Publicity hounds go ape over cartoonFrankly, I was afraid something like this might happen. Attorney General Eric Holder thinks we’re “a nation of cowards” if we don’t want to sit
By: Gene Lyons, The Dickinson Press
Frankly, I was afraid something like this might happen. Attorney General Eric Holder thinks we’re “a nation of cowards” if we don’t want to sit around talking about race all day. In a speech marking Black History Month, Holder told Justice Department employees, “If we’re going to ever make progress, we’re going to have to have the guts; we have to have the determination, to be honest with each other. It also means we have to be able to accept criticism where that is justified.”
Very well then: To be perfectly honest, I think President Obama’s election and Holder’s own confirmation as the nation’s first African-American Attorney General indicate great progress. So how about we give racism a rest for a while? Personally, I’d rather hear Holder’s plans for restoring the rule of law after the Bush administration’s ransacking of the U.S. Constitution than for interracial group therapy. Most people got their fill of that during the 2008 campaign.
Immediately after Holder’s challenge, a dispute arose over a witless editorial cartoon in the New York Post perfectly illustrating why they did. The cartoon depicts two cops standing over a dead chimp with two bullet holes in its chest. It’s an obvious reference to a pet chimp that went on a rampage in Connecticut and had to be shot. (They’re a terrible idea, pet chimps: five times stronger than a human and almost as mean.) Anyway, one cop goes, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”
Get it? The stimulus is so dumb, a monkey wrote it. Ha ha ha!
On cue, the Rev. Al Sharpton pitched a hissy fit. To him, the cartoon was a crude racial affront, depicting President Obama as an ape and justifying his assassination. To Sharpton, the African-American answer to Pat Robertson, it was a CNN gig waiting to happen. Which is not necessarily to imply insincerity, merely the customary close fit between conscience and ambition.
Several New York politicians, including Gov. David A. Patterson, also African-American, got in on the act. The governor called for the Post, a cheeky right-wing tabloid, to explain its intentions. Others called it “disturbing,” “reprehensible” and worse. Rival newspapers had no difficulty rounding up professors to denounce the cartoon as “outrageous,” undeniably racist, and to lament the newspaper’s “nasty, mean, very aggressive tone.”
The New York Post rude? Say it ain’t so. Meanwhile, the newspaper’s editors, who’ve had mutually contemptuous exchanges with Sharpton in the past, described the cartoon as a “parody” that “broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist.”
Cartoonist Sean Delonas told CNN he found the controversy “absolutely friggin’ ridiculous. Do you really think I’m saying Obama should be shot? ... It’s about the economic stimulus bill. If you’re going to make that about anybody, it would be (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi, which it’s not.”
Given the Post’s substantial minority readership, it was probably wise of News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch to apologize for his newspaper’s “mistake.” He, too, disclaimed racist intent, but nevertheless wanted to “personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted.”
There the matter will likely rest. Should Post editors have rejected the cartoon? Definitely, but more for its sheer plodding witlessness than offensiveness. It’s amazing how many on what’s left of the Republican right these days appear to confuse an insult with an argument.
That said, I remain unpersuaded that these rituals of fake outrage accomplish anything useful. Although politicians have been caricatured as virtually every creature in the bestiary since the time of Aesop (620-560 B.C.), there’s no reason to believe the Post cartoon represented Obama. Of all the taunts and accusations aimed at him, nobody thinks he’s stupid. Even his strongest detractors concede Obama’s intellectual brilliance.
Meanwhile, only partly due to his close-set eyes, George W. Bush was routinely caricatured as a chimpanzee throughout his presidency. Where was Sharpton then? Probably e-mailing photos of a puzzled-looking Bush juxtaposed with images of bewildered apes to his friends along with everybody else who leaned Democratic.
And, yes, blacks were often compared to monkeys in 19th and early-20th century America — particularly after Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” So were the Irish, the Chinese and, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln. It’s also true that hurtful stereotypes of Irish- and Asian-Americans have greatly changed over time, while racist images of African-Americans haven’t evolved quite so far.
Even so, it’s better to keep things in proportion. The temptation to sanctify some person, group or institution, placing them above satire and beyond criticism, is best resisted. It doesn’t show strength or maturity; it reveals lack of self-confidence and hidden doubts. The day Obama needs a committee of theatrically outraged publicity hounds to rescue his public image ...
Well, that’ll be the day.
— Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”