Cartoons: No Laughing Matter?

Cartoons: No Laughing Matter?

The current flap over the cover cartoon in the July 21 issue of The New Yorker reminds me of a situation I almost got into, but avoided. When ISRAEL HORIZONS’ budget permitted (hint to potential donors out there!), we used to commission original cartoons from Ilan Goldstein, a young Israeli.

He often sent more than one cartoon for our choosing, and when IH was commenting about the work of Professors Mearsheimer and Walt on the “Israel Lobby,” he sent us a cartoon that delighted me. It pictured two hasidim stirring (as if they were witches) a boiling cauldron labeled “Israel Lobby.” I marveled at the fact that it actually was an antisemitic image but the context of who we are as a publication, and who the cartoonist is, meant that we were lampooning any antisemitic fallout from the Israel Lobby controversy.

It also could have been interpreted as accusing Mearsheimer and Walt of intentionally stirring up antisemitism. Readers of IH and/or this blog would know that I don’t think highly of M & W’s work and that I view M & W as having unintentionally stirred up antisemitism, but I don’t believe that they meant harm. Yet they merit being lampooned. Nevertheless, after discussing this with a couple of associates, I reluctantly chose to play it safe and go with another cartoon.

It should be obvious that ISRAEL HORIZONS would not be promoting antisemitism. It should be obvious to anybody who knows The New Yorker that it was satirizing the insinuations about Senator Obama being Muslim – “not that there’s anything wrong with that” (I’m quoting Jerry Seinfeld’s character’s P.C. afterthought when he and George Castanza were mistakenly identified as gay lovers) – and that somehow Obama and his wife support terrorists.

The ridiculousness of the images portrayed on The New Yorker cover clearly connotes satire: Michelle Obama in a large Afro with an assault rifle slung across her back, making a “terrorist fist bump” (in the idiotic words of a Fox News commentator) with Senator Obama, himself dressed in African Muslim attire, an American flag burning in the fireplace, a picture of Osama bin Laden apparently on the wall.

It was said at the time that the attacks of 9/11 killed off irony. We also may be reminded of the violent reactions around the world to the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad; protestors had a genuine reason to raise their voices against a perceived insult to their religion but never to engage in violence. And their lack of regard for the prerogatives of free speech (which should protect the cartoonists and the protestors equally) and the institution of a free press was disheartening. But the New Yorker cartoon is being protested out of a misunderstanding (as I feared would happen with that cartoon meant for IH).

I have to agree with one of NPR’s “car guys” (I’m going far afield here but I love this quote): “Ah stupidity, the universal language.” (See the Egyptian-born Muslim commentator Mona Eltahawy’s sage reaction to the Obama cartoon affair.) Whether it’s stupidity, hyper-sensitivity, or an over-eagerness to confront critics who are too often perceived as enemies, we lose something as a society when publishing a cartoon becomes a risky endeavor.

P.S. If you don’t believe that The New Yorker meant to undermine vicious attacks on Obama with this cover, see this video of Charlie Rose’s July 16 PBS interview with David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor.

By | 2008-07-16T04:05:00-04:00 July 16th, 2008|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Ger July 16, 2008 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    I just didn’t get the humor, or find it insightful. Was I offended? Not particularly, but I just found it a failure as satire, and, in thus failing, I found it lacking any redeeming quality. Regretably, the image seems likely to feed into the bias against Obama held by many ignorant people in this country.

  2. lawrencebush July 17, 2008 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    The New Yorker assumes a level of high sophistication on the part of its readers, which is one reason why it is the Ur magazine, the best of ’em all. I find it wonderful that the magazine could capture, in a single image, the racist fears about Obama that are very much alive in our country, and by “outing” those fears, perhaps diminish their power.

    In any event, as the late George Carlin might have said, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

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