Thursday, February 09, 2006

On inflammatory inkblots - Part Two of Two

Okay, so when something really gets to me, I tend to write. This has the positive effect of getting my thoughts out of my head and into the real world where I can smack ‘em around a little bit, and the negative effect of accomplishing absolutely nothing else.

Srinivas Aravamudan writes, too, and even finds a venue that doesn’t have “” after its name. His guest column in yesterday’s AJC made some really good points about the current controversy and violence. Perhaps I find them so insightful because they, well, agree with what I said yesterday, and what I’m planning to say today:
[…] I think some of these cartoons are actually interesting, as they are not all the same, and they don't all mean the same thing. (You can easily find them on the Internet.)

One portrays a rather ominous-looking Muhammad almost hidden behind his mustache and facial hair with a lit fuse for his bomb-shaped turban. This is clearly racist, playing into the stereotype of the Muslim as a terrorist. It recalls the hook-nosed Jews of anti-Semitic portraiture.

Another cartoon shows the prophet, arms outstretched, telling a line of burned-out suicide bombers approaching heaven: "Stop, stop. We ran out of virgins!"

This cartoon could obviously be read as anti-Islamic, as it suggests that suicide bombing is essentially Muslim. However, there are subtler possibilities.

The prophet's reaction implicitly criticizes the bombers who take the mythical idea of virgins in paradise too literally. It ridicules suicide bombers for committing their acts for something as ridiculous as sex in the hereafter. These readings might suggest that Muhammad (and Islam) is not directly responsible for the phenomenon of suicide bombing.

If we find these cartoons funny, it tells us more about ourselves — our prejudices and our fears — than it necessarily tells us about Muslims or the prophet.

The significant point there is that, being little more than single-panel cartoons chock full of often-vague metaphors, editorial cartoons often serve as more of a Rorschach test than anything else. We project our own meaning onto the cartoons, and we come back with an interpretation based on that meaning. When I saw those cartoons, I didn’t interpret them the way Aravamudan did; I just thought they were, well, not particularly clever.

Recently, the Washington Post ran an editorial cartoon by Tom Toles that showed a quadruple-amputee soldier sitting in a hospital bed as "Dr. Rumsfeld" proclaimed him to be "battle-hardened." It was based on a recent statement that Rumsfeld made, arguing that the military is "battle-hardened" rather than overextended. Some took the cartoon that way; some took it as a jab at the military, a jab at injured vets themselves or a criticism of the government's care of injured vets. Readers up to and including the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote letters to the editor, some angry, some supportive, and each one of those was based on a unique interpretation.

Another thing to keep in mind is that editorial cartoons aren’t “Nancy.” They aren’t even “Doonesbury” or “The Boondocks,” although both of those frequently offer some kind of political or societal commentary. Editorial cartoons aren’t supposed to be funny. If you look at a Tom Toles cartoon and say, “Ha! Look at that silly donkey! Everyone knows that donkeys don’t wear top hats,” you’re missing the point.

Editorial cartoons are meant to incite that most feared of all reactions - thought. They use allegory, metaphor and symbolism to invite the reader’s personal interpretation. But that interpretation is just as reflective of the reader’s own thoughts and views as it is of the cartoonists'. An irate response to a cartoon – and do read that phrase over again, because we are talking about irate responses and cartoons - is often a sign of someone just looking for something to be pissed off about. And that's why a line drawing in a newspaper is such a pathetic reason to riot - because the cartoon itself doesn't hold any meaning at all until you put some in.

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