Friday, November 18, 2011


"Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit."  Aristotle
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Why does a political cartoon ignite violence in many parts of the world?  Is it the power of image over text or a combination of image and text?  How does a good cartoon work (on the mind)?  Are there issues of class at work when people become offended by a cartoon? Are political cartoons only for the educated?"

             Think about this cartoon that I saw many years ago:

             We see a young, black mother enter her son's bedroom. She's surprised because he's wet his bed sheets. The mother is Alberta King. The boy is little Martin Luther King Jr. By way of sheepishly explaining himself, he says, "I had a dream."

Did that cartoon idea offend you? If so, you should ask yourself why. Do you perhaps feel that there is something so "sacred" about King that a drawing about him bed-wetting as a little boy is offensive and in poor taste? Do you believe he never wet his bed sheets as a child? Personally, when I saw that cartoon, I laughed out loud and admired the cartoonist for his imagination. He took me by surprise with it. And I didn't feel in any way that the grandeur of Dr. King was diminished.

 I would answer Ethelbert's question by saying that biting political cartoons are not so much for the educated as they are for people who are open-minded. People who are not afraid when their sacred cows are presented in a way that provokes laughter (which, by the way, is a healing experience, a liberating one). And we all have a sacred cow or two, don't we? Some idea we are fiercely attached to? One with which our sense of identity and self-worth is tied up to?

Early in my career as a cartoonist, I was criticized by some people for drawings about black people that were as free-wheeling and innocent as the one I described above, for in my late teens and early twenties I was irreverent, like most college students. (When I became a college professor, I had to wait until I left campus for that side of myself to show, but it still revealed itself in my fiction.) One drawing in Black Humor showed Africans crammed together in the hold of a slave ship, looking predictably miserable; then one daffy-looking captive suddenly says, "Say, let's have a sing-a-long." That drawing still ruffles the feathers of the sanctimonious, the tight-sphinctered, the political prudes, the people who feel there is only one way---one profile or meaning---for emotionally reacting to something. 

Those people, in my view, were usually socially timid, even cowardly, and mired in what we later came to call political correctness (which is a twin for being religiously pious and "correct"), so this is not a question about "class." (And they certainly didn't mind when the ox was being gored for a political belief held by those they disagreed with.) They were also rather hypocritical, because in private they would laugh at and enjoy such work (as we did the comedy records of Redd Foxx in the '60s, or those of Richard Pryor in the '70s), but disavow in public that they approved of or enjoyed it. In other words, their reaction to the drawing was, sadly, all about themselves. Their self-righteous selves. Their image of themselves.

Humor, then, is one of the antidotes for self-righteousness and pomposity. For taking oneself too seriously. But that, of course, makes people nervous. To have one's ideas or beliefs laughed at stings most people deeply. But that only means they are fundamentally insecure in their beliefs and ideas, their ideologies and cherished views of the world. Once a cartoonist or humorist recognizes that (think of Mark Twain or Will Rogers or George Carlin or Moms Mabley or Lenny Bruce), the temptation to burst their bubble of rigid belief in a drawing is just too tempting. 

 Why are cartoons, drawings and all visual art so powerful? The answer is simple: we think in terms of pictures, images. Visual art affects us on the most primal level of perceptual experience. Why do you think more people watch television and motion pictures and on-line videos than read books? Heck, even if one is illiterate, they can understand a picture.

 I'm confident that no matter how calcified people become in their beliefs there will always be someone---a cartoonist, a comedian---somewhere in the room who will hold up those beliefs for a sardonic examination, saying what others are thinking but are too timid to say, and set everyone to laughing until their sides hurt and tears of mirth come streaming from their eyes. In their own small way, our cartoonists are liberators. They keep us honest. And we should thank them for doing that.

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