A ‘good caricature, like every work of art,’ said the Italian Baroque painter, Annibale Carracci, ‘is more true to life than reality.’ This is why, I think, Bill Leak’s cartoons are so often failures. Like several pundits that take up column inches at the Australian these days, his views are so out of touch with the majority of the population that they can – in moments of ideologically charged rage – seem almost deranged.
For your run-of-mill red-baiting-climate-change-denying-antifeminist columnist, this isn’t such a problem. But for a cartoonist, it’s unforgiveable. Their craft is meant to give voice to the masses: it wasn’t all that long ago that only the elite were literate. The masses, deprived of an education, engaged in politics through political cartoons, which could be read by even those who couldn’t read. And the best cartoonists challenged the authority of the rulers and bosses who lorded over them.
Leak, on the other hand, speaks to a very small coterie of the ultra-right.
This gives his whole oeuvre a rather unhinged vibe. Even when he does attack those in power, he does it from a position that very few can relate to.
Take, for example, a recent cartoon in which he criticised Malcolm Turnbull from the right as a tree-hugging supporter of marriage equality who reads Green Left Weekly. But since coming to office, Turnbull has done little to advance social causes; rather, he’s been beholden to the rightwing of his party. Moreover, the majority of Australians support same-sex marriage and agree that climate change is a man-made phenomena. The cartoon may resonate with those who share Leak’s myopic view of Australian politics, but not many more.
Indeed, Turnbull seems to pose several problems for Leak: the new prime minister is more popular than his predecessor, largely because of his more liberal social attitudes, yet this is what the cartoonist derides him for. Leak is fond of depicting Turnbull (as well as many others) as an apologist for Islamist terror. Because the prime minister doesn’t routinely indulge in the sort of anti-Islam rhetoric Abbott was fond of, he is – in Leak’s eyes – ignorant of the ‘real threat’ the religion poses and, ultimately, weak.
Yet, this aspect of Abbott’s leadership was broadly unpopular and criticised (across the political divide) for stoking tension and racism within the community. Nonetheless, Leak continues to present his divisive essentialist view of the world as a truth too few are awake to. But more on his racialised cartoons later.
If his critique of Turnubull fails because he criticises him from the right, when most people feel disillusioned that he hasn’t fulfilled his leftish hue, then his anti-Labor, anti-Shorten and anti-union campaigns fail for the same reason. What surprised me when I was looking through Leak’s archive is just how often he’s drawn Shorten since he became Opposition leader, which is odd considering cartoonists traditionally go after those in power. Nonetheless, his depiction of Shorten as a ventriloquist doll controlled by the CFMEU is one of his best (also here, here, here and here). It captures Shorten’s awkwardness – his woodenness – in front of the camera. But the underlying message – that he’s a stooge of the leftwing union – couldn’t be further from the truth.
As Shorten demonstrated during his time on the stand at the Royal Commission, he got ahead in the rightwing of the Victorian Labor Party, not by his militant commitment to workers, but through his willingness to sell workers out. This, I think, is the most damning thing anyone could say of an ex-unionist. Again, Leak’s cartoons – although stylistically quite good – ultimately fail because they don’t speak to an essential truth; rather, they speak to a small group of reactionaries for whom unions are akin to the Gestapo.
The ascension of Turnbull and the threat that the Coalition might be dragged leftward on social policy has clearly exposed divisions within the right. One can see it in parliament over policies like the Safe Schools Program and one can watch it play out in the pages of the Australian in a battle royale between Savva and Kenny over the airing of rumours of prime ministerial infidelity. Leak, of course, is not immune to these machinations. In Abbott he had an ideological alley, particularly when it came to terrorism. In this sense, his cartoons fit comfortably into another tradition: that of cartoonists siding with power to incite hate, division and racism. In these cases, the cartoonist is not a voice of the masses, but a mouthpiece for the mob.
When these cartoons take on a racialised nature it’s amazing how often they follow a similar pattern of dehumanising the ‘enemy’. There is, of course, a long history of representing dark-skinned people as apes, but what’s less know is that in early American history the Irish came in for the same treatment. During the twentieth century, particularly around the two world wars, Jews, Germans and the Japanese were regularly represented as sub-human.
It is, perhaps, worth pausing for a moment to reflect on some of the fundamental challenges cartoonists face when depicting minorities. It’s something even the most strident anti-racists have to deal with. As the great American cartoonist, David Levine, once pointed out when condemned for a cartoon he’d drawn of Henry Kissinger ‘screwing the world’: dealing in stereotypes is what caricaturists do. (Incidentally, the world was depicted as a submissive female and feminists at the magazine it was commissioned for protested.) So, where then, is the line?
Ultimately, it’s an impossible question to answer. Victor Navasky, longtime editor at The Nation tackled it in his book, The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power:
When it comes to minorities, the disadvantaged, and the dispossessed, I am at something of a loss in defining the line between the stereotype and the hate cartoon, though having grown up during World War II reading comics that invariably showed Japanese with leering slanted eyes, fangs for teeth, and bright yellow skin, as the late Associate Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward once said of pornography, ‘I know it when I see it.’
In March 2006, the Indonesian newspaper Rakyat Merdeka printed a front-page cartoon of then Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer as dingoes in the act. Leak responded a few days later with cartoon showing the then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono drawn as a dog mounting a West Papuan from behind.
Whatever one thinks on the cartoon, it isn’t quite comparable with the nineteenth and twentieth century examples mentioned above. The cartoon wasn’t part of a sustained anti-Indonesian campaign; rather, it was a response that borrowed from the original, which many would argue is a perfectly adequate defence.
More recently, Leak has skirted close to the edges of this racist trope when tackling his favourite subject: Islamist extremism. He’s depicted, for example, two bearded terrorists standing ape-like, with long arms and hunched backs, screaming ‘CUT ‘IS ‘EAD ‘ORF!’ It’s hardly the first time Leak has alluded to Islamists being less evolutionary advanced. In a cartoon titled ‘The feminist evolution’, he juxtaposes an image of a caveman dragging a women up a hill surrounded by human skeletons, with that of a bearded terrorist repeating the treatment to a smiling female peace activist. In another cartoon, Leak has three (presumed) extremists sitting in a discussion group under the heading ‘Subhuman rights activists’ – the implication isn’t subtle.
The leap from subhuman Muslim guerrilla to Muslim gorilla is not such a large one, especially when one already takes it for granted – as Leak seems to – that all Muslims are potential terrorists. This assumption underlies his depiction of a Palestinian militant, hooded and with a gun slung over his shoulder, leaning down to pat a child on the shoulder, telling him ‘go out to play and win the war for daddy’. It appeared during the 2014 Gaza War in which over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians. It echoes the common line peddled by Likudniks that Palestinians use their children as human shields; that they want to see their children killed and maimed because that will reflect poorly on the IDF. If all Palestinians are terrorists – even the children – then killing them indiscriminately becomes an acceptable act of self-defence.
Leak is hardly the only one in the media to peddle Islamophobic views, but as a cartoonist he has a unique power. As Navasky points out:
far from 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.
Leak’s work contributes to a broader social trend in which Muslims are increasingly finding themselves marginalised because of their faith. To acknowledge this is not ‘political correctness gone mad’ or an attempt to curtail Leak’s free speech. Rather, it’s an effort to push back against the discrimination and racism that poses far more of a threat to our culture than the terrorism which so obsess the likes of Leak.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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