Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Another cartoon controversy

Another cartoon controversy, with a different New York publication. This time the New York Post published a cartoon by Sean Delonas which connected the debate over the stimulus plan with the recent shooting (by police officers) of a chimpanzee in Connecticut. The article over at the Huffington Post shows the cartoon, and includes additional links to some bloggers who commented on it.

It is a strange cartoon. It links the two items (chimpanzee shooting, stimulus bill) in just about the most awkward way imaginable, so that it fails to make a clear statement, but nevertheless manages to offend. The key problem, I would argue, is that the cartoonist has apparently not thought deeply about the words to go with the picture.

The words read: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." Given the picture (two policemen standing over a dead chimpanzee), the only reasonable interpretation is that the chimpanzee is the author of the bill, not the bill itself (in which case the same author could write another), nor, despite what the Post tried to suggest, a general symbol of "Washington's efforts to revive the economy."

Since Obama is the person most directly associated with the stimulus bill, this in turn implies that the chimpanzee is Obama, which means that the cartoon echoes a long history of depicting African-Americans as monkeys. The cartoon's author can claim he did not intend this -- and he may even be correct -- but if so, that reflects rather badly on his intelligence and awareness.

What is interesting about the whole episode is that the drawing itself is not particularly offensive. Indeed, the same cartoon would probably have passed with little notice if the text balloon had read "Another stimulus plan bites the dust" or something along those lines. This is a good indication of how important text can be to the meaning of a cartoon.

The New York Times published a note today commenting on some of the fall-out following the cartoon's publication. Both the Post and Rupert Murdoch, its owner, have apologized, although neither has done so wholeheartedly. Al Sharpton apparently wants to punish Murdoch by asking for an investigation into whether the latter owns too many media outlets. I think he does, but I don't see how one could reasonably argue that the publication of an offensive cartoon in a single one of those papers is germane to the issue.