The political cartoon has a long and storied history in the United States. But according to a blog post by New York Times cartoonist Patrick Chappette, he has been informed that his artwork will no longer run at the Grey Lady, as the paper has decided not to run cartoons anymore.
The decision comes in the wake of justified outrage over a recent anti-Semitic cartoon that ran in the Times’s international edition. That cartoon featured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog leading a blind Donald Trump.
Cartoons were a relatively new phenomenon at the Times. It was Chappette who first began running them for the historic outlet back in 2013. He sees the decision to spike them not just as a statement about cartoons, but also about journalism more broadly:
I’m afraid this is not just about cartoons, but about journalism and opinion in general. We are in a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow. This requires immediate counter-measures by publishers, leaving no room for ponderation or meaningful discussions. Twitter is a place for furor, not debate. The most outraged voices tend to define the conversation, and the angry crowd follows in.
That is all true, of course, but it makes sense that political cartoons would fall victim to the politically correct attitudes in ascendance in so many newsrooms today. They are, after all, a form of journalism that is all about exaggeration, and often about stereotypes. In a real sense they are literally “fake news.” It is a form of comedy that is often transgressive at a time when transgression is punished by simply being erased by the culture.
In the age of “that’s not funny,” what chance does the political cartoon really have? The Times had already taken measures, specifically breaking contracts with the cartoon syndication firm that produced the Netanyahu cartoon, to address its recent mistake. But it is easy to see why the Times’s editors and publishers would look at political cartoons as a ticking time bomb.
Political cartoonists tend to engage in caricature, and in today’s day and age that is a dangerous game. Is an exaggerated physical characteristic simply a fun and funny way to depict a political leader? Or is it sometimes the representation of a ethnic or racial stereotype? Who decides where that line is? Clearly the editors of The New York Times want no more part of such decisions.
It’s not just political cartoons under attack. In an apoplectic and over the top New York Post review of David Mamet’s new play “Bitter Wheat,” Johnny Oleksinski writes, “David Mamet has done it again! By which I mean that the out-of-his-mind playwright has appalled, offended and perplexed a packed house of hundreds of people — this time with his comedy about Harvey Weinstein. You read that right. Mamet wants you to have a laugh about one of the most infamous workplace monsters of our time.”
This is one of the stupidest complaints I have ever read a critic make. It is profoundly historically illiterate and fails to grasp the very purpose of comedy, which is to make light of and expose some truth about the too short and often brutal experience of existing as a human being.
“Lysistrata” is a comedy about the brutal horrors of war, “Merchant of Venice” is a comedy about bigotry, “A Modest Proposal” is a comedy about genocide, “The Producers” is a comedy literally about Nazis. The point is that laughter is an opportunity to be vulnerable, to stare the blistering pain of existence in the face and best it with a smile. Even, perhaps especially, when it appeals to our darkest impulses, it helps teach us how to be human.
Political cartoons have a long history of racism, from blacks and Irish being portrayed as monkeys in the 19th century to Netanyahu being portrayed as a dog this year. But the value of satire far outstrips the inevitable bad joke, the one that goes too far, the one that crosses the line we demand comedians and cartoonists tip toe up to every day without triggering the tripwire.
We need comedy and cartoons. We always have, whether in ancient Greece or modern midtown Manhattan. We need to laugh at ourselves, at the absurd condition we find ourselves puttering around in. That the New York Times has acquiesced to fear and decided to stop running political cartoons is a shame, but a likely one.
But at least for the near future we can still count on The New Yorker to run incomprehensible cartoons. Those should be safe, because if nobody knows what they mean, nobody can be offended. Probably.