The New York Post prints a political cartoon depicting two men with smoking guns over the bullet-ridden body of an ape, and the tag line suggests a connection between this ape and President Obama. Am I dreaming? Is it possible--here, today--that any paper with a circulation greater than five could publish such a drawing, at best contemptuous of its racist undertones, at worst covertly celebrating them? Have we misunderstood? Surely there’s a less nefarious way to look at all this?
Of course there is. Indeed, there are half a dozen less nefarious ways. And countless ways not to look at all, not to see the damning disgrace of what was printed on 18 February. What I cannot find--and challenge anyone to assert with the tools of reason--is ignorance on the part of cartoonist or publisher as to how that cartoon would be perceived. There is no such blessed innocent in New York City, least of all in publishing.
The Post offered a grudging, pugnacious half-apology. The editor, Col Allan, defended the cartoon as “a clear parody of a current news event” (that event, so ripe for parody, being the hideous mutilation of a Connecticut woman by a chimpanzee). The cartoonist himself has voiced no misgivings, any more than when his previous cartoons suggested that gays shag sheep, or that Paul McCartney's former girlfriend was a laugh riot because she'd lost a leg. Rupert Murdoch, the Post’s owner, has maintained an imperial silence, as he did when a co-anchor on Fox News (another imperial asset) ended a broadcast during the campaign with a chuckled proposal that “somebody knock off Osama, um, Obama--well, both, if we could.” [UPDATE 2/24: Murdoch has apologized "to any reader who felt offended"]
But as disturbing as any of these is a remark that keeps surfacing, in one form or another, all over the blogosphere. The remark begins, “Even if he [cartoonist Sean Delonas] didn’t realize how this would appear” or “Even if this is sheer stupidity on the part of the Post” or “Even if they didn’t know what they were doing--”
STOP. They knew. Any person who has ever entertained a thought about U.S. history will know. Anyone who has ever thought about racism of any kind, anywhere, will know at a glance. Any survivor of sixth-grade recess and eighth-grade social studies will have context enough to be shamed—if they have any shame at all—by innuendo half as blatant as that cartoon’s.
What is being excused here is a bald obscenity. A drawing that cannot fail to evoke something of the history of such images for any American who did not grow up in a sensory-deprivation tank. A drawing that will indisputably and instantly be connected with the president, in which the figure so connected has just been shot dead.
Let me (in Obama’s already-somewhat-grating phrase) be clear: I am making no legal argument, no assault on free speech. I do not think that crude, hate-driven, irresponsible, untalented boor of a racist doodler should be barred from publishing his pinch-brained little jokes. Nor do I think his worthless fishwrapper of a newspaper should face legal sanction. Nor do I think the ambitious neocon Padishah who owns the paper and rewards the boorish doodler should face harassment by the FBI (though a little chat might be in order).
But there are a few things I do hope for:
First, that Messers Murdoch, Delonas and Allan develop boils, shingles, piles, intolerance to their favorite foods, bunions, impotence and a knack for showing up just when other people of my persuasion feel compelled to exercise their First Amendment rights, preferably in front of these gentlemen’s dates, fans or children.
Second, that no one capable of sanctioning such ugliness dare hide their naked racism behind the washcloth of “not knowing any better,” ever again.
Third, that our national addiction to violence and the tools of violence somehow abate.
Lastly that we stop driving the same old roads, into the same old axle-breaking ruts. In other words that history—presidential history, racial history, the history of firing guns at what makes us uncomfortable—be given no more odious nudges in the direction of a replay.
God damn it.