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Signe Wilkinson, the editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of "One Nation, Under Surveillance" (available at Lulu),
is a veteran of the cartoon wars. Her November 2005 cartoon critiquing
black-on-black violence in Philadelphia was denounced by Philly's top
cop and garnered the newspaper weeks of letters.
“You need to know that Philadelphia has a rising homicide rate and
83 percent of the victims are young African Americans,” she explains. “I
have done dozens of cartoons decrying the violence, the guns, the
doofus do-nothing legislators and the rap culture. I needed traction and
got it. The initial outrage warped into black readers (and talk show
hosts) defending me and saying that yes, indeed, that this was
black-on-black crime that couldn't all be pinned on the ‘system.’”
In this interview, the cartoonist discusses the most recent, violent
battle in the war triggered by the cartoons depicting the Prophet
Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Steven Heller: In light of the Danish cartoons about
Muhammad and the surrounding furor, do you believe these cartoons should
have been published in the first place?
Signe Wilkinson: Yes. The editors meant to be provocative, but
they had no way of knowing it was going to set off the war of the
worlds. Furthermore, I believe the European papers should print the
Muslim cartoons denying the holocaust and mocking Jews. Then, Europeans
will have a full and frank view of the imagery that fuels some of the
thinking in the Middle East. I've seen some of those cartoons, and they
Heller: I’ve seen some too, and they remind me of the vilification of the Jews by the Nazis in Der Stürmer
(the infamous anti-Semitic weekly), as well as cartoons that have run
on white supremacist papers and websites in the United States. When we
open the doors to free speech, how do we prevent hatred and violence
from pouring in?
Wilkinson: I wouldn’t hire a holocaust denier as my staff
cartoonist, but when an Iranian paper starts a contest in response to
the Danish controversy and asks cartoonists to draw about how the
holocaust didn’t exist, I’d reprint a couple of the ensuing cartoons
with an explanation and not on the main editorial page. When the Philadelphia Inquirer
reprinted one of the Danish cartoons, it was relatively small, on an
inside page with explanation of why they were doing it. It was not in
any way endorsing the cartoon. In response to some of my
statements on this controversy, I’ve had some holocaust deniers email
me. I suggest they send their wise and well-reasoned comments to our
letters editor, and generally we don’t hear from them again. If we did,
we would run their letters (edited for spelling and length) just as we
run all the letters vilifying me for my one-sided, idiotic, hateful
drawings—if you can call them drawings, they’re so badly penned.
Heller: Some cynics, myself included, believe that the days
when editorial cartoons moved mountains have come to an end. This event
proves that the cartoon is not dead, but many have been killed over it.
Is this simply a blip—an unintended consequence—given the currents in
Wilkinson: It was a blip that's changed the world. I am no
expert in Danish/Muslim affairs, but it seems to me that if it hadn't
been cartooning, it would have been something else. In Holland, it was a
filmmaker. In India it was Salman Rushdie, a writer. It wasn't the
medium, it was the message.
Heller: While we'd like it to be, I would argue that
freedom of speech is not absolute. There are circumstances where
unbridled freedom can be injurious (i.e., the old canard of yelling
“fire” in a theater). Restricting freedom can lead to breaks in an
already fragile dam, but don't cartoonists have certain responsibilities
Wilkinson: Responsible cartoonists? There's a concept.
You're ultimately suggesting that it's the cartoonists' responsibility
to bridle their own freedom. I thought it was the editor's job to bridle
our freedom. Cartoonists are here to say what others can't or
won't. American cartoonists at major newspapers generally aren't
anywhere near the line you're describing. Your readers may not be
familiar with American cartoonists' work because the New York Times barely runs them and almost never runs any with real passion. Times
readers should be forgiven for thinking that cartoonists just draw
punch-lines appropriate for Jay Leno. Perhaps this is why some
American editors are so shocked about the Danish cartoons. Those
cartoons weren't just cute punch lines.
Heller: Many American newspapers did not reprint these
cartoons, fearing they would trigger further insult. Didn’t these
editors have a point? (After all, the images were easily seen online.)
Wilkinson: The question facing editors in the United States was
not about American cartoonists but about whether to reprint the Danish
cartoons. It was an outrage that American citizens were being told a
story, but being forbidden from seeing the cartoons that caused the
If a paper decides they won't run them out of respect for Muslim
readers' sensibilities, they must then follow the Vatican's injunction
to never offend the beliefs of the faithful of any faith. Catholics
would be absolutely justified to protest that the Times, for
example, is perfectly happy to run Chris Ofili's canvas of the Madonna
with elephant dung--something they feel is deeply offensive, but won't
run a couple of dumb cartoons.
Lastly, I urge you to look up some of the bitterly anti-Catholic
immigrant cartoons of everybody's favorite American cartoonist, Thomas Nast.
Decide for yourself whether you would publish those cartoons that were
run big and bold in the mainstream New York press 150-some years ago,
then decide whether we'd have been better or worse for it. I could
easily make an argument against running them, saying that those cartoons
probably contributed to prejudice among native Protestant Americans and
a bunker mentality among Catholics that kept them from becoming a full
part of America for many decades. But our history has been to run them
and other well-drawn, bitter, prejudiced images. And those cartoons were
Heller: Nast’s cartoons were brilliantly inflammatory to be
sure, and in hindsight they are classic examples of acerbic satire. But
in his day, there was little sensitivity in an American culture built on
growing fear of immigrants and the power they were garnering. Today we
live in more “sensitive” times. So are there limitations? And how far,
would you say, can a cartoonist go to express an opinion?
Wilkinson: “Acerbic satire!!!” Those cartoons
would be called intolerable hate speech today, and they would never have
seen the light of day. And, can’t you make the case that Danish culture
suffers from a “growing fear of immigrants and the power they were
garnering?” It was OK in America then. But not OK for Danes now to
wonder whether their freedoms would be clipped by the newcomers.
Heller: But that was the mid-nineteenth century, and this is
the twenty-first–the age of greater enlightenment and all that–but I
grant your point. So what about limitations?
Wilkinson: There are no limitations for cartoonists;
there are limitations on what various publications are willing to print.
I have an ongoing relationship with my readers, which to me means that I
don't take them for granted, and I don't insult their intelligence by
avoiding certain topics. My standard is this: If any group of people,
whether political, ethnic, or religious wants the government to do
something that will affect my life (laws, taxes, editorial freedom,
whatever), that group has wandered into the political sphere and should
be treated as any other political operative.
Heller: What about aesthetic concerns? I've seen the Danish cartoons,
and those that were directly about Muhammad were little more than
stereotypical cartoon depiction of a very charged issue. In fact, they
simplified and generalized the notion that all Muslims are terrorists,
thus fanning greater flames of resentment. How should cartoons be edited
so they retain the integrity of the cartoonist while maintaining
Wilkinson: Cartoons are not New York Times opinion
essays. We don't know what other cartoons any of the villainous Danish
cartoonists have drawn that might have been sympathetic to the Muslims
in their midst. I've done cartoons critical of radical Muslims and I've
done cartoons critical of America's vast ignorance of all things
Muslim. If you saw only one of my cartoons in the former category,
you'd think I was just another bumpkin, reactionary, anti-immigrant,
intolerant, Islamaphobe. That would be so unfair because I am a
misguided reactionary on so many other issues as well. As for
aesthetics, if they'd been more felicitously drawn, would they have been
any less offensive? If those cartoons had come in front of the
Association of American Cartoonists, we would have flagged the
bomb-turban one for being a cliché. It's, like, been sooo done already.
They might as well have used Pinocchio. I thought some of the others
weren't bad, though.
Heller: Would they have been any less offensive if they had
better conceptual and visual quality? No. But they might have been more
thought provoking. I know we can’t always choose our battles (or wars,
as Rumsfield would say), and my implication that quality (or craft)
should be a standard of free speech is ridiculous. But the cultural
editor Flemming Rose’s commission to interpret Muhammed left the door
wide open to flagrant abuse of charged symbols, and as you note, to
clichés–the hobgoblin of the cartoonist. Was this the best battle,
battleground, and soldiers to fight the war from freedom of speech?
Wilkinson: To quote the brilliant Mr. Heller, “We can’t always
choose our battles.” When I was president of the Association of American
Cartoonists, we were asked to submit an amicus brief on behalf of Larry Flynt, whose well-researched and always-balanced publication, Hustler
magazine, had run a nasty little cartoon making fun of Jerry Falwell’s
mother. Falwell sued. There was no question in my mind that we had to
come to the aid of the poor little pornographer—which we did. He won
the case, which establishes a clear defense of cartooning. The Supremes
basically said that any idiot should be able to see that it’s a cartoon.
It’s not fact. It’s satire. On the other point? you are such
an editor. You are always worrying about controlling the content of the
cartoons. Yes the editor opened the door, but the point he was making
was that the door needed to be opened. The reaction proved his point
that the European press was being intimidated into not saying what was
on peoples’ minds. If I were an editor at one of the nation’s
premier daily newspapers, I’d worry less about cartoons in a distant
country and pay more attention to keeping biased and ill-sourced
reporting off my front pages.
Heller: This entire discussion raises the larger issue of press
freedoms in the United States. You've noted that cartoonists are
loosing a once respected independent foothold. Why is this happening?
What factors contribute to newspapers, like the LA Times firing its editorial cartoonist and not replacing him?
Wilkinson: Let's see, could corporate profits have
anything to do with it? No, certainly not, but several of my colleagues
who have lost their jobs recently have said it was nothing
personal—strictly cost savings. If I fall over dead this afternoon, I am
fairly sure I would not be replaced.
Heller: I know the argument that corporations and news media
are too cozy these days. But are there other perceived fears of the
power structure (or the populace) towards acerbic cartoons? Hey the
taboo-busting Simpsons have been popular for over a dozen years.
Wilkinson: My daughter was sent home from public kindergarten
for wearing a Simpsons t-shirt. So you can see that I’m just as
insensitive a parent as I am a cartoonist. Newspapers are priggish
and they are dying as people move to where they can find unbridled
satire—the internet, Jon Stewart, the Simpsons and the like.
Americans say they want family-friendly venues, which newspapers mostly
are. They just don’t want to read or pay for those newspapers. In the
past there were many newspapers so any one of them could be wildly
partisan and bitterly satirical of the other side. With only one
newspaper in most towns, there really is only one side. Press monopoly
was a brilliant strategy for a while, but corporate newspapering is
managing to kill itself off.
Heller: Have you been censored recently? Do you censor (or edit) yourself?
Wilkinson: As noted above, I do censor myself in so far as I just don't do certain kinds of cartoons for the Philadelphia Daily News. I do gardening cartoons for gardening magazines, rowing cartoons for a rowing newsletter, and in the Daily News, I stick to issues that are covered by the Daily News. The Danish cartoon controversy was in the Daily News so I drew about it.
Several of my (extremely insightful and brilliant) cartoons on the
subject did not see print. But I argued that if we didn't use an image
of Mohammed, we would lose all rights to use any image of any revered
figure. I thought long and hard before doing one that expressed my view
that if there is a god or gods, he/she/it/they would find any visual
description of him/her/themselves humorous in its abject inability to
capture the divine. The Daily News ran my cartoon last week, and so far we have received one letter to the editor. My suspicion is that people don't mind if a caricature is nice
to their group, they just mind if it's negative. If those Danish
cartoons had been positive images of Mohammed, none of this trumped-up
fury over depicting the prophet would have happened.
Heller: In the final analysis, should cartoonists be given greater leeway than other journalists?
Wilkinson: Yes. But we do need editors to correct our spelling.
Sylvia Harris was recognized with a 2014 AIGA Medal for an unerring commitment to using design to improve the civic experience and for influencing a generation of designers as a teacher and mentor.
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