Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Chimp Cartoon: Stop, Look Both Ways...

...before you and free speech get flattened by that run-away bus.

      I am thinking of the cover of the June 1978 Hustler Magazine, where a female was being cutely processed through a manual meat grinder (go find it yourself), legs and bottom balanced above at the funnel, with the ground-up product accumulating below on a plate. I remember being outraged by the illustration. I remember feeling the collective humiliation of my gender, understanding that the hatred and fear informing such a cartoon was our world, where disgust, loathing and shame have their way with us every day —rape, battering, lower wages— where, on the cover of a national men’s magazine, Woman is rendered into meat.
      Ten years later, the Supreme Court would defend Hustler and Larry Flint. You can read all about it yourself, but for the purpose of today’s post I give you this from the majority opinion: “The appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploitation of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events – an exploitation often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal. This was certainly true of the cartoons of Thomas Nast, who skewered Boss Tweed in the pages of Harper's Weekly. From a historical perspective, political discourse would have been considerably poorer without such cartoons.”
      Since then, it became a comfort for me to place the value of free speech and political discussion above the values of civility, equality, and even dignity. It was a matter of growing up.
      And the world has seen many such challenges to our faith in freedom of speech. For example, in 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten Jyllands-Posten published twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad, leading to a cultural clash between the Western tradition of free speech and Islamic tradition prohibiting pictorial representations of Muhammad. The outrage of believers was everywhere—protest, death and terrorist threats, murder. I cheered the newspaper and condemned the protesters—hooray for free speech, down with religious idiocy!

      Now we have a national newspaper publishing an invidious cartoon, where —and this is my interpretation— the authors of the “Stim” are likened to a chimpanzee. I say “authors,” because to my knowledge the Stim was not authored by one person, President Obama, but by Democrats in Congress. This may be too literal for some and seeming to avoid an obvious implication, still, here we go again—the wild rumpus has begun, with wounded outrage spilling onto the streets: “We are not monkeys, we are not monkeys!”
      One has to honor the wound expressed there, however. The horrors of white racism are so egregious, it is simply beyond reasonable to expect blacks to accept racist speech, even if unintended, without a protest; it is just too sensitive. Certainly, within the metaphor of America as family, we cannot ignore the injury of profound humiliation found in simian depictions of blacks, comparisons which continue to compound the collective, undermining shame blacks must resist on a daily basis. So, of course, there had to be a response.
      Still, it might be important to step back and consider a few realities. First, even if the intent of the cartoon was an insult to Obama himself, we have to remember that he is the President of the United States, not a second-class member of a dysfunctional family. He is no powerless, helpless, oppressed child of the realm. He, as a public figure, must now accept the verbal and visual attacks natural to his position. Certainly, I doubt we will witness President Obama’s personal outrage over this incident. He knows better than to honor such insults with a response. He knows the First Amendment to the Constitution; he will not tell the newspaper what it can publish and what it cannot publish—he’s not George W. Bush, after all. (Who, by the way, was likened to a chimp on a daily basis.)
      I sense here a headiness of new-found power in some of the protests. It is the will and spirit that oppressed people sometimes discover, once their oppressions fall away, and they find themselves in power. It is that which transforms them into those they previously despised in another life, to turn around and do to their oppressors what their oppressors had done to them. Where their rights were abused, they will abuse rights in turn.
      I sense the creation of a sacred cow too —speaking of animal metaphors— a people who consider their sufferings so far above any other in this world that they must never be subject to the same rule of law as other ordinary citizens. Israel comes to mind. They should be forever above criticism, too sensitive for normal democratic relationships and ordinary respect for the rights of others.
      Let's be careful of that, lest censorship be granted a right, by virtue of special-case sensitivity. Ask the Palestinians if this has worked for them.
      Finally, I have to admit I cringed, not at the cartoon, but at the protestors’ knee-jerk identification of chimpanzee as self, as if they had internalized the message so powerfully as to own it. Perhaps this is wrong-headed and insensitive of me, a white woman, but, I have to ask: if you recognize yourself in a representation, aren’t you projecting your own self-definition onto it? For example, if a public figure reads a novel and complains to the press that the villain in the book is there to insult him, hasn’t he admitted his own culpability? While I realize blacks are recognizing someone else’s racist definition of blacks, the risk is still there—by recognizing themselves in the visual metaphor they validate and empower the insult, and complaining about it makes it true, in the most ironically unfair way. When Richard Nixon protested, “I am not a crook!” didn’t we smile —not unfairly in that case— but we smiled just the same.
      I think it might be better to claim the insult as a compliment—hey, we all share DNA with chimps. 98%. We are primates, so how about we celebrate our primatehood?
      As for me, I think chimps are superior creatures...and, by the way, the chimpanzee in question had been medicated by his idiot owner with Xanax, an anti-depressant. What chimp oppressions he’d had to endure before he attacked is unknown. But that’s another story, and right now I would rather think the 2% difference between chimps and us is perhaps what makes them superior—at least they don’t go around turning us into pets!


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