Culture

Is this the death knell for political cartoons?

If political cartoons and op-eds are continually censored, then what is the purpose of a newspaper at all? Artists and writers are supposed to kick against the pricks. If we completely rid them of their ability to do so, all we are left with are the pricks.

Libby Emmons and Barrett Wilson Montreal, QC
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The devastating photo of the migrant father and daughter who were washed away and drowned by the Rio Grande last week broke the heart of everyone who saw it. Evocative of the harrowing shot of the Syrian toddler dead on the beach, a casualty of the Middle Eastern refugee crisis, this new viral image brought fresh attention to the border disaster.

For those of us not living in regions wrecked by war, poverty, or gang violence, who do not feel the daily sting of rampant unemployment, government corruption, or resource scarcity, it’s hard to fathom that level of devastation and desperation that would make parents flee their homeland with their children. They set off across deserts, forge a deadly river, and end up imprisoned by a foreign government. Despite the risks, they do it anyway.

It is precisely this impossibility of understanding that cartoonist Micheal de Adder illustrated when he penned this cartoon of President Trump trying to play golf on a course obstructed by the dead bodies of this El Salvadoran father and child.

After the cartoon went viral, de Adder reported on his social media feeds that he was let go from all the newspapers he draws for in New Brunswick. A New Brunswick native, and a frequent contributor to several of its biggest newspapers, de Adder stated “I’m a proud New Brunswicker. I’ll miss drawing cartoons for my home province.

The papers he wrote for in New Brunswick are owned by Brunswick News, which in turn is owned by James K. Irving. Irving’s interests are primarily in oil, and de Adder’s cartoon touched a sore spot for the multi-billionaire.

This drive to censor political cartoons is not exclusive to New Brunswick and one oil-rich magnate, however. The Old Grey Lady herself has also decided to do away with political cartoons. Earlier this month, The New York Times made the shocking decision to cut all political cartoons in international editions of the paper after an anti-Trump cartoon was widely criticized for an (admittedly) anti-semitic depiction of Benjamin Netenyahu.

Last year, Pittsburgh-based political cartoonist Rob Rogers was fired after six of his cartoons in a row were rejected by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

At the time, Rogers told The Guardian that his editor informed him “that the paper’s publisher believed the editorial cartoonist was akin to an editorial writer, and that his views should reflect the philosophy of the newspaper.” If news outlets are going to require that opinions reflect the perspective of the paper, papers will have to draw up default policy positions, and this will be a stark imposition on what should be a free press. If political cartoons and op-eds are continually censored, then what is the purpose of a newspaper at all?  Artists and writers are supposed to kick against the pricks. If we completely rid them of their ability to do so, all we are left with are the pricks.

As partisan, painful, and offensive as some of the content has been, the solution to offensive art is not to eliminate art completely. It’s the exact opposite. Just like the solution to offensive speech is more speech, the solution to bad art is more art. Pointing out problems in international policy and political behaviours is the job of cartoonists. They’re not just there to make little funny family jokes to chuckle over Sunday morning donuts. We need to give them space and the freedom to make art. Making art means making mistakes, being offensive, and crossing lines.

If the new idea in media is that everything is sacred and no one can have any fun anymore, we’re all going to end up hanging ourselves at the end of our own complicit ropes. Life is hard enough to begin with, people are too miserable to one another, unintentionally and on purpose, to not be able to joke about it. Someone will always be offended. For example, we’re offended by censorship, by cartoonists’ cancelled contracts, and by people being offended by jokes.

Outlets can hire and fire who they choose—they are private enterprises after all. They are not required to keep a writer that they don’t want to run. However, terminating a contract due to a person’s political views, for a cartoon they didn’t even publish with the outlet that terminated them, is disingenuous and hypocritical. This kind of behaviour demands that writers adhere to perspectives that are not even clearly laid out, that can be changed or revealed at a moment’s notice. It leaves writers guessing what their terms of employment are, ensuring that many writers who are unwilling or unable to lose work for their views will espouse milquetoast ideas just to keep the paycheck.

It’s significant that these recent major moves to censor political cartoons and cartoonists were a result of Trump-related cartoons. Trump is not merely the man, but a representative of excess, ignorance, and brinkmanship. Invoking his image is about critiquing those things that his leadership, and the current western ethos in all its contraction, are complicit in. Minimizing his image to the presidency, and thinking that it’s unfair or unreasonable to skewer it, diminishes the problem.

Trump Derangement Syndrome is a well documented theory throughout the internet. And the evidence that it is a real thing seems undeniable. It’s affected our ability to think clearly and make proper, responsible decisions with regards to free expression, opinion, and art. But the derangement swings both ways. Those seeking to “resist” Trump and those seeking to prop him up often employ the exact same totalitarian tactics.

It’s been noted before that comedians are the canaries in the coalmine of the culture wars. Political cartoonists are right there with them. When we can’t make art about the horrible things in the world, the problems that need change, the celebrities that need mocking, we are creating little dictatorships where free thought is at stake.

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