Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

Delonas cartoon debacle

This month, a lot of people were offended by a Sean Delonas political cartoon in the New York Post. A lot of people were also not offended by it. By now, most of you will probably have seen a copy of the cartoon; if you haven’t, please look at the cartoon below. (You may choose to be offended or not offended, as you see fit.)

This controversial Feb. 18, 2009 cartoon in the New York Post depicts two policemen, one of whom has shot a chimpanzee as the other says Theyll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill. Jasons fair use rationale: Using the cartoon facilitates a discussion of possible interpretations of the cartoon. The use of copyrighted work for comment and criticism is specifically mentioned as an example of fair use in 17 USC 107.

This controversial Feb. 18, 2009 cartoon in the New York Post depicts two policemen, one of whom has shot a chimpanzee dead as the other says "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." Jason's fair use rationale: Using the cartoon facilitates a discussion of possible interpretations of the cartoon. The use of copyrighted work for comment and criticism is specifically mentioned as an example of fair use in 17 USC 107.

I think it’s OK to be offended by the cartoon. I also think it’s OK to be unoffended, as long as you don’t see the president in it. (Because really, if you think the chimpanzee represents the president, and you think it’s acceptable or even funny to depict him shot dead, you’re probably not someone I’d get along with.)

To understand what the cartoon was about, it’s important to know about the two current events juxtaposed in the cartoon.

The scene is from the rather weird news story about the pet chimpanzee in Stamford, Conn. that attacked a woman on Feb. 16, and tore her face off. The same chimpanzee attacked a police cruiser, so the police officers shot and killed it. It’s a sad story, but it was still national news, just because it was such an unusual occurrence. Not serious, need-to-know news, but still interesting nonetheless.

On Feb. 17, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, about a week after Congress voted mostly along party lines to approve the bill. One of the objections opponents raised was that Congress (and the public) had fewer than 24 hours to read the final version of the gigantic tome before the votes (and, much like the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, it was passed in an atmosphere in which a president frequently cited the necessity of action.) That’s serious, need-to-know news.

Bearing in mind that the New York Post’s editorial board opposes the legislation, it becomes easier to visualize the atmosphere in which Delonas worked at the time he drew the cartoon.

Many of the unoffended readers saw a dead chimpanzee, saw the comment from the police officer, and thought something like, “Congress is a bunch of chimpanzees, ha, ha.” Most of the offended readers interpreted the situation as the police officers standing over a dead chimpanzee, then making a joke that President Obama was a chimpanzee, a double-whammy when coupled with the disturbing imagery of making jokes about assassinating a president.

I was in the group of unoffended readers, because in my interpretation, there was no possibility that the chimpanzee represented President Obama. Perhaps I am biased because I work for a newspaper, but the notion that any American paper (even one owned by Rupert Murdoch) would think it is OK to make a joke about killing an American president just seems ludicrous to me. That, coupled with the fact that the president didn’t write the stimulus bill in the first place, made an interpretation of Obama as chimpanzee quite impossible — for me.

Others saw the image and remembered the history of racial discrimination in America, particularly the historical use of simian simile to refer to black people (an interpretation that might have seemed more plausible if the reader hadn’t known of the chimpanzee attack), and possibly thought that the act of signing a bill into law is functionally equivalent to writing it, making the chimpanzee a depiction of President Obama. This interpretation made a lot of people angry, and frankly, if that is how I interpreted the cartoon, I would have been quite angry, too. Many of the offended people charged that the cartoon was a racist message.

I haven’t read up enough on what makes art art; I heard an art professor say once that the artist’s intent makes art, but I just googled the question, and it seems like the matter is controversial. But I think that to levy a charge of racism in art, it’s only fair to look at the intent of the artist.

When I visited Korea in the 1980s, I was shocked to see the swastika in a Buddhist temple. My immediate reaction, even as a child, reflected how I’d been conditioned to respond to the symbol by my own culture. I didn’t know at the time that for thousands of years, Hindus and Buddhists used the swastika as a peaceful symbol. It would have been unfair of me to call the Buddhist monks Nazis. (But it was reasonable of me to have been offended until I heard an explanation for why the swastika was not a Nazi symbol when displayed in the context of a Buddhist temple.)

The psychiatrist George Bach (who was cited in my group communication textbook in college) had a term to describe when a listener insists that a speaker had a different meaning than what the speaker says they meant. He called it “mind raping” because it assumes that the speaker’s words have only one possible meaning: the one that the mind rapist interpreted. In personal relationships, it can be used as a form of psychological abuse because the mind rapist refuses to accept the meaning that the speaker intended. My professor also used the term to describe when someone assigns feelings to another person abusively: An abusive boss who employs mind-raping might tell you angrily, “you obviously don’t care about the quality of your work!” before investigating why the quality of your work is inferior.

Bach’s mind-raping definition can be logically extended to include all ambiguous forms of communication, including art. For example, if I photograph a dejected student athlete realizing that the team is about to get knocked out of the playoffs, I’m not doing it to make him or her look bad. Whatever emotions I see on the athlete’s face are probably also being experienced by many of the fans in attendance (especially the ones that cry at movies.) All I’m trying to do is capture that heartbreak, frustration and agony for the people that didn’t make it to the game. I want people who see the picture to feel what the player felt.

It hasn’t happened yet, but if a student athlete felt humiliated by the publication of such a photo, and let me know how they had been hurt, I’d take that into account in the future (because I’m not trying to hurt kids with my photos). But if anyone would insist that I took the photo in order to humiliate the athlete, even after I explained my rationale, that would be unfair to me, and I would consider it mind raping.

The Post ended up publishing an editorial apologizing to the people that were offended:

It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.

Period.

But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.

This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.

They’ve said what they thought the cartoon meant. They said they apologize to people that thought it was a depiction of the president. And really, if anyone is in a position to know what they meant, and what they did not mean, it’s them.

I personally think the apology would have been better if it stopped with the apology rather than tweaking the people the Post perceives as their enemies. Instead, they said:

However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past – and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback.

To them, no apology is due.

I don’t think that part does anything to heal the wounds suffered by the offended, nor does it help anyone understand why they made the choices they did. I would have preferred to see some rationale for why they think the image is explicitly not of President Obama, but I can understand why they might not have wanted to go that route: can anyone truly apologize by convincing someone else they were wrong?

It’s fair to have been offended. It’s fair not to have been offended. It’s not fair to declare that the cartoon means something that the Post says it doesn’t (though it’s fair to say that the cartoon could be interpreted that way, with some rationale). It’s not fair to say Delonas is racist using only this cartoon as a basis.

(I’ve seen some examples of Delonas’ other work at Gawker. They were selected by people that were offended, as examples of his work that might offend the readers of Gawker. I find most of the cartoons there to be in poor taste. I think the way he portrays gay males, with an upturned leg as if they’re prancing about, offensive and unnecessary. I think it’s a stretch to call any of the selected cartoons racist. One criticizes Al Sharpton; I don’t understand why Delonas drew him with a gigantic rear end fifty times the size of his head, but I don’t think it’s because Delonas is trying to say something about anyone other than Al Sharpton.)

3 comments on “Delonas cartoon debacle

  1. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    March 3, 2009

    I think there is a difference between your analogy of seeing the swastika in a Buddhist temple in Korea and the political cartoon. The swastika was displayed in another culture – one removed from its use by the Nazis. The depiction of Black people as apes is within a cultural context and history that is very identifiable.

    I think the cartoonist is very aware of this history. I think that people who are sensitive to the history are more likely to be offended, not because they are thin skinned, but rather because of a historical context that has directly impacted the relationships between Black and White people.

    Delonas knows what he is doing with these images. He uses them purposely for their mulit-layered connotations.

    The depiction of Al Sharpton with a “gigantic rear end” also fits into a history of racist representation. Europeans depicted Africans with giant rear ends in the 19th and 20th centuries as a stereotype of “Bush men” or the “Hottentot.” Hottentot is a derogatory word used by English colonists to refer to the indigenous African people of the Kalahari desert in Botswana and South Africa.

  2. jbwhong
    March 3, 2009

    [[note: I use Associated Press style to describe race, which means colors like black and white are lower-case, while geographically-derived adjectives like African, Asian, Hispanic, are capitalized. No disrespect is intended by this.]]

    I see the difference in analogies, too, Connie; but I think the frame of reference of how someone grew up in the U.S. can contribute to a non-Obama interpretation. For instance, I don’t think I lived under a rock; I lived in a very diverse suburb of Washington D.C., and worshipped at a church that wouldn’t call itself a white church or a black church, but I didn’t know much about the “blacks as apes” history until I moved away to relatively homogenous upstate New York. My wife didn’t know about it, either, until I told her about it. (I’m not saying whether Delonas knows of this…)

    Recently, I have discussed the use of words like “monkey” with other people I know; a black person I know of said he knew of it but understood why younger generations might not know of it. A younger white person said that her boyfriend used to work with some openly racist people that used “monkey” to refer to black people, so that’s how she found out… But there are a lot of people for whom the word “monkey” doesn’t mean “black person” in any context, and I think that’s a good thing. (Again, not saying whether Delonas is one of them…)

    But I wouldn’t go as far as to say Delonas wanted some people to see Obama in that cartoon, even if he didn’t. One photo I took a little over a year ago upset many people. I was assigned to look for police officers doing their jobs one afternoon. I went to an auto accident and saw the police arrest a man. I took the photograph, and offered it, along with some other more boring photos of police working at the accident site, for publication. I looked at the photo and saw police arresting someone; other people looked at it and saw a white police officer arresting a black man. I received a bunch of complaints over it.

    Was it insensitive? Of course. I was not sensitive to how this man being arrested felt when I took his picture. But I didn’t think the circumstances of which skin color was on which person in the photo were up to anything other than chance. There’s no practical way to try to be equal about it by looking for another arrest to shoot; in over two years, I have only seen one person arrested (outside of SWAT standoffs, which end in arrests).

    I really don’t want people to say that “Jason knows what he is doing with this image of a young white cop arresting an older black man” about me. I am aware of actual police oppression of black people that happened and still happens in this country. I am aware that lots of people of many races have had problems with racial profiling (which wasn’t going on at the accident scene, as far as I could tell). I am aware that for centuries, some white people in the colonies and later in the country oppressed black people, while other whites wanted them to be free in America, and other whites thought free blacks would be better off in places like Liberia. But none of that had anything to do with what was going on at the moment I decided to press the shutter release button. I wasn’t doing it for controversy, for attention, or to make groups of people feel bad. I did it because someone was being arrested in front of my camera, and that doesn’t happen very often. And because I had been assigned to get a photo of police officers doing their jobs.

    I have been thinking about the gigantic rear end cartoon – I think it’s hard to say Delonas was using the big butt as a racial reference without seeing him use that device in more than one cartoon (lampooning a black person other than Al Sharpton). There were two or three cartoons in that collection that had gay men prancing for no reason at all other than to make them look stereotypically gay. I have to wonder if a “gigantic butt = Hottentot” interpretation might be lost on most people (but not on racists and people who study racism).

    It didn’t occur to me until recently that perhaps Delonas wanted controversy as well as plausible deniability, so people like me might try to defend him. If true, that would make him a troll in teflon armor.

  3. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    March 4, 2009

    I think you may be right – perhaps the incident with the rampaging chimp was the perfect cover for him. I like the image, “a troll in teflon armor.”

    It’s hard to know what an artist is intending and I guess that’s the crux of the problem. I think Delonas has a record of purposely using stereotypical representations, so I feel free to assign racist motivations to him. Of course, I may be wrong!

    But, other artists do not have that kind of a record and your example is a case in point. I think you make a good point that it’s important not to assign motivations to an artist in the absence of a pattern or history of representations.

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