Wrong Cartoon, Wrong Reaction

By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cartoon outrage is becoming tedious, as is the need to explain once more why being offended is not just cause for battle.

This time it's not Muslims rioting in the streets, but the Rev. Al Sharpton leading protests against a New York Post cartoon that he and others consider racist.

Drawing on two events in the news cycle -- a violent chimpanzee felled by police, and the stimulus bill -- cartoonist Sean Delonas sketched a dead chimpanzee lying in a pool of blood in front of two cops with a smoking gun. The balloon read: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

If you don't get it, there's a good reason. It was a bad cartoon. It didn't work. The connection between the two events simply wasn't organic enough to evoke the necessary "Aha!" Moreover, the images carry too much free-associative freight.

The mind's eye sees the word "stimulus" and thinks President Barack Obama. The bill may have been written by congressional staffers, but it's Obama's stimulus package. The mind's eye sees a dead chimpanzee and . . . strays off course, away from the news of the animal attacking a woman to a history of dehumanizing blacks.

It may be subliminal, but it's there. And dehumanization is never funny.

Cartoonists rely on readers' collective understanding of symbols and metaphor and on their unconscious connecting of images to ideas. Given that dependence, cartoonists have to be aware of the many ways those symbols might be linked within a given time and context.

The Delonas cartoon was offensive for reasons unrelated to race. No sane person enjoyed seeing or reading about police killing the chimpanzee. They may as well have killed Bonzo. Compounding the horror of this poor animal drawn dead and bleeding was the knowledge of its gruesome attack on a woman, who at the time was in critical condition.

Not funny.

Let's add even another layer of cultural understanding -- the too-oft-read headline: "White cop shoots unarmed black." One can parse the circumstances in each case, but the statistical evidence is that these shootings happen too often.

Do I think Delonas meant to convey all these layers? Not at all, though cartoonists have unconscious motivations like everyone else. He may have considered the possible racist interpretation and justified his decision because he didn't mean it that way.

Cartoonists make artistic and editorial judgments every day, though some cartoonists have better judgment than others. Even so, outrage is out of proportion to the offense, and demands for retributive justice are more dangerous than a lousy cartoon.

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