Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The power of the political cartoon

Neil Mackay in The Herald Scotland.

"Plumb-pudding in danger", James Gilray

The Guardian newspaper has decided that it won’t renew the contract of its top cartoonist Steve Bell, triggering a fresh round of controversy over cancel culture.

Writer at Large Neil Mackay looks at the power of the political cartoon and finds that for satire to work, it needs to offend and be brutal.

In November 1937, Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, returned to Britain after meeting Joseph Goebbels. 

Halifax, an architect of appeasement, wanted to ensure peace between Nazi Germany and Britain. One of his first tasks after the Berlin trip was to contact the publishers of the Evening Standard about the problematic matter of a cartoonist called David Low.

"Stepping stones to glory" by David Low, July 8, 1936.
The names on the backs of the leaders read: Rearmament, Rhineland Fortification, Danzig (League of Nations controlled city in the Polish Corridor)

Throughout the 1930s, Low had lampooned Hitler in the pages of the British press. Halifax told the Standard: “You cannot imagine the frenzy these cartoons cause.

As soon as a copy of the Evening Standard arrives, it is pounced on for Low’s cartoons, and if it is of Hitler, as it usually is, telephones buzz, tempers rise, fevers mount, and the whole government system of Germany is in uproar.”

A page from the Nazi SS's "Black Book," the hit list they had assembled in preparation for the German invasion of Britain. These were the people who were to be dragged into the street and shot on sight once the Germans invaded. David Low (197), cartoonist, is one of them.

Nobody at the paper would rein in Low, so it fell to Halifax to intercede personally. He took Low to lunch and laid his cards on the table. 

Low listened and replied: “Do I understand you to say that you would find it easier to promote peace if my cartoons did not irritate the Nazi leaders personally?”

Halifax said yes. Low later explained: “Of course, he was the foreign secretary … So I said, ‘Very well, I don’t want to be responsible for a world war’.”

In his own words, Low “slowed down a bit”. That didn’t last long, though. No cartoonist could resist satirising Hitler. Kicking the living hell out of power is part of the job description, after all.

Soon Low would go on to draw his masterpiece, “Rendezvous”, which satirised the grotesquely cynical peace deal between Hitler and Stalin – the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that helped pave the path to war. 

In the cartoon, Hitler and Stalin are shown courteously meeting each other across a dead body.

"Rendez vous", David Low, The Evening Standard, September 20, 1939.

Hitler doffs his cap and says charmingly, “The scum of the earth, I believe?”. Stalin replies, with equal grace, “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?”.

Low understood exactly the power of his pen. He once said: “No dictator is inconvenienced or even displeased by cartoons showing his terrible person stalking through blood and mud. 

That is the kind of idea about himself that the power-seeking world-beater would want to propagate.

It not only feeds his vanity, but unfortunately it shows profitable returns in an awed world. What he does not want to get around is the idea that he is an ass, which is really damaging.” 

And there, in one historical vignette, the power of the political cartoon is neatly summed up.

Bye bye Bell

There’s been much worry over the future of satire in Britain and the rest of the Western world of late, as so-called cancel culture wends its way through all avenues of the media from film to print. 

A short while ago, it emerged that The Guardian newspaper was not to renew the contract of its cartoonist Steve Bell. 

The move came not long after the departure of a senior editor at another bastion of the so-called liberal press, The New York Times

James Bennet had published a piece by a republican senator calling for military force to put down violent protests. It caused outrage. He resigned. 

A high-profile columnist with the paper then also resigned. Bari Weiss claimed the paper was effectively being edited by Twitter’s “woke” brigade.

Steve Bell’s cartooning is brutal, he’s cruel. Depending on your political point of view, he’s a comic genius one day, an utter villain the next. 

His withering caricatures can define a politician and overshadow their career.

Bell’s portrayal of John Major wearing his Y-fronts over his trousers summed up the mediocrity of the man as Prime Minister. 

He’s drawn David Cameron as a human condom, and George Osborne as an S&M gimp. 

His portrayal of Alex Salmond as a Saltire-faced, tartan oaf riled nationalists during the 2014 referendum. 

Likewise, his cartoon of Margaret Thatcher, after her death, sliding into hell and asking “why is this pit still open?” outraged Conservatives.

Deliberately upsetting people, using nasty stereotypes, punching below the belt – when it comes to dealing with power Bell, like most great cartoonists, is happy to use any tactic. 

However, he’s also faced opprobrium over some of his cartoons such as one showing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu holding Tony Blair like a glove puppet. 

The cartoon was seen as playing with anti-Semitic tropes. 

Recently his caricature of Home Secretary Priti Patel also got him in serious trouble. 

He drew Patel quite literally as a fat cow, complete with a ring in her nose. As Patel is of Hindu origin, and the cow scared in Hinduism, he brought fury down upon himself.

Soon, amid newspaper layoffs, it emerged that his contract was scheduled not to be renewed. 

The Jewish Chronicle reported that the moves were “said to be unrelated to the latest round of redundancies”. 

In June 2018, Bell clashed with The Guardian’s top executives when he complained that he felt “unfairly traduced and censored” after the paper wouldn’t run a cartoon showing a Palestinian burning in a fireplace while Netanyahu and Theresa May sit talking. 

Bell said editor Katharine Viner did “not really have an argument” for spiking his drawing.

A few days ago, Bell himself tweeted that his departure was nothing to do with Patel, but rather job cuts at the paper. 

However, his loss has prompted many in the media to speculate that he’s another scalp for cancel culture.

Wicked clowns

If the political cartoonist has an historical ancestor, it’s the court jester. In the medieval court, the jester could get away with anything. The jester could mock royalty, insult palace favourites, and point out the failings of everyone from bishops to potentates. 

Sometimes, jesters lost their heads, but mostly their patrons welcomed their caustic comedy. It reminded the powerful that they were human and could make stupid mistakes just like the rest of us.

Of course, throughout the history of cartooning, not all artists have worked for the greater good or held power to account. Some have acted in bad faith and given succour to dictators like the cartoonists for Nazi newspapers such as Der Sturmer which drew Jews as devils and snakes.

The most important issue for any political cartoon is this: what direction it’s punching. Is it punching up – at the powerful, greedy and dangerous? Or punching down at the weak? 

If we agree that punching up is the right thing to do – then is any tactic fair game? Can stereotypes be used? 

Until not so long ago, we expected cartoonists to deploy any trick in the book as long as they hit their mark – and most importantly made us laugh and think. 

Now, times are changing. Will that lessen the power of satire at a time when we need it most – in an era of populism, hate mobs, and unaccountable power and wealth? 

The bottom-line question for today is this: can a cartoon really work if it is so sanitised that it upsets absolutely nobody?

The art of offence

In his excellent book, The Art Of Controversy: Political Cartoons And Their Enduring Power, the American journalist Victor Navasky tells a story which sums up the impossibility of ever finding a cartoon which both hits its mark and offends nobody.

Navasky was editing the US magazine The Nation when cartoonist David Levine brought him a drawing of Henry Kissinger – the former US secretary of state, seen by many on the left as a warmonger. 

The cartoon, “Screwing the World”, depicted the body of a woman with a head like a globe of the world lying on a bed, her fingers clutching the sheets. On top of her, his body just covered by a Stars and Stripes blanket, is Kissinger, his face contorted with wolfish pleasure. 

For some, the image absolutely expresses Kissinger’s treatment of the world. For others, and in this case many of the Nation’s staff, it was sexist and unacceptable.

Navasky was collared by his team and asked: “Why isn’t he doing it to a Third World male?”

Good question. But, of course, if Kissinger had been shown raping an African man, it’s pretty obvious where the anger would come from regarding that reworked cartoon.

A history of mischief and suffering

Cartoons have been about since Egypt in 1300BC – and they’re always grotesque, cruel and offensive. Asking for a cartoonist not to cause offence is like asking a bird not to fly – it’s innate.

Despite ancient caricaturists leaving scratchings in stone mocking almighty leaders like the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the political cartoon is really a creature of the modern age, finding its feet in the 1700s with the English artists William Hogarth and James Gillray

Hogarth satirised society. He was a moralist who tried to expose the failings of the people – both rich and poor – in works like A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Gin Lane, a vision of a barbarous drunken London where alcohol is more important than the lives of children.

Gillray had two main targets: the excesses of the French Revolution, and the greed of the British ruling class. 

In his cartoon The Plumb Pudding in Danger he shows the British Prime Minister William Pitt carving up the world with Napoleon. 

In other European countries at the time, such mockery could have ended with the artist on the gallows. 

Gillray’s cartoon A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion portrays a fat, greedy, spoilt Prince Regent, who would go on to be George IV. 

When Gillray felt the press was too grovelling towards the Duchess of York he drew the cartoon The Duchess’s Little Shoes Yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot – which effectively showed the aristocratic pair having sex.

By the 19th century, the cartoon had changed from the highly wrought, finely detailed works of art by Hogarth and Gillray to the more fluid, extempore drawings we would recognise on the pages of any paper today.

By the early 20th century, cartoons were a staple of every newspaper in the democratic world. 

The cartoon was there to both reflect the politics of the paper and its readers, and to challenge their beliefs. Readers expected their daily cartoon to cause offence – either to them or others. 

And matters effectively stayed like that for the next century – although of course the cartoon went underground behind the Iron Curtain as it satirised the absurdities of Soviet life.

Perhaps, the greatest practitioner of the modern cartoon is Ralph Steadman

Now aged 84, Steadman skewered the powerful from the late-1960s onwards. For instance, in his inimitable surreal, ink-splattered style he nailed the fear brought about by the rise of the former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan to the US presidency.

In Reagan’s Latest Close-Up, the President looms over Lady Liberty, holding her in a movie star embrace, while dressed as Dracula, his teeth sharp and ready to bite.

But cartooning never comes without its cost. 

In 1987, the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali – who lambasted both Israel and the PLO – was murdered on his way to work. 

In 1992, the Sri Lankan cartoonist Jiffry Yoonoos was beaten and stabbed. 

In 1995, Yemen’s Saleh Ali was arrested after he published a cartoon showing a Yemeni man being arrested as one policeman declared “Democracy is what I say”. 

In Cameroon, Belarus, Iran, and Syria, cartoonists have been subjected to violence, censorship and persecution.

Some have said that the clash between cartooning and Islam represents the ultimate expression of cancel culture – the act of murdering someone because they caused you offence in art form.

In 2005, Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper published cartoons mocking Islam. 

Many depicted Mohammed and were seen by Muslims as blasphemous. Death threats were made, cartoonists went into hiding, demonstrations began around the world. By 2006, an estimated 250 people had been killed as a result of protests and anger.

Some years later, in 2011, the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, published a caricature of Mohammed on its front cover. 

Its offices were firebombed. 

In 2012, the magazine published more cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. 

In January 2015, Islamist terrorists attacked the magazine’s office. Twelve people died, including cartoonists Cabu and Charb.

In the immediate wake of the attack, the West embraced the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” as an expression of solidarity with artists murdered simply for daring to draw what they thought. However, quickly, that slogan began to stale for some.

There are many who would now no longer stand with Charlie

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties went into victim-blaming mode. 

“Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction,” said its president Bill Donohue. 

He was not the only such voice.

In this era of social media and political extremism, when offence-taking is as ubiquitous as sand on a beach, cartoonists find themselves in the crosshairs more than ever before in the Western world.

When it comes to free speech, cartoons are often ugly speech. But that’s the point – they’re meant to offend. 

And if ugly, offensive speech isn’t defended, what happens to the concept of free speech? A silent world without offence really would be no laughing matter.

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