American Cartoonists Rap on the Danish Flap

Kristian Williams

“IT’S REALLY SURREAL,” cartoonist Matt Wuerker observed. “It’s like something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel.”

What do cartoonists on the progressive or “alternative” end of the U.S. political spectrum think of the eruption over portrayals of the prophet Mohammed, and the conflicting accusations of “blasphemy,” racism and “censorship”?

The background is pretty well known. In September, Fleming Rose, the editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, invited cartoonists to “draw Mohammed as you see him.” Twelve did, with results ranging from the bland to the grotesque.

Months later the Islamic world exploded in anger. In Afghanistan, police used teargas against crowds throwing stones. Protesters in Pakistan torched shops, and the authorities dispersed them with gunfire. In Nigeria, protests against the cartoons re-ignited long-standing ethnic tensions: Muslim rioters attacked Christians and set fire to churches; Christians responded in kind, burning Mosques and murdering Muslims.

Muslims throughout the Middle East declared a boycott of Danish products. Hamshari, the largest newspaper in Iran, called for cartoons mocking the Holocaust. (This pushed one Israeli newspaper to retaliate – by calling for Jews to out-bigot the bigots by producing their own anti-Jewish cartoons!) The Iranian government severed its diplomatic relations with Denmark, and security concerns led the Danish government to close its embassy in Pakistan.

The cause-and-effect here is vertiginous. An Italian government minister, Roberto Calderoli, wore a T-shirt displaying the cartoons during a television interview, leading to protests outside Italy’s consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The demonstrators set the building ablaze and police responded with gunfire, killing eleven. Both Calderoli and Libyan Interior Minister Nasr al-Mabrouk lost their jobs as a result.

The embassies and offices of France, Germany, Norway, the European Union and World Bank have also been targeted. In Indonesia, four hundred protesters carrying rocks and sticks tried to storm the U.S. embassy.

Protests produced less bloodshed in Kenya, Iran, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Jordan – as well as in England, the United States and Denmark itself.

Worldwide, at least 139 people died in cartoon-related violence. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called the situation a “global crisis.” Even after the violence ebbed, the furor has left deep scars.

Editors Run for Cover

Very few American publications have run the Mohammed caricatures – the most prominent exceptions being Fox News and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Most editors have opted instead simply to describe the images, explaining the decision in terms of cultural sensitivity and the desire not to make a bad situation worse. But some, such as the Boston Phoenix, have cited the fear of retaliation. It’s hard to blame them: The attack on Norway’s embassy in Damascus was prompted by a Norwegian paper’s decision to publish the images. (The editor apologized.) Even after Jyllands-Posten sent Mr. Rose on an extended vacation and printed an apology for its role in this mess, a radical cleric, Mohammed Yousaf Qureshi, offered a million dollar bounty to anyone who kills the artists.

According to Mikhaela Reid, whose cartoons frequently appear in the Boston Phoenix, “some cartoonists are feeling very defiant and scared at the same time, and they’re drawing things to express their frustration and anger (and sometimes, their total ignorance). But editors are scared witless.”

She predicts a move toward greater editorial control, at the expense of substantive critique: “I think mainstream newspaper editors are going to be keeping a much closer eye on their cartoonists. And we’ll see an increase in pointless harmless joke cartoons that couldn’t offend anyone, to the detriment of real pointed political commentary.”

“No Exit” artist Andy Singer argues that such editorial squeamishness is really nothing new. “Cartooning is already heavily censored in this country,” he says. “Editors in the U.S. are scared of even running cartoons that criticize Bush too harshly, or Israel. If you do a cartoon that critiques Israel, even in a small weekly newspaper, you will be put on right wing Israeli list-serves and the paper will get tons of hate mail.”

Singer goes on to note that American conservatives – “the Michael Savage, Daniel Pipes, Fox News crowd” – apply constant pressure to limit dissent, and “they are succeeding, whether it’s cartoons, radio or TV. They successfully hounded Ted Rall out of the New York Times and have hounded many other cartoonists out of existence entirely. They tried to hound Tom Toles out of the Washington Post for his recent cartoons. Fortunately, in that case, the editors stood up for Toles.”

Clay Butler, the artist behind “Sidewalk Bubblegum,” sees the issue less in terms of censorship and more in terms of “impotence.”  In a way, he finds the uproar encouraging.  “It’s nice to see somebody get upset over a political cartoon. I mean, in America it doesn’t do anything.”

But then again, not even the creators actually expect cartoons to have a real political effect. “Political cartoonists really do it for themselves, to amuse themselves first and also to amuse like-minded individuals..It’s really not about changing minds. You do it because you have a passion.”

Perhaps ironically, it may be this sense of irrelevancy that has allowed cartoonists the degree of freedom they have enjoyed. Butler remarks: “The humorists always have greater leeway [for] speaking truth, but at the same time, our truth has negligible effect because people see us as ‘funny people.'”

Matt Wuerker sides with Reid: “Editors all around the world are looking at this and taking away the lesson that cartoons are dangerous and incendiary.” Wuerker, who has spent twenty years drawing cartoons for publications as mainstream as the LA Times and as far left as Z Magazine, sees the current controversy as yet another step in “a steady march toward timidity.”

Wuerker emphasizes the economics underlying enforced mediocrity. Fewer and fewer papers employ staff cartoonists, subscribing to syndicates instead. This gives the editor a broader selection, and thus makes it easier to avoid anything that might cause trouble. The result is “a lot of mostly insipid cartoons with John and Jane Doe sitting in front of their TV and some one-liner that vaguely relates to the day’s news.”

Editors, he says, tend to prefer safe cartoons, “because they’re corporatists. Once upon a time you had people who published newspapers because they had strong political leanings… These people have now been bought out and are controlled by corporate conglomerates… And [the editors are] not going to take any risks, because they’d lose their jobs if they took risks.”

This caution, in turn, trickles down to the cartoonists. “There’s a certain amount of self-censorship… All cartoonists do that, to some degree,” Wuerker concludes.

On this, Clay Butler agrees: “Editors and cartoonists do not have the same obligations … The editor is there to freak out and worry about the bottom line. And the cartoonist is there to push the limits… My experience has been, with papers, editors are just chickenshit beyond belief. I don’t think this will have an effect on what is produced, but on what gets in – which has an effect on what gets produced.”

Don’t (Just) Blame the Cartoons

This much is sure: There is more behind the unrest, besides some silly drawings. Stephanie McMillan – who draws “Minimum Security” – explains:

“The outrage is not only about the cartoons. These cartoons are one more bigoted slur against people who have been experiencing oppression as immigrants in Europe and the United States, imperialist wars that have killed perhaps more than a hundred thousand, sanctions that have killed more than a million, theft of resources and exploitation through a long history of colonialism and neo-colonialism, as well as flagrant torture, abuse and unjust imprisonment at the hands of the United States and Britain today. It is not surprising to me that fury builds up and erupts into resistance. It could have been this or another act that sparked the flames, but the fuel has been accumulating for a long time.”

Andy Singer wonders what the controversy may say about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East:

“Alas, until people in the Muslim world can have open, honest discussions about the Koran, Mohammed and their religion, there is never going to be ‘Democracy’ in the Western sense. Partly, this is the fault of repressive governments who have killed or jailed all the moderates, leaving only the extremists to survive in opposition… But, partly, it seems endemic to the religion itself (at least in its current state). It took the West hundreds of years to crack open taboos surrounding Christianity and enable people to openly criticize Christianity. It may take a long time for this to happen in Islam as well.”

Butler agrees:  “When people start burning down embassies and putting million dollar bounties on the heads of cartoonists, it’s clear that the Islamic world in general doesn’t really understand democracy in the way that we understand it.” At the same time, he notes, “It’s just completely crazy to think that we’re going to go to the Middle East, kill a bunch of people, topple some governments and say, ‘Okay, you can have elections now.’ They’re going to have to do it themselves and do it their own way.”

But “Slowpoke”‘s Jen Sorensen isn’t sure that we can draw such broad conclusions from this crisis. She sees not a clash of civilizations, but a clash of extremisms. “Opportunists on both sides are using the cartoons as a way to further their ideologies – and by ‘sides’ I am not referring to Islam and the West, as some would generalize, but to extremists. The vast majority of Muslims and Westerners are just spectators to this… Both sides in this controversy are right-wing, and both are pretty frightening.”

In the meantime, how should a socially conscious cartoonist respond?  For Keith Knight, author of “The K Chronicles,” the answer is: “By doing good work. Imagine a world where nations and cultures battled each other with comic strips instead of guns and bombs. Ahhh – a perfect world…

“There are ways to comment on what’s going on that [are] pointed and funny and edgy and searing, without just looking to offend.”

ATC 123, July-August 2006