The editorial cartoon above by Phil Hands has sparked some interesting debate. Hands published the cartoon along with an editorial in which he noted that he’s usually liberal, but in the case of the current Wisconsin budget crisis found himself siding with the Republican governor against employee unions. Tom Spurgeon read the editorial and complimented Hands for his courage in stating his beliefs.

Martin Wisse then then argued that the cartoon is lousy and spouting right-wing talking points is not especially courageous. To which Tom responded.

To restate: if we take him at his word, this is an honest expression of a specific political idea that runs counter to his general political leanings, and, on top of that, will likely earn him no amount of shit from his readers — and, as we likely both agree, history. He’s also going to have to watch people with whom he generally disagrees praise the cartoon to the skies. Heck, he’s even having his motives disparaged in tweets and blog posts from a guy not even in the US!

I think that specific kind of honesty is brave, whether or not someone is right or wrong, and I’d prefer every editorial cartoonist work the same way even if the cartoons don’t end up hitting on the best side of an issue. We have all sorts of editorial cartoonists in this country that are so terrified of being criticized that they don’t have any opinions at all, let alone ones about which they’re conflicted, and spend their days trying to find the most politically expedient way not to say anything at all. If you don’t agree that this is a virtue, fine, but please disagree with that point, not some made-up fantasy one that I think this is a good cartoon.

Tom’s logic here is curious. After all, if the criteria for admirability is (a) honest expression of beliefs, (b) taking shit from readers, and (c) going against one’s usual political leanings, then, in theory, Hands would be even more admirable if he had created a vicious white supremacist cartoon depicting black people as inferior apes who deserve to be enslaved. Presuming Hands suddenly really believed that blacks were inferior, such a public stance would undoubtedly be courageous; it would probably result not just in a few nasty emails, but in the termination of his career. Would Tom still feel that his stance was admirable? Would the admirableness of that stance be really the thing to focus on, or might it be more worthwhile to focus on, say, other factors?

This isn’t an entirely academic exercise. Racist cartoons have been created, after all. Here’s one.

That’s by Thomas Nast, titled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed State.” It was created in 1874, and is a condemnation of interracial Reconstruction governments in the south. The cartoon arguably satisfies Tom’s criteria of admirability. Nast had (like many in the North) been in favor of racial equality through the Civil War. His move to racism mirrored an end of racial idealism in the north in the face of southern resistance — but. It was presumably sincere, it went against his earlier political beliefs, and no doubt it alienated a portion of his admirers. So do we pat Nast on the head for his bravery in penning this cartoon? Or what?

Tom explicates his position a little bit more here.

I wrote Monday about a recent cartoon on the Wisconsin teachers’ issue with which I didn’t agree because I admired the notion put forward by the cartoonist that he was following his opinion on the specific matter despite that opinion running counter to his general political beliefs. I didn’t talk about the quality of that cartoon on purpose, because 1) I didn’t think that was germane to that particular bit of praise and 2) I think processing art according to how it satisfies or runs up against our personal political beliefs is a sign of the laziness and decadence of our general political conversation.

The use of “decadence” there seems really confused. Decadence is usually seen as putting aesthetic concerns before ethical ones. Judging politics in relation to art may be wrong for any number of reasons (at least arguably), but it’s the opposite of decadent. To the extent that our political conversation is decadent, it’s not because people take their beliefs seriously enough to bring them to the art they enjoy, but because of a corrosive centrism which insists that no beliefs are as important as collegiality and not making waves (which actually seems to dovetail with Tom’s point above about the lack of convictions among political cartoonists.)

Another problem with our political conversation is lying. And I would argue that Hands’ cartoon comes quite close to doing just that.

My central problem with this cartoon isn’t that I disagree with it. It’s that it’s built around a caricature which is deceitful. The guy in the chair is portrayed as an aging hippie, the implication being that the protesting public workers are just old, pampered, addled aging boomers, hoping to capture the glory days of the 60s, man. Which, of course, is utter nonsense. The protestors are mostly working people of various ages — and the union movement in Wisconsin did not originate, and was not especially associated, with the counter-cultural left. Hands is using easy culture-war tropes to slime his political opponents. It’s not clear to me why that’s deserving of praise, no matter how honestly intended (whatever “honesty” could mean in this instance given the misleading nature of the caricature.)

What’s tricky about Hands’ position here — and why I think Tom somewhat confusingly keeps arguing that he’s not talking about the cartoon — is that Hands’ essay is actually infinitely more reasonable than his drawing. In that essay, he says this:

I believe that public employees should be well compensated for the valuable work they do. In fact, exceptional public employees should be exceptionally compensated (something that most unions have fought against in favor of pay based on seniority). But like the rest of us in this economy public employees need to make sacrifices.

That is why I hope they will support the compromise of Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, that the Wisconsin State Journal endorsed in an editorial today. Schultz’s plan is the same as Walker’s except that it calls for a sunset clause that would reinstate collective bargaining rights for public workers in 2013, after this budget crisis is presumably over.

Now, I don’t really agree with that…but it’s honest and forthright and a reasonable contribution to the debate. It’s not a stupid, lying, piece of horseshit propaganda, which, I would argue, the cartoon is. I can see why Tom would praise the essay, and why he would repeatedly insist he’s not praising the cartoon.

What I have trouble understanding is why, having praised the essay, Tom would then use reaction to the cartoon as an occasion to lambast those who disagree with what Hands drew. It seems to me that Hands is an artist using his art to create political commentary. The art he created is lousy (if we agree that using misleading stereotypes is lousy) and the political commentary idiotic (if we agree that political commentary via misleading stereotypes is idiotic.) Pointing that out is not a “sign of the laziness and decadence of our general political conversation.” Rather, it’s engaging with the art as if you have some sort of aesthetic and political standards.

And, I’d argue, it’s those same aesthetic and political standards that make Hands’ essay (more) worthwhile. His essay is better art, and better politics, than his cartoon. But you can’t really arrive at that conclusion if you put art and politics aside to praise the mere utterance of a contrarian opinion as in itself somehow worthy of merit. I think Ulysses S. Grant maybe struck a better balance, in acknowledging his opponents commitment, and honoring them for it, while being careful to remind his readers that that commitment had to be evaluated most importantly in the context of its content.

I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us…

Update: Martin Wisse and Tom go another round. Scroll down for Tom’s comments, in which he says, among other things:

Are you saying that honest expression isn’t more admirable than jaded disingenousness? Are you suggesting that honest opinions lead to worse cartooning than disingenuous ones?

I would say, for my part, that an honest expression of racism is in fact less admirable than a jaded, disingenuous embrace of anti-racism, yeah. And in part that’s because what people believe often follows from what they do, rather than the other way around. It isn’t just beliefs that influence actions; actions influence beliefs. So a jaded, disingenuous decision to act morally can actually lead to believing morally. That happens all the time — as does the opposite, where people act immorally and then change their opinions to justify it.

To mangle poor Barry Goldwater, honesty in the defense of vice is not a virtue. Or at least it’s not the virtue, to be praised in splendid isolation from questions of content or truth.

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