Monday, June 5, 2017

Political Cartoons: Helpful or Harmful?

Political cartoons have had a long and venerable history in the U.S.—but are they helpful for spurring private thought and civil public debate, or are they divisive and promoters of increased polarization in society?

     I have long enjoyed political cartoons. During the nearly seven years we lived in Kentucky, June and I enjoyed a great many of Hugh Haynie’s cartoons that appeared regularly in Louisville’s daily newspaper.
   Haynie (1927-99) drew for The Courier-Journal from 1958 to1996. Here is one of his cartoons, showing LBJ’s opposition to the media:  
     After settling into our retirement home in Missouri in 2005, we have regularly enjoyed great cartoons by Lee Judge in the Kansas City Star. Here is one of his cartoons from 2014.  
     In recent years I have also regularly read the Washington Post online and have enjoyed the outstanding political cartoons of Tom Toles. Here is one of my favorites: 
     And here is a rather powerful cartoon that I saw just last week in the National Catholic Reporter; it is by Stuart Carlson, a cartoonist I don’t remember seeing before: 
     If a picture is worth a thousand words, as it is often said, a political cartoon (with just a few words) must be worth at least two thousand words—or more.

     Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was one of the first and most influential political cartoonists in the United States. Recently I have read some of two fascinating books about him: Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons (2013) by Fiona Deans Halloran and Thomas Nast: America’s Greatest Political Cartoonist (2014) by Jay G. Williams. 
      I first became aware of Nast years ago when working on a talk or article about Santa Claus. Beginning in the 1860s, Nast’s cartoons about Santa shaped the nation’s image of the “jolly old elf.” 
     Nast is also credited for being the first to use an elephant to portray the Republican Party, and he also popularized the donkey (or jackass) to symbolize the Democratic Party. 
     Through the years Nast’s cartoons appeared mostly in Harper’s Weekly, which in 1861 had a readership of 120,000 and remained above 100,000 throughout the war years. 
     It was during the Civil War that Nast’s cartoons were especially influential. On September 3, 1864, his cartoon “Compromise with the South” appeared in Harper’s Weekly
      As noted in, Nast’s message is clear: “If compromise with the Confederacy is pursued, then Union servicemen will have sacrificed their limbs and lives in vain, and black Americans will be returned to slavery.” 
     Many of Nast’s cartoons in later years were strongly against politicians he opposed. Many were so strong it some people even thought that the word nasty was derived from the name of the hard-hitting cartoonist. 
    Some of his most severe criticism targeted “Boss” Tweed of New York. Regarding Nast’s cartoons, Tweed reportedly said, “Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!” 

     Interesting as they may be, I wonder if political cartoons may often be harmful to civil public discourse. We tend to like those cartoons with which we agree and dislike those with which we disagree. Thus, I like most of Judge’s and Toles’s cartoons, but very much dislike most of those (few) I see by Glenn McCoy, such as: 
     So, are political cartoons generally helpful as a means of spurring deeper thought and civil public debate—or are they mainly harmful, promoting greater divisiveness and polarization? 
     What do you think?


  1. The first, and to this point the only, comment received is from Local Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen:

    "I love cartoons. They make me think. But they are only conversation starters."

  2. A couple of minutes ago I received (by email) the following comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "I remember Hugh Haynie fondly, too, Leroy. I haven’t seen many cartoons that match the detail he gave. The Courier-Journal republishes the one about Christmas every year: “Now, let’s see whom I have forgotten” depicting a gift-giver with gifts piled high and Jesus looking over his shoulder.

    "Our current cartoonist, Marc Murphy, a Louisville attorney, draws a much simpler cartoon that often leaves one wondering what he intends to say, but he sometimes packs a powerful punch.

    "Distortion of the truth happens often in many cartoons I see such as the one to which you object. I’ve been carrying on an exchange with a Clinton/Obama hater; his caricature of them sounds like that cartoon. Maybe cartoonists need to think more about civility and truth."

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson, for your comments.

      I have enjoyed looking through "Hugh Haynie: Perspective," a book of and about Haynie's cartoons published by The Courier-Journal in 1974.

  3. Political cartoons are very powerful, and they range from openly inflammatory to forgettable to iconic. Two that have stuck with me for years, although by now I no longer know the authors, were one that showed Jesus with a crown of thorns made of TV antennas (from back in Jimmy Swaggart and friends televangelist scandal days), and another with a proposed answer to the WWJD? about the early days of the child abuse by priests scandal in Boston. Jesus only slightly paraphrases one the "millstone" quotes such as Mark 9:42 to suggest that anyone who hurt children should have a millstone put around his neck and be thrown into the sea. When one of the first priests to be jailed was brutally murdered by a fellow inmate, I learned about the high percentage of inmates who are child abuse survivors, and the intense anger they often display to convicted child abusers who end up in jail with them. As the scandal widened and deepened my awe at that cartoon just grew with the years.

    1. Thanks for your meaningful comments about good, helpful political cartoons, Craig. Cartoons such as those you mentioned are helpful in changing public opinion for the good, I think.

      Last night June and I watched "The Gangs of New York" again. I hadn't remembered a lot about it as it was nearly 15 years ago I saw it the first time. And I hadn't remembered at all the way "Boss" Tweed was prominent in the movie. This made be realize, and appreciate, afresh the importance of Nast's cartoons in opposition to Tweed.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Wade Paris makes this astute comment about today's article:

    "Leroy, I truly enjoyed this blog. With regards to are political cartoons helpful or harmful my answer is yes."

  5. My response is a paraphrase of an old philosophical adage: Whatever is received is received according to the capacity and receptivity of the receiver.
    The cartoon sender creates a caricature to shock our thinking box, either by humor or by some gruesome aspect. Instead of reacting with “I like it” or “I like it so much (because it represents my views), I will share it with a million others on Facebook”, our receptivity might better ask: is there some truth here? What is it? Is it something I haven’t paid enough attention to?
    The cartoon may also be seriously distorting some truth, in which case, do with it the same as you would with an untruthful paragraph, or the essay of a thousand words if the picture is worth that.
    PS—I like cartoons of many different kinds, like them a lot.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Larry.

      As Ed Chasteen said in an earlier comment, good political cartoons are "conversation starters." So I think he, and I, would agree with you that the way to view a political cartoon is to ask "Is there some truth here?" or, "Is this helping me to see something that I have been overlooking."

      But for the life of me, I haven't been able to see anything in some cartoons, such as those by Glenn McCoy, except exaggerated untruths that tend to be conversation stoppers rather than conversation starters. Those are the cartoons that I think are most unhelpful.

  6. What goes around comes around. Some are funny and/or make a point. Some do not. Not just in the United States.