Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What I was trying to say …

Oy, did I blow it!
Lord, how I know Stephanie Eisner must feel!

Until last week, Stephanie was a staff cartoonist for The Daily Texan, the campus/city newspaper for the University of Texas, Austin. Then she drew her take on the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a teenager in Sanford, Fla, and the newspaper discontinued her services. (Here's another view of her take.)

You know the Trayvon Martin story, because we're all awash in the fallout of its controversy: George Zimmerman, described as a white Latino and a Neighborhood Watch captain in a gated community, told police he shot the unarmed Martin, who is black, in self defense. What really happened remains in dispute; critics say that Zimmerman chased Martin down and shot him, which may have violated "stand your ground" laws designed to protect citizens under attack. Zimmerman says Martin attacked him. Protests demanding Zimmerman's arrest spread across the country.

The incident is a newflash point over race relations, racial prejudice, lingering unresolved issues of institutionalized injustice, and general angst over the safety of children and teens. The hooded sweatshirt quickly became its symbol.

Stephanie Eisner was trying to add a meaningful tangent to the fierce expanding dialogue over the shooting. Her attempt backfired, went viral and public, and only fueled more rage.

The cartoon — which The Daily Texan editorial board approved — depicts a mom (?) reading a story to her child (?) from a book, "Treyvon (sic) Martin and the Case of Yellow Journalism."

"AND THEN the BIG BAD WHITE man killed killed the HANDSOME, sweet, innocent COLORED BOY!!," the mom tells the child, aghast.

Eisner was trying to say — at least, I infer — that many of news and entertainment media went immediately to stereotypes in the early going, typical in a rush to report. Rather than exhibit patience and care, or an examination of nuance and uncertainties, the media made this a simple black-and-white (literally and figuratively), good vs. evil story. Thoughtful, thorough reporting and meta-reporting comes later, as in this case, but often too late to ameliorate the results of the first news.

Pundits opine on the first news, sometimes idiotically, as in this case. Other pundits opine on the idiocy of the first pundits, and so it goes. Anger lingers.

Many readers regarded Eisner's point as endorsing the perpetuation of racist stereotypes and slurs — because she used slurs and stereotypes to make the opposite point.

I know how she feels, having drawn a cartoon for the Mustang Daily, my college newspaper — freelancing after I graduated. The 'toon blew up in my face and embarrassed the newspaper. That's the awful thing at the top of this post.

What I was trying to do — and the fact that I still have to explain it means I could and should have done a much better job — is restate George Santayana's aphorism, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it:"

If we don't study the effects of racism that happened before us, if we don't appreciate the harm our discriminatory thought and action — and inaction — can do, then we are not prepared to improve our communities and are apt to continue harm.

That's what I was trying to say.

I even ladled on the irony by having one of the vandals run off to a history test. No specific incident prompted this cartoon; more likely I was trying to employ the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a spotlight on ever-lingering issues of racial tension and the potential for the college audience to ignore lessons of the past. I trusted readers to realize I was exaggerating to make my point. No one at Cal Poly was burning crosses or painting racist rants on walls at the time.

In my cartoon, Martin Luther King is supposed to be an ethereal figure formed out of the smoke of the burning cross. But the way I drew him, he looks more like a flesh-and-blood giant, inexplicably plugged waist deep into the earth, the smoke sooting his skin and suit.

But the thing that gutted this 'toon — the tiny detail that made its message the opposite of my intent — is the graffiti on the wall. Well, really just n-word.

The newspaper ran the cartoon. Students and faculty wrote letters, all of which I probably tossed long ago. The letters said what you would expect: How dare he! Is this the kind of person we should have at this university? Fire the cartoonist! I'm boycotting the newspaper! Fire everyone involved with this disgrace.

I understood this much about their anger: I hadn't been clear. It's as if the writers saw only those small words at the geographic center of the cartoon, and regarded all the other elements as a doodly, meaningless frame. They received those words — that one word — as my message.

I wrote an apology at the editor's request. The fact that I had to write an apology meant I had not done my job, which was to be so crystalline in my opinion that the work stood on its own. Probably my relationship as a guest cartoonist for the Mustang Daily ended shortly after.

Why did I toss the angry letters? Pain, I guess. But if I was going to become an editorial cartoonist, I had to be ready for rock throwing, and gather up all the rocks thrown. Good editorial cartoonists want people to react to their work, maybe to get angry, maybe to laugh sardonically, but in some way to be moved to act — to write a harsh letter to the editor, to support the candidate or cause, to consider another argument.

Like Stephanie Eisner, though, I wanted readers to react to what I meant to say.

RIP: Rex Babin, editorial cartoonist for The Sacramento Bee, passed away last week at 49 from stomach cancer. He had a unique sketchy, stoccato drawing style, and was adept at exposing President George W. Bush and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for what they were.

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