Line drawing

In the January 30 issue of The Wall Street Journal, a paper I frequently work for, the editor of its op-ed page with the evocative name of Tunku Varadarajan wrote an article called “Just Where Does an Illustrator Draw the Line?” [sic] for the Friday “Taste” section.

In it he describes his difficulty in getting a certain illustrator (who he refers to in the opening paragraph as a “pompous little artichoke”) to accept an assignment without first reading it to see if he agreed with its political proposition. The illustrator, who is left-leaning, was evidently not comfortable with blindly accepting the assignment from an editorial page that generally leans towards the right. Mr. Varadarajan found this response professionally unacceptable and after characterizing his new found nemesis as having a voice that “oozed a certain kind of metropolitan smugness” (what is this code for?) compares the illustrator’s request, somewhat hyperbolically, to the editor being mugged at deadline time. He also informs us that the illustrator will never work for the paper again. Shades of the Bush White House.

Later in the piece, Mr. Varadarajan expresses some concern for his own behavior and calls a number of illustrators who already work for the Journal to canvass their opinions.

Not surprisingly, they unanimously agree that Mr. Varadarajan is completely right and conclude that the real problem is getting the work done on time. Finally the column decides that the illustrator must be “(1) very young, (2) very rich or (3) very silly.” Which in translation means: (1) too young and innocent to understand what the world is really like; (2) only money permits you to behave according to your beliefs; (3) a dismissive subset of #1 omitting the young part.

I found the spirit and content of this article chilling for several reasons. First was the bullying tone of derision and contempt that the author expresses for an artist who wishes to be true to his personal beliefs, and not simply “follow orders.” Ever since the Nuremberg Trials, “following orders” is not an acceptable position to explain personal or professional behavior. I still remember those brutal clods on the witness stand trying to justify their activities during the war.

The issue has a larger compass that affects all of us in the communication practice. To what degree are we willing to participate in transmitting ideas to a public that we personally believe might be harmful? Mr. Varadarajan makes it clear what the economic consequences of such uncooperative behavior might be: “I was convinced now that the man has no future on our page.”

Money is a powerful tool to insure compliance.

The totalitarian impulses behind the Journal article should not be ignored. It is certainly not as egregious as outing a government agent because her husband was critical of the government’s policies but it reflects an atmospheric change about the nature of our democracy. In a healthy democracy, Steve Brodner, the illustrator in question, would be celebrated, not ridiculed, for his desire to act according to his conscience.