| Guest commentary by Clay Jones
Cartoonist considers freedom, responsibility
EVERY EDITORIAL cartoon-ist aims to elicit an emotion from readers. A successful cartoon will make you smile, cry, laugh, curse, or write a letter in protest to the newspaper.
A very successful cartoon will compel all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to write a letter to the editor–which is what Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles did last week. Toles’ cartoon was an image of a wounded soldier with each limb amputated and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as a doctor, at his bedside saying, "I am listing your condition as battle-hardened."
At the bottom, a smaller figure of a doctor adds: "I’m prescribing that you be stretched thin. We don’t define that as torture."
The Joint Chiefs’ letter to The Washington Post states that the six military leaders "believe you and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to your readers and your paper’s reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation, and as a result, have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds. As the Joint Chiefs, it is rare that we all put our hand to one letter, but we cannot let this reprehensible cartoon go unanswered."
The letter also states, "Using the likeness of a service member who has lost his arms and legs in war as the central theme of a cartoon is beyond tasteless."
This has been great fodder for political talk-show hosts, who’ve invited several cartoonists–who didn’t draw the cartoon–to their shows to shout–er, discuss it.
I find the issue newsworthy, but not controversial. While it is rare to send every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff into such a collective dither, they didn’t really do anything wrong by protesting. While I think they misinterpreted the cartoon, and have larger issues to concern themselves with, isn’t expressing yourself the American way?
In comparison with what’s going on in Europe and the Middle East, The Washington Post and Tom Toles don’t know the meaning of protest.
The Danish newspaper Jylland-Posten solicited 12 cartoonists to draw caricatures and cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. In case you’ve been living in a big plastic bubble for the past week, the reaction has been huge. Editors have been fired, cartoonists are in hiding with Salman Rushdie, ambassadors are being kicked out of Muslim countries, embassies are being torched, Germans are being kidnapped, trade with Denmark is being banned, Danish flags are being set on fire all over the Middle East (it’s weird to see a flag burning that doesn’t have 13 stripes or the Star of David on it), and people are actually dying–all because someone doesn’t like an opinion.
The European press wants to make the issue about freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Muslim extremists want to make it out as an insult to their religion. One of the cartoons featured Muhammad with a bomb as a turban.
The irony in all this is striking: Muslim extremists are upset with Danish cartoonists blaming Muhammad for Muslim violence — so they protest with Muslim violence.
Maybe they don’t get the irony.
The rest of the cartoons were bland, amateurish, indecipherable, and just bad (Tom Toles could teach these guys a course).
Freedom — and responsibility
A lot of responsibility goes into freedom of the press. Do you solicit viewpoints to make a statement, or do you print something just to anger people?
Imagine if The Free Lance-Star ran a cartoon blaming John the Baptist for Eric Rudolph bombing a Birmingham abortion clinic.
As a cartoonist, I don’t care if people get angry over an opinion. But I don’t want to anger people just for the sake of making them angry. I think the anger should be a side product of making an effective statement.
I don’t even think there’s an art to making people angry–and I find it pretty easy to do without trying.
The main goal for an opinion page should be to make the reader think. Cartoonists and editors always disagree where to draw the line (and some cartoonists don’t even think there should be a line).
I’m torn on this issue–I like provocative journalism, but I also think the newspapers that ran these cartoons crossed some lines.
At the same time, the Muslim world is overreacting. Most of the anger seems coordinated, since the cartoons were published last September and people are just now getting bent out of shape.
The Jylland-Posten has every right to freedom of the press. It even has the right to abuse it. At the same time, Muslims have every right to be upset–just as Christians were unhappy with "The Last Temptation of Christ" (though I don’t recall the Vatican kicking out our ambassador).
Congratulations to Tom Toles for drawing such an effective cartoon. Looking at the alternative ways to protest an opinion, I’m sure he’s glad he drew it in America.
(CLAY JONES is the editorial cartoonist for for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, VA. He began his cartooning career at The Panolian where his now-syndicated editorial cartoons appear in each issue.)