Here's an opening line from a recent editorial:
Since the shooting rampage in Tucson on Jan. 8 that killed six and wounded 13 (including Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford), there has been intensified rhetoric urging Americans to arm themselves and to carry guns for protection
I should not have been astounded that in the United States a sentence beginning with a list of casualties from gun violence would end with an evocation of "intensified rhetoric" urging people to buy more guns. Now, mind you, the writer is not endorsing the NRA's point of view and he goes on to make points I myself would make if I were half as articulate and had a bully pulpit (and, I assure you, I will never turn private matters and public things into a bully pulpit; objectivity rules the day on this site).
No, it's the voluminous, heavy-swinging cajones of various groups on the American right that have me dismayed; their power over the national discourse, the way their words - "to arm themselves" - and their logic - "to carry guns for protection" - can infiltrate even their opponents' language, is something to behold. It's not a matter of integrity or intellectualism, it's sheer conviction. They believe it so hard, it becomes true.
It got me to thinking about editorial cartooning.
Editorial cartooning somehow survived the mockery of Brass Eye; the long tradition of using caricature - elephantine ears, stalactite noses, pebbly eyes - and a few words inscribed into a drawing to make a convincing case for an argument about current political affairs lives on today. All over the place. You can't spit at a newspaper without hitting an editorial cartoon. Of course, an editorial cartoon can make a powerful point with all the majestic impact of Zidane's bulldozer head, or it can simplify a complex situation into a crude lie; an editorial cartoon can be Hogarthian art about human folly, or it can be frank propaganda spewed out by the machine.
Here are a selection of editorial cartoons about a recent topic in the news. The first is by Steve Bell in The Guardian. The last is by Brian Fairrington.
Now, I'm particularly interested in the percentage one by Fairrington. Ostensibly, the argument is being made that George W. Bush deserves the credit for the very brief capture of Osama bin Laden: for his years of painstaking work behind the scenes, for his leadership and his vision, for bearing the brunt of the public's ire even as he steeled himself with resolve to do what he had to do, opinion polls be damned; Obama is just a late-comer, profiting from his predecessor's hard work and sacrifice.
An editorial cartoon is a model of efficiency, condensing a roomful of fog into a few pure drops of insight. But what is being left out by such an argument, if indeed Fairrington is making that argument? What has been excluded as the cartoonist sought to condense the history of the American search for bin Laden over the past decades into a single drop? Oh, I don't know: the war in Iraq; letting bin Laden escape Tora Bora; closing the bin Laden C.I.A. unit; Bush not worrying so much about where bin Laden is; the utterly confusing and misleading """information""" procured from torture, which may well have contributed to bin Laden's safety. Not to mention Obama's own contributions, the decisions he made, and so forth. And, if this is the argument being made, how can we not imagine a very similar cartoon with a picture of the U.S. Economy in place of bin Laden's - everything else would be the same. But Fairrington, who's done a lot of cartoons about the U.S. Economy, such as here and here, might not agree?
After all, what we're talking about is a cartoonist's assessment of responsibility; and what if this is about responsibility as culpability? Isn't it possible that this same bullet-through-Osama's-head cartoon could be appended to an editorial about American acceptance of extra-legal, illegal, extra-moral, immoral devices, techniques, practices and policies, to show how Obama is continuing what Bush started? (After all, surely if this were only about responsibility for nabbing the old goat-fucked terrorist, Bill Clinton would earn a few percentage points?)
Similarly, laying out bin Laden's corpse as the "i" in Justice, with its own poetic reverberations of an "eye for an eye", an "i" for an "i", a life for a life, speaking also to the impossibility of measuring the extinction of Osama's subjectivity against the extinction of thousands of his victims' subjectivities, could be read quite differently: a murder has intruded upon justice, or has been claimed by "justice".
What about Steve Bell's Tessiobama? Are we supposed to see it as an image of old-school White House gangsterism? But even if we do see it that way, as something outside the law and murderous, how hard is it not to feel implicitly sympathetic? After all, I may not approve of the Corleones, but I admire them more than I admire anybody else who has ever lived. Hell, I wouldn't mind setting Clemenza on a few peoples' asses; I wouldn't be averse to sending Luca Brasi to deal with Mugabe, or getting Willi Cicci to sort out a few genocidaires:
And so I've been perturbed by the confluence of ambiguity and conviction in editorial cartooning. However convinced we may be by a joke's conviction, a joke is never enough to indict. Think of that the next time you read some pained piece by offended parties centring their victimhood on a joke at their expense.
But I'm still trying to figure another cartoon out. It's by Fairrington again. Fairrington has had a cartoon about how left wing MSNBC is; he produces one of those annual regular-as-clockwork-it's-winter-so-it's-time-to-do-a-global-warming cartoon; he does standard issue NRA, and pro-torture, and Clinton cartoons:
All in all, your everyday right wing bullshitter. Or is he?
Would someone explain this to me?
(Update, prior to posting: see below cartoon for my thoughts)
So, linger with that cartoon for a minute.
What does it mean?
Okay, so when I first saw this cartoon, I thought it was to be understood as follows: we all know that one reason why the "gays in the military" debate is such a charade is because there are already gays in the military; and one of the most poignant arguments against the charade is that gays in the military have died in the military, just like straight soldiers. I thought this cartoon was a tribute to these men and women, specifically showing a proud, fallen gay soldier calling out to his gay brethren to thank them for repealing what had kept him silent in life.
And then I thought, hold on. Holy Shit. That viewpoint would be very inconsistent with Fairrington's oeuvre. Maybe this cartoon means quite the opposite. It could be a depiction of a (presumably) straight soldier who has been killed because they let gays (come out) in the military, who is sarcastically sneering from beyond the grave at the gays who insisted that gays be allowed (to come out) in the military.
So, which do you think it is?