Thursday, February 26, 2009

See no race, hear no race, speak no race?

The more I try to wrap my thinking around this whole deal with the New York Post and its controversial cartoon, the more I go 'round and 'round till my head wants to explode. My first reaction, I suspect, was not unlike yours: Oh COME ON, that's as clear-cut a case of racism as I've ever seen! Shame on you, Rupert Murdoch. I mean, a chimp? (Murdoch has now apologized on behalf of his paper, his editors, and his beleaguered artist. Al Sharpton is not satisfied.)

But then I started thinking about it, an enterprise fueled this morning by an article in my local paper about the artist
, Sean DeLonas; turns out he lives just up the road from me in Bethlehem, graduated in 1984 from a college at which I once taught, and also, for the record, writes children's books. Anyway, the official stance of the Post and DeLonas (though he declined to be interviewed for this morning's piece) is that the cartoon was meant to lampoon the berserko* nature of the $787 billion stimulus package, which the Post had already denounced as reckless and probably ineffective. When that chimp went nuts in Connecticut, the event presented the artist with a perfect opportunity to say, more or less, "The stimulus bill is the kind of legislation that only a whacked-out chimp would've written, right before tearing off some lady's face."

If you buy that explanation
and I have to admit, I'm still skeptical in some knee-jerk way—then DeLonas would have drawn the same cartoon even if the president signing the legislation were George W. Bush, and even if the animal who'd gone nuts was, say, a pit bull or a llama or some other creature with less racially charged overtones. By the way, the cartoon shown here, an evocation of the familiar "see no evil" theme, was the impetus for allegations of racism in the U.K., after it was used to depict the supposed ignorance of union leaders, some of whom happened to be black.

So, today's question: Doesn't the fact that somebody could draw a cartoon like that
and a group of editors at a paper with its fair share of black employees could approve it for publicationindicate exactly the kind of post-racialism we're supposed to be celebrating in the aftermath of Obama's election? Which is to say, Is the cartoon inherently racist? Or are we the racists for reacting to it as we do? You'll note that such questions form the substance of my latest poll question, top right.

But maybe we'll give the last word to another cartoonist, Darrin Bell, creator of the comic strip Candorville: "Monkey metaphors aren't new to editorial cartoons, but context is everything.... Leave the monkeys out of your arsenal when you're commenting on a black person's administration if you don't want the inevitable perception that you're a bigot to obscure what you were really trying to say."

* from a Murdochian point of view.

36 comments:

sassy sasha said...

steve, you said it yourself, come on! if that's not racist or at least the stupidest and most insensitive cartoon i've ever seen i don't know what is! and the fact that he gets shot to death no less!!! didn't we just come out of an election where all they worried about was if obama might get assaninated like mlk?

you could argue about freedom of speech and all but when you come down to it there's no reason for it, there are a zillion other ways he could've said what he wanted to say without "going there"

Dimension Skipper said...

My first reaction, I suspect, was not unlike yours: Oh COME ON, that's as clear-cut a case of racism as I've ever seen!
______________

Actually, MY first reaction was: Oh come on, that's NOT racism! Sometimes can’t a chimp just be a chimp, especially when there’s a shocking story currently in the news regarding a chimp having run amok? It honestly just did not occur to me to equate the chimp to Obama, but maybe I'm just not that bright. (BTW, I voted NO in the poll even BEFORE realizing that you had a separate post dealing in more detail with the topic, Steve.)

I knew of the chimp incident and immediately made the connection. I can understand how some people can make a case for it being some form of racism, but personally I just didn't go there.

There's also the admittedly very thin potential association to the old saw about an infinite number of monkeys eventually typing out the works of Shakespeare. (I say “thin” because obviously only one chimp was drawn, not an infinite number. And I prefer not to get hung up on technicalities over the term monkey vs. primate.)

I made both of those "logical" leaps before assuming racism. Of course, I only heard about it (though I didn't pay much attention) as the controversy became more widely discussed. But even then I pretty much just ignored it. Some people will find it racist. Others will not. Maybe everyone involved never gave the racism angle a thought because it truly didn’t occur to them. Or maybe it was ambiguous enough to provide plausible deniability and they decided to run it knowing that there would be a massive controversy and resulting publicity. I have no idea.
______________

There was massive discussion of the cartoon on Peter David’s blog (he’s a popular novelist and comic book writer in the SF/fantasy genre), but honestly I didn’t follow it beyond his initial blog post, Al Sharpton is my guide (Feb 19). No doubt there is also relevant discussion in a subsequent post (Feb 24) of his also dealing with race relations, Soooo... electing Barack Obama was an act of cowardice? (Again, I only read the initial post, but there appears to be likewise massive discussion among the commenters. I assume it's the typical sort of back and forth arguments.)

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, DS--as always, a "river-type" comment, which is to say, with many valuable tributaries that lead off in interesting directions.

roger o'keefe said...

I disagree completely with Sasha and agree totally with Dimension. One of the things that kills me about the whole Obama phenomenon is that ever since he kicked off this mood of so-called post racialism, nobody can say anything that even touches on anyone's racial sensitivities anymore. Now *everything* is racism! I actually think it's even worse than before.

Dimension Skipper said...

I'd just like to add too that I made no assumption as to whether the cartoonist himself (or any of his editors) is white, black, or any other color/ethnicity. (I still have no idea, but I guess I have to assume from all the hubbub that he's white.)

If he was black, would that make a difference in perception? Would there still be a controversy? I suspect yes, but probably to a lesser degree.
_____________

Especially for Eliz, from that gawker site Steve links to comes another piece on The Art of the Non-Apology.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't there a cartoon of Bush as a Monkey?

If so it is racist to accept a monkey Bush cartoon but cry over an Obama monekey cartoon.

Thats the way I see it at least?

Londoner

RevRon's Rants said...

One can find racism pretty much anywhere, if they're inclined to do so. While I feel pretty neutral about the alleged racism in the cartoon, I have to be honest and say that, were I the cartoonist, I'd have drawn it the same way, just to p*ss in Sharpton's corn flakes. As long as that clown - along with Jesse and Quanell - continues to posture and pose, racism will continue to be alive and well.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, IMO, our reactions to the cartoon are not racist, whatever they are. And the cartoon may or may not be intended as racist, even if its creators may not be fully conscious of that (or any) intent, but it was in extremely poor taste -- on so many levels, showing if not outward hostility to its explicit subjects (the poor chimp, animals in general, the mauled victim whose horror was indirectly trivialized, etc., and yes, cops too) and the implied ones (Obama, his reform efforts, etc.), then a total tone-deafness.

DimSkip, The Art... is hilarious and right on target. You've made my day! Thanks!

Dimension Skipper said...

Just a few "final" thoughts...

I still can't find any definitive picture of Mr. Delonas to tell me once and for all if he's white, black, whatever. Again, I figure he must be white (because I think I would have heard by now if he isn't), but otoh I don't KNOW that so I still don't like to assume it.

If he's been shown (or appearing in person) on news programs, well, as I said I've paid no attention to this story beyond being simply and generally aware of it.

I'm not familiar with Mr. Delonas' body of work. From what I can tell from my Googling he may have something of a reputation for ticking off people and groups of people. But I'm not sure if that means anything. Discussion of him is no doubt rampant of late and anyone who's ever been offended by one of his cartoons may be coming out of the woodwork. Or people could even be going back through his work and retroactively finding objectionable content.

I've seen an occasional reference to the cartoon in question characterizing it as being "not even funny." Well, it's an editorial cartoon and quite often any humor is secondary to the point being made. If people think it's racist, OK, but whether or not it's funny would not seem to me to be a relevant point. That just seems like people looking for ways to "pile on."

Editorial cartoons often will provoke some sort of negative reaction simply by virtue of being about topical and/or controversial things over which people take sides. I'm sure many folks would say that if an editorial cartoonist is not ticking somebody off, then he's probably not doing his job right. I guess I'm saying that controversy may be a subtle (or even explicit) part of the job description, or at least encouraged to some extent. I've known people who will say things just "get a reaction." Isn't that sort of what an editorial cartoonist does? At least some of them at certain times?

Steve Salerno said...

DS: He's white. Sorry, I should've mentioned that. I guess.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I'm "the black guy" who shows up now and then when you go into these topics. I'll say again here like I've said before, you can't comment on this from your white person's frame of reference without taking into account how we blacks have had to put up with racism and ugly stereotyping over the centuries. For anyone to look at a cartoon that depicts a chimp being shot dead and BY COPS no less (just think about the African-American experience with the police), and when that chimp is clearly being used as a symbol for the president who happens to be the FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN PRESIDENT, and for you to sit there and say "No, that's not racist, that's just a cartoon and fair comment", all I can say is what you said at the beginning of your column. COME ON, MAN. Wake up and smell the bigotry. I have to laugh at the fact that this is the New York Post, and I can only imagine what would happen if they ran a similar cartoon except maybe it poked fun at some Jewish politician by showing somebody at a concentration camp with a giant nose being barbecued. And you know what would happen first of all is that that cartoon WOULD NEVER SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY. Somebody with some sense would step forward and say "Hold on now, we can't run this, we'll have every Jew in New York picketing, every one of us will lose our jobs".

Where are your heads, people? Can you be that far inside your white perspectives that you can't even see how this would look to us?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 2:10: I'm not going to presume to speak for our various visitors and contributors, but it is erroneous for you to characterize yourself as "the black guy," as if you're the lone black voice we have on SHAMblog (which presumably, from your POV, is dedicated to "white thought"). I actually don't spend much time thinking about demographics--and if you've been reading the blog for as long as you imply, then you know I'm not a fan of race-based divisions anyway, especially when we're dealing in the realm of thought and opinion.

Beyond that, I'll leave any discussion of the specifics of what you say to others who may wish to weigh in.

Elizabeth said...

I have to laugh at the fact that this is the New York Post, and I can only imagine what would happen if they ran a similar cartoon except maybe it poked fun at some Jewish politician by showing somebody at a concentration camp with a giant nose being barbecued. And you know what would happen first of all is that that cartoon WOULD NEVER SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY. Somebody with some sense would step forward and say "Hold on now, we can't run this, we'll have every Jew in New York picketing, every one of us will lose our jobs".

This is a very good point, Anon, and one that also goes back to the ending quote Steve provided at his post -- that context is the key.

Dimension Skipper said...

Anon 2:10 said... I have to laugh at the fact that this is the New York Post, and I can only imagine what would happen if they ran a similar cartoon except maybe it poked fun at some Jewish politician by showing somebody at a concentration camp with a giant nose being barbecued. And you know what would happen first of all is that that cartoon WOULD NEVER SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY. Somebody with some sense would step forward and say "Hold on now, we can't run this, we'll have every Jew in New York picketing, every one of us will lose our jobs".
_____________

Maybe. Maybe not. But as you say, you can only imagine that scenario. Imagining it does not make it so. Citing hypothetical cases hardly bolsters your argument and may very well weaken it. Personally, it always bothers me somewhat when anyone—black or white or in non-racial contexts—does that sort of thing.

Making up scenarios of what someone MIGHT do under OTHER circumstances is irrelevant to me. If there IS an actual instance such as you suggest, then I'd be very interested to hear of it, but with some sort of evidence to support it, not mere conjecture. (Plus I don't necessarily just accept that your proposed hypothetical scenario is absolutely analogous—though I get your general drift—but that's a whole other kettle of worms I'd rather not get into.)

Given your scenario you may well be right, but you may imo just as easily be wrong too. You simply can't KNOW you're right. Alright, maybe you can, but at any rate I can't know you're right. It's similar to when someone says "the fact of the matter is..." and then proceeds to spout only their opinion couched as "fact." Saying something with an authoritative not-to-be-contradicted tone does not automatically bestow "factness."
_____________

On a fairly common tangential point to many race discussions...

I stop short of saying the only people who see racism in such things as this cartoon are those who go looking for it in the first place. That to me implies conscious intent and an agenda. No doubt that's the case in some (Sharpton? I would say yes), if not many, instances.

However, I also think that many who see racism are those who, simply through personal experience and circumstances, have become particularly sensitive to the subject (justifiably or not) and that's just how their minds may be wired at this point. If the association has already been firmly set in someone's mind that monkey depictions are often derogatory "code" for black putdowns, then that's hard to break free of. (And admittedly in some cases it shouldn't be broken free of if the perception is obviously and beyond all reasonable doubt not inaccurate.)

It's all in the perception of the reader, and as such that's why I don't think the cartoon itself is inherently racist. But I can understand (I think) both perspectives and the gray area between them that has developed in society in general.
_____________

Londoner: I too seem to recall at least one editorial cartoon (somewhere, sometime) depicting W. as a monkey / ape / whatever and I considered whether or not to mention it in one of my prior comments. But I don't remember anything beyond the Bush / monkey image. It may have been something on the Intelligent Design / Evolution debate. If so (or anything similar) the portrayal is probably not analogous.

Also, I figured it could be dismissed as simply lacking the same social context, similar to how some people feel they can make disparaging remarks about family members or members of their own race, but no one else should be able to do so. Even given the same exact cartoon, but with Bush still in the White House as the implied subject, it lacks the same context simply by virtue of Bush being white. There IS a difference, even if in an ideal world there shouldn't be.

It's the "us vs. them" mentality. Within the group defined as "us" we can say and do almost anything without reproach, but if one of "them" says or does the same thing, well, how dare they!

I must admit it's all very confusing in any context.
_________

HILARIOUS (and maybe it shouldn't be?...): My wv is "hitskin"!!!

Anonymous said...

To the "black man," I am a black man as well, and you don't speak officially on behalf of all black men or women any more than Steve or any of the white people on this blog speak for all white people. I agree with Steve: it's asking for trouble when you start thinking too much in racial terms, and we'd be better off without that kind of thinking in almost all cases today. This isn't Selma 1964.

We have many issues to face in this country. Why not just face them as people, as united as possible.

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. I'd still be very curious to know if there wasn't at least one or two black people on the NY Post editorial board or staff who saw that cartoon ahead of publication and okayed it or at least raised no objection. Especially if they honestly (although really, how can we tell?) didn't see any potential race controversy a'brewin'.

Does anyone have any indication of that being the case? Yes, I'm honestly asking because I'm curious and I think it also has some bearing on the issue.

Again, I redundantly reiterate that—other than Googling it some today—I have not really paid any attention to this controversy. I figure many of you out there probably know much more than I do about it and may have the answer to my question handy.

Jen said...

Yes, "context is everything" is definitely the last word here. A column came out in the Dallas Morning News that will probably interest you, Steve. It is actually a dialogue between two columnists. This has been an ongoing thing lately.

http://tinyurl.com/talkingrace

Elizabeth said...

I remember seeing some years ago a debatably offensive Jewish cartoon in, if I'm not mistaken, Newsweek(?). There was a massive uproar in response, along with calls for boycotting and firing the offenders. I've tried to look it up, but had no luck. However, I found a site devoted(?) to offensive Jewish cartoons and when I clicked on the link, I got this response:

"ACCESS DENIED!

Internet access to the requested website has been denied based on IT- Risk and Security Internet Usage Policy.

IP: 165.68.125.98
Category:
Hate & Discrimination
Blocked URL:
http://www.honestmediatoday.com/Jewish_cartoons.htm

For further options, click here.
To submit this blocked site for review, click here. For assistance, contact your Administrator."

A quick but certainly not exhaustive search on "offensive black cartoons" and "offensive women cartoons" has not led to a similar response. Hm.

Jen said...

Ron ranted that "were I the cartoonist, I'd have drawn it the same way, just to p*ss in Sharpton's corn flakes."

I just sent a link to a column where one of the writers says, "I guess my basic feeling is that I wish Al Sharpton and other black folks had just left this alone."

Of course, this raises hackles and for good reason. But the point he was making, I think, is pretty much the same one you made when you say, "As long as that clown - along with Jesse and Quanell - continues to posture and pose, racism will continue to be alive and well."

Yes, someone needed to say something, but because it was that particular someone, and because of the perception you mention here (which apparently is shared by a number of people), the messenger got shot (again) and (borrowing from the quote by Darrin Bell) what he was really trying to say got obscured.

Anonymous said...

I'm a firm believer that Travis the Chimp was the subject of the cartoon, and not President Obama.

The long and glorious tradition of portraying powerful figures as chimps has nothing to do with race; rather it's a comment on their decisions being of sub-human intelligence.
Exibit A:
http://www.bushorchimp.com/
Exhibit B:
http://www.thehollywoodliberal.com/bush_cheney_rumsfeld_chimps.jpg

This one is funny:
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_NUZ_fM-TQKQ/RqELjNo-UXI/AAAAAAAACU8/44_P6lFCbrE/s400/zapiro+bush+cartoon.jpg

http://bamapachyderm.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/jchamas_440.jpg

And finally: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2008/11/16/charles460x276.jpg

I think this whole ginned-up outrage deal is designed to throw AM talk radio off the scent - to distract Rush et. al. from harping on the socialistic budget the democrats are running through. And it's working pretty well. There is no mainstream media criticism of the tripled budget deficit. The criticism of Obama's explosion of social and entitlement spending plans during the deep recession has been niggardly, at best.

Steven Sashen said...

Here's a twist:

What if the cartoonist were black?

How would that affect the discussion?

As a former comic, it used to amaze/disappoint me when I'd hear a white comic make a joke about black people and get booed, and then hear a black comic do THE SAME JOKE and get huge laughs.

In fact, I just remembered a number of jokes I gave to some black comic friends because I knew the audience wouldn't be okay with me saying them.

Silly humans.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Anon 6:31. A comment like that--agree or disagree--deserves all due consideration in this debate. Though I strongly suspect I know who you are, I wish you would have posted by name.

In fact, I wish many (if not all) of our anonymi would post by name. It isn't really that hard to create and use an ongoing pseudonym, you know.

Steve Salerno said...

Sashen: Yep. And to that same point, I'm quite sure the late, great Richard Pryor would roll over in his grave, breaking his eternal crack pipe into tiny pieces, if he saw the way stations like A&E or even The Comedy Channel (!) sanitize the classic film he co-wrote, Blazing Saddles.

Steve Salerno said...

DS: To address the question you asked way above, I do know a couple of people at the Post, in the opinion section, no less, but I think I'd be hard-pressed to get them to wade very far into the controversy at this point; things are way too inflammatory, and there could still be jobs at stake. In fact, I wouldn't even ask. Maybe somewhere down the road, but not now.

Anonymous said...

"DeLonas would have drawn the same cartoon even if the president signing the legislation were George W. Bush, and even if the animal who'd gone nuts was, say, a pit bull or a llama or some other creature with less racially charged overtones. "

Steve, the problem is that it wasn't a pit bull or a llama. It was an animal that was used to depict African Americans for hundreds of years; an animal that was hawked by a few McCain/Palin supporters during their rallies to depict the President; an animal that Bill Shockley while still getting accolades for his transistor work, deemed so closely related to African Americans that the possibility of higher eductation should not even be tolerated.

No, if it were a Pit Bull or a Llama, this wouldn't be an issue, the problem is, IT WAS NOT!

John Mortimer.

Anonymous said...

"Here's a twist:

What if the cartoonist were black?
"

Steve, if the artist was black, there wouldn't have been a cartoon depicting this - PERIOD!

Steve Salerno said...

John: You had me "on a roll there" until we got to Shockley, who I've written about at some length, and who was basically demonized and shunned by his own peers in research for the sin of wondering whether all men are not, in fact, created equal, and whether blacks could be scientifically proven to be intellectually inferior to whites, as a class. If one subscribes to the concept of race, then that is a valid area of scientific inquiry, just as it is valid to try to determine whether Asians are more intelligent than whites, or whether blacks are more innately prone to violence than Asians, or whether dogs are more inherently loyal to their masters than men are to their wives. Science should never be constrained by political correctness or social goals, in my view.

RevRon's Rants said...

I don't think Sharpton gives one whit about improving race relations. On the contrary, he has done a lot to *prevent* our society from moving beyond racism. His schtick is divisive self-promotion, period.

Remember some years back, when a young black woman said a group of white guys gang-raped her? Sharpton was huffing and puffing in front of every camera he could find. Yet when the young woman admitted that she had made the whole thing up, do you think Al had anything to say about it, perhaps even expressing regret for having vilified the falsely accused men? Heck no... he just grabbed his soap box and moved on to his next photo op.

I can't see how anyone who isn't just looking for an "issue" would get so fired up about the stupid cartoon. Implying that the chimp represented President Obama seems to me like a pretty racist stretch itself, looking for meaning where none existed.

Steve Salerno said...

Rev: Tawana Brawley, may she live in infamy. (And, of course, she resurfaced in slightly different form in the Duke lacrosse case.)

NormDPlume said...

OK, Steve. I'll no longer be one of the spineless Anonymous posters.

I've got an ID just for you.

The artist formerly known as anon 6:31

Dimension Skipper said...

And all the outrage expressed (appropriately or not) over things like the controversial cartoon will likely always spur a certain kind of person to perpetrate "jokes" like this one newly documented and verified by Snopes.

Personally I accept B&N's explanation as not only merely plausible, but quite obviously correct. Plus they apparently rectified it as soon as they realized what had been done.

Elizabeth said...

An ugly bias is back: blaming Jews for financial woes

Dimension Skipper said...

I've been following the poll results and had seen the "No" votes were up to 17. Then a couple other times today I checked and there were only 16, then 17 again, and now back down to 16.

So I'm wondering (in truly a just curious way) what's up with that?

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. And just to further clarify...

I'm not trying to imply anything sinister or to sound accusatory. It's merely something I noticed.

Maybe it's some sort of arcane glitch in the blogger poll mechanism.

Steve Salerno said...

People can change their vote, DimSkip, depending (I think) on which browser they're using. So I guess somebody is really undecided...

Dimension Skipper said...

Thanks. I didn't think of that, I guess because I didn't realize we could change. Assumed our votes were irreversible. Well, mine is at least, but only because I just don't wanna. I know at least one time, though, I saw a "no" vote go away and the overall vote count had also dropped by one. Weird. Oh well. It's obviously not a big deal. I just have a mind that tends to naturally puzzle over oddities like that.