimulus package could've been produced.

Not to be too much of an academic wanker, but Judith Butler, one of my favorite theorists, wrote that “The speaker who utters the racial slur is thus citing the slur, making linguistic community with a history of speakers,” (The Judith Butler Reader, p 221). Her point is that insults draw on a vast history in order to have their power. Perhaps Sean Delonas really wasn't aware that there is a long history in this country of comparing African-Americans to apes. But the people protesting in the street with Al Sharpton (whatever you may think of Sharpton) certainly were.

The New York Post is hardly a newspaper of record, and I'm not suggesting censorship. One of the best things about free speech is it tells us a lot about the speaker, and in this case, those giving him a platform. I've defended the free speech rights of offensive political cartoonists in the past in this very blog. But you cannot cry "free speech!" and then complain that people speak out against you. As Colleen Doran noted in a panel at NYCC, it's not censorship to choose what you will and will not support.