When Barack Obama donned sandals and a Muslim headdress to fist-bump Michelle in the Oval Office, people were upset. The American Flag smoldering in the fireplace didn’t help, either.
It was just a cartoon, of course—another deliberately incendiary send-up from Barry Blitt, the New Yorker’s legendary illustrator. Blitt has penned 70 covers for the magazine, yet he is well known for ”The Politics of Fear,” his absurdest, 2008 cartoon. It was designed to merely mock Obama’s overheated critics, not the candidate himself, but many Obama supporters and New Yorker readers were still outraged.
There’s just something special about cartoons.
That’s the theory of a new book by Victor Navasky, a National Book Award winner, longtime editor-in-chief of The Nation, and a colleague of mine. In The Art of Controversy, Navasky recounts how some leaders have been upset more by political cartoons than traditional media criticism.
While conventional criticism can reinforce a politician’s image as tough or ruthless, Navasky says, “they don’t want to be thought about as an ass, [or] a joke.” After British cartoonist David Low repeatedly ridiculed Hitler as a joke, the German dictator secretly “commissioned a book of cartoons answering” Lowe’s work. Navasky discussed Hitler’s cartoon issues in an interview with The Cycle on Monday.
In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled that satire and cartoons are entitled to free speech protection on par with conventional media. Yet journalists also can be sensitive when political cartoons, which are often drawn to be offensive, seem to go too far.
One of the most controversial cartoons Navasky ever ran in The Nation, a vivid rendering of Henry Kissinger “sexually dominating a female body with a globe on it, having his way with the world,” as Cycle co-host Toure put it.
Most of Navasky’s editorial staff protested running the cartoon, regardless of its withering view of Kissinger’s imperialistic, unpopular foreign policy, because it made the case, Navasky said, through a stereotypical view of “sex as something that an active male on top does to a passive woman on bottom.” Ultimately, Navasky chose to publish the image, and he said its transgressive power exceeded any spoken critique of America’s chief diplomat.
“In Kissinger’s case, he had this look on his face, that David Levine captured, that mingled evil and ecstasy,” Navasky recalled. “And as the great British cartoonist Ralph Steadman said, when you do cartoons, you show things that are impossible to put into words, and that’s their strength and what distinguishes them.”