When, in late September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons about the prophet Muhammad, thousands took to the street around the world in protest. The cartoons’ publication triggered boycotts of Danish products across the Middle East, and caused diplomatic crises in a number of countries.
In his remarkable book The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power (2013), American writer Victor S Navasky explains how the case revealed to him just how crucial the form of the political cartoon is. Riffing on Marshall McLuhan, he notes that historically controversial cartoons had ‘as much to do with the medium as it did with the message … contained’.
Navasky’s examination of the subject is epic, beginning with the imprisonment of nineteenth-century French caricaturist Honoré Daumier, and continuing on to the case of Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, who was fatally shot in the face outside the London office of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas in July 1987. Navasky says:
Far from [being] trivial, under certain circumstances cartoons and caricatures have historically had and continue to have a unique emotional power and capacity to enrage, upset, and discombobulate otherwise rational people and groups and drive them to disproportionate-to-the-occasion, sometimes violent, emotionally charged behavior.
This leads us, of course, to Glen Le Lievre’s cartoon in Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald, an illustration that appeared on 26 July next to Mike Carlton’s column about the Gaza conflict. In an apology run by the newspaper a few minutes after midnight last night, Fairfax itself described the Le Lievre cartoon as follows:
The cartoon showed an elderly man, with a large nose, sitting alone, with a remote control device in his hand, overseeing explosions in Gaza. The armchair in which he was sitting was emblazoned with the Star of David, and the man was wearing a kippah, a religious skullcap. A strong view was expressed that the cartoon, by Glen Le Lievre, closely resembled illustrations that had circulated in Nazi Germany. These are menacing cartoons that continue to haunt and traumatise generations of Jewish people.
The article continues:
The Herald now appreciates that, in using the Star of David and the kippah in the cartoon, the newspaper invoked an inappropriate element of religion, rather than nationhood, and made a serious error of judgment. It was wrong to publish the cartoon in its original form.
As Fairfax’s apology itself indicates, the taint of anti-Semitism relates not simply to the Le Lievre cartoon itself but to the Sydney Morning Herald’s decision to run it. This is precisely the problem: political cartooning has a long and notorious history as a tool for propaganda. We are dealing with not simply an individual’s act of putting pen to paper to visualise ignorance and hate, but also the existence on an entire commercial print media infrastructure that could have chosen not to run garbage like this … and did so anyway.
And then there’s The Australian‘s Bill Leak.
It would be pointless not to acknowledge Leak’s achievements. He is a nine-time Walkley winner, whose works have been included in the revered Archibald Prize for portraiture no less than eleven times. In the past, Leak has previously made the news rather than just satirising it: he was involved in a bizarre legal spat in 2007 when Belgian company Moulinsart threatened to sue over the sale of cartoons where he depicted Kevin Rudd as Tintin, over whom they owned copyright. A balcony fall at John Singleton’s house in 2008 also hit the papers – the incident left Leak in an induced coma, after which he required surgery.
Certainly, Leak has never been shy about expressing his political leanings – as he showed on 31 July, when the Australian ran a cartoon entitled ‘How the West Was Won Over’. It depicts a Palestinian fighter affectionately instructing his son to ‘now go out to play and win the PR war for daddy’.
The reference is obvious: the day before, Israeli artillery shells hit a school in the Gaza Strip (at the time, the sixth UN school to be struck). The UN estimated that 20 people died and many more were injured. Indeed, images of hurt or distressed Palestinian children have become emblematic of the crisis.
The United Nations has declared that the attack on its schools clearly violated international law, but Leak’s cartoon suggests something else. It implies that the true villains are the Palestinian militants who deliberately sacrifice their own children to make international headlines and win public favour. This is, as the title indicates, ‘How the West Was Won Over’.
Much could be written about what this cartoon says about Leak beyond his usual, long-demonstrated political conservatism: vicious cynicism and a fundamental lack of compassion for the suffering of other human beings, among them. He is not alone on this front. As the discourse surrounding asylum seekers reminds us on a near-daily basis, in contemporary Australia, the mainstream press celebrates these character traits as a patriot’s badge of honour.
Aside from its politics, Leak’s cartoon is marred by a fundamental failure in logic. He’s accusing one group of using dead children to manipulate public opinion but, as a political cartoonist whose work appears in a national newspaper, he is doing precisely the same thing.
In any case, the ‘How the West Was Won Over’ cartoon fails not merely because it’s ethically monstrous, but, because as far as propaganda goes, it is just shoddily constructed. It reveals as much about Leak’s own lack of professional self-awareness as anything to do with what is happening in Gaza.
The very words ‘How The West Was Won Over’ may tell us a lot more than he imagines. The film How The West Was Won – which shows the westward shift across the United States between 1839 and 1889 – was made by MGM in 1962. Despite its abundance of big names – Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, and John Ford – the film is historically significant primarily because, it was the last of a dying breed, the ‘classical Western’. As darker and often more subversive revisionist Westerns grew in popularity, films like How The West Was Won became increasingly anachronistic, with the white, hyper-masculinity of the traditional genre was thrown into question in the rapidly changing America of the 1960s.
By calling his cartoon ‘How The West Was Won Over’, Leak reminds us that the kind of white-Western-hero-here-to-save-the-day-and-set-us-all-straight conservatism his cartoon represents has had its time: it just doesn’t work anymore. That this cartoon politicises the death of children to make an ideological point accusing others of politicising the death of children to make an ideological point shows how redundant, desperate and confused his political position has become.
If the Leak and the Le Lievre cartoons last week are representative of the state of political satire in Australia right now – and I fear they may be – then we are in serious trouble.