Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What would Pat do?

After a while, I just stopped clicking …
Published after months' long absence, in response to the Paris killings …
from GoComics® Universal Uclick.com
Editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant, my favorite, was no longer drawing, it seemed. His weekly output had dried up at his syndicate's Website.

His last 'toon had been mid-August, a variation on the discord between Congress and President Obama, whom Oliphant often portrays as aloof, a human non sequitir.

Then, nothing. Click — nothing. Click — nothing, click — nothing.

Oliphant is 79. I figured he could be sick or have retired by design or default. I sincerely hoped not. More likely, as a painter and sculptor now ensconced in Santa Fe, N.M. and far from his old Washington, D.C., hunting grounds, he was taking a lengthy break to pursue his personal art.

After 50 years of cartooning in the United States and winner of the Pulitzer Prize (only one?!), Oliphant doesn't have to prove anything. I'm not the only one who regards him as the best in the business, eloquently savage, a master in black and white — ink and opinion — and the next true challenger may never come.

Then, in the after-madness of the killings at Charlie Hebdo and elsewhere in Paris last week, I wondered if the events had provoked Oliphant.


Jean Jullien's fast-trigger response
Up came the cartoon above. Dark and morose, unfunny, grim. Oliphant is great at dark and morose, at not needing to joke.

Is it the most striking response to the violence, the most memorable? No. My pick is Jean Jullien's (right):

The London-based French designer almost immediately produced the quintessential cartoon response, powerful and still somehow playful in its immediacy.

Both cartoonists commented viscerally to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the controversial satirical weekly which seemed intent on offending everyone. The killers took deadly offense to cartoons lampooning Mohammad, Islam's prophet.

Jullien drew, by intent or instinct, from the 1967 photo of a Vietnam War protester placing flowers in the barrels of National Guard soldiers' rifles near the Pentagon.

Oliphant simply drew from his gut, speaking out as a cartoonist, leveraging his inking mastery. By dry-brushing the edges of the killers' black uniforms, Oliphant invoked an evil, ethereal tone — is this just a nightmare? — and signaled his jagged anger.

Oliphant followed up a couple of days later with this riff of Eugène Delacroix' 1830 masterwork, "Liberty Leading the People:"

From Universal Uclick.com

More pencils.

As much as I love Oliphant, I think the world was by then already done with pencils as a metaphor for the unsinkability of free expression.

This vacuum of time after the killings has filled with eloquent written arguments pointing out not only (1) was this not really about an attack on free expression, but (2) this freedom we espouse is ephemeral at best and illusion at worst.

One had only to witness the world leaders who linked arms in Paris in (distant and symbolic)  solidarity with protesters elsewhere in that city, to know the hypocrisy of freedom.

Critics literally went down the line of leaders, pointing out who — whether directly or through their sovereign states — had quashed freedom of expression by jailing, torturing or killing journalists and critics. Who really knows why the United States did not send a high-level emissary, if not the president himself, but he or she would have fit right in that line.

At the same time Saudi Arabia was condemning the shootings as a "cowardly terrorist act" through its official news agency, it was beginning its weekly beating of a blogger jailed for criticizing Saudi rulers and the kingdom's strict application of Islam.

Raif Badawi was not given his second set of 50 cane lashings last week — a doctor decided he was not healthy enough from the first beating to bear up to the second, at least not yet. Badawi is supposed to receive 50 lashings each of the next 19 weeks.

I'm giving Oliphant a pass on the second 'toon, and waiting anxiously for what he, or any prominent cartoonist with a wide reach, may come up with this week.

No more pencils: Hammers.

Cartoonists need to hammer away at hypocrisy, to match the eloquent words with pointed pictures. One cartoon won't do. This hypocrisy over freedom is practically codified in our government and corporate structures — and absolved by virtue of world leaders marching in Paris. Cartoonists need to point out hypocrisy and lampoon away with both ink barrels.

They need to hammer away at those policies that create egregious plenty amid horrid want, and lead not only to the killings in Paris, but the slaughter of hundreds of Nigerians by the radical and violent Boko Haram (meaning: "Western education is forbidden"). The attention paid to Paris nearly obscured the holocaust in Nigeria.

Good cartoons can teach us, can lead us to the news that inspired the art. We need that.

We also need cartoonist to hammer away against the coming storm: The vacuum of time after Paris has exposed an undercurrent of tension over, if not hatred of, Muslims. I can't tell you how many times I've heard or read of people who equate the Charlie Hebdo or Boko Haram massacres with all Muslims, and I'm at a loss why reasoned people can't draw a distinction between a religion of 1.6 billion adherents, and a relatively small group who interpret their religion as violent tyranny.

Unless they aren't reasoned people, and their potential multitude scares me.

After intense pressure last week, for example, Duke University in North Carolina declined to allow campus Muslims to use its chapel tower to broadcast weekly calls to prayer. The university's ministerial staff had offered use of the tower as a friendly — I'll even say Christian — gesture. Duke is a private Methodist university.

But Franklin Graham, influential son of influential Christian evangelist Billy Graham, denounced the gesture, igniting a wave of complaints by Duke donors, and Duke quickly withdrew the gesture. Graham could have limited his argument to pointing out that Duke is a Christian-founded private school and within its rights to control use of the chapel. It would have been awkward to say so, but Graham went way beyond awkward and straight to hate.

He condemned Islam and its followers.

"We as Christians are being marginalized, and Islam … which is not a religion of peace," Graham told reporter Mark Becker of WSOC TV in Charlotte, North Carolina. "There's nothing peaceful about Islam at all. Just look at the Middle East and every country where Islam has the majority is in turmoil. They behead people, they rape women, they kill Christians, they burn churches."

Franklin said Muslims are taught violence in the Quran, have not denounced the killings in Paris — remarks that are remarkably easy to refute — and that American Muslims only denounced the killings because they're outnumbered.

"Violence is there and it's coming," said Graham. "And it's going to come to this country and it has nothing to do with what I say. I'm trying to warn America as to what's coming, warn Duke University. Islam is not a peaceful religion."

We are at war with Islam, he said.

Do you hear what I hear? The belltower clang of bigotry, trying to upraise one people by demonizing another? Is it not the same rhetoric that ingrained slavery into our American fabric, that laid waste to Native Americans in this country's founding and expanse, that tore Jews asunder in Nazi Germany, that imprisoned Japanese-American during World War II out of our baseless fear and sanctioned hatred?

People listen and follow this stuff, God help us.

It's past time to combat these words with pictures. Get out your hammers, cartoonists. You've got work to do. Are you free, Mr. Oliphant?

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