This week's now-notorious New York Post "monkey" cartoon -- the one showing two policemen standing over a dead monkey they've just shot and saying "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill" -- has raised storms of protest. Whether the artist intended the monkey as Obama or not, the implication is hard to miss.
The controvercy raises a deeper fact. Political cartoons in America have a long history of treading into racism, zenophobia, and bigotry. And some of the worst have come from our most celebrated, main stream journals.
Thomas Nast (above right), for instance, is celebrated as the brilliant young 1870s artist for Harper's Weekly whose ridicule destroyed the regime of New York City's Boss William M. Tweed -- easily the era's most corrupt pol. Nast became the most famous, widely-read, and politically influential graphic artist of the Nineteenth Century, able to sway elections and make or break Senators. But his cartoons seethed with bigotry, against Catholics, against Irish, against immigrants, against Democrats.
Before closing the book on the current controversy, here are a few samples. The point is not to make excuses for the New York Post. Rather, to me, it's the opposite. These examples show how dangerously easy it is for artists and journalists to let passions over today's hot spot issues get in the way of good sense. Editors have a duty to to work hard, not to censor talented artists, but to make sure they express themselves clearly -- and not to allow what might have started as a simple satire against the Stimulus Bill (obvious fair game) cross the line into ugliness.
As for Thomas Nast:
He enjoyeed portraying Catholic clergy is vile creatures, in this case as crocodiles.
He consistently drew Irishmen as semi-human gorillas, never far from a whiskey bottle and shackled to political mahcines. (The fellow with the whip is Peter B. Sweeny, famed chieftain of New York's Tamman Hall from the Boss Tweed era.)
And for political enemies like Tweed, he considered capitol punushment just fine: