Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Chimp

I hesitate to do this since you've probably heard this talked about plenty already, but I realize I haven't discussed it with anyone yet, so I might as well. This cartoon from the New York Post...

There's been a lot of talk about whether or not it's racist, and a lot of time spent noting that Bush got caricatured as a chimp plenty of times and nobody complained. There are a variety of reasons for that, but I'll stick to the basic questions and my answers to them.

Question: Is this cartoon racist?

Answer: Yes.

Question: What? And what if it was referring to Bush? Would it be racist then?

Answer: No.

Question: What? Why not? Just cause Obama's black and Bush is white?

Answer: Yes.

Question: That's just perfect! Can't you see how hypocritical that is?

Answer: No, but I can see how you might think it's hypocritical. For me, though, I can't help but be cognizant that the same imagery means different things depending on the context in which is used. There is not the same historical baggage attached to a white man being caricatured as monkey as there is to a black man. It ain't the same. Same image; different meaning. Weird, huh?

I know that. The guy who drew this cartoon knows that. The paper that printed it knows that. At some level I even think the masses of people defending it know that. They may not understand that they know it, because complex self-examination - with all of its contradictions and overlapping truths - is not something we train for in American popular culture.

Question: So you'd be fine with this if it was about a white president?

Answer: No. I'd still think it in bad taste. Again, though, this image refers to more than just the assassination of a colorless president. This is a New York paper. New York - like many other cities in the country - has a clear and recent history of police killings of black males under questionable circumstances. This image is also playing with that connection. Not only is the president equated with a monkey. He's also being equated with other black men that have been shot down on the streets by law enforcement figures.

Question: So what, are you for censorship?

Answer: No.

Question: But you think they should apologize for the cartoon?

Answer: Not if they don't mean it.

Question: Are you insulted?

Answer: No, I'm fairly pleased with myself. This doesn't change that.

Question: Do you think the president should feel insulted?

Answer: I think the president has been insulted, but I'm sure he has better things to do than choose to feel insulted.

He is, after all, the president.

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Blogger Constance Brewer said...

Good summary. It explains the unease I have with the cartoon that I couldn't articulate.

Another question to ask - if you changed the media from cartoon to some other, would it still be offensive? Maybe even more so...
I fear editorial cartoons have gone from relevant, thought provoking commentary to boorish crap in the last ten years.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great points. The insultingly racist aspect of this cartoon seems almost to be it's point. At least it is now.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see why changing the medium to something other than a cartoon would make this thing less offensive. In fact, many people are saying that because it's a cartoon, anyone taking offense is like "those over-reacting Muslims."

I am reminded, though merely tangentially and mostly from a been-there-gagged-on-that, of racist Asian cartoons during the Vietnam War.

Well, actually, that was a Rolling Stones cartoon in June 2008.

("But you guys really are that way." I remember a white friend of mine in conversation with me once saying, "Don't take this as being racist, but all you Asians are terrible drivers.")

4:45 PM  
Blogger Bryan Russell said...


Being a Canuck, and somewhat out of the American political loop, is it clear this was intended to Obama? There's nothing specific to make a connection that I can see... I guess what I'm asking is whether it's clear that the implied writer of the Stimulus Bill is Obama rather than a more generic statement? Because the implications seem very different between the two. That is a) this Bill is so bad that chimp must have written it, or b) this is Obama and he's black president getting gunned down by the police. The latter is quite offensive, the former fairly innocent.

My best,

5:47 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

I'm not sure about the medium change. I think that would probably be a case by case sort of thing. A political cartoon, though, by definition is intended to say a lot with very little. We're SUPPOSED to read into them, so to suggest we're not is indigenous.


Good question. I should have included it in my original post. It would have gone like this...

Question: Is it clear the chimp was intended to be Obama?

Answer: Yes.

Question: How can you say that?

Answer: Because cartoons like this are intended to work on a variety of levels. It defies reason to accept that the Post's editors would look at that cartoon and fail to see the coded signals it sends. And it's kind for me to even say "coded"; again, this is NY. They have a history with this material that cannot possible escape the ken of any adult intelligent enough to make newspaper editorial decisions.

If they DID intend it to connect with the president they are at fault. If they DIDN'T they are at fault in a different way, but they could certainly make amends for that by sincerely expressing concern and/or apologizing. Did they do that? You tell me. This is what they wrote, in full...

"Wednesday's Page Six cartoon - caricaturing Monday's police shooting of a chimpanzee in Connecticut - has created considerable controversy.

It shows two police officers standing over the chimp's body: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," one officer says.

It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.


But it has been taken as something else - as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.

This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.

However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past - and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback.

To them, no apology is due.

Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon - even as the opportunists seek to make it something else."

When I read that I hear the words coming out of their mouths, and I hear a tone that barely manages to conceal their contempt. It's very much like the cartoon itself. It's just about built in to them that the artist/publisher can decry those that complain for misinterpreting, while at the same time reveling in that "misinterpretation".

Oh, I should note as well that the title for their response was "THAT CARTOON". I suppose that wasn't intended as a connection with McCain's much discussed use of "THAT ONE" to indicated Obama during a debate? Intentional? Yes. Of course. Do you see what they're doing? They open a response explicitly saying they weren't talking about Obama with a title that covertly signals that they are. They are winking and nudging all over the place, and probably enjoying it very much.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Corby Kennard said...

OK, weighing in here, because I court controversy.

Constance, I don't think the medium would matter. The only possible way this would not be offensive is if there was a panel prior to it that showed Pres. Obama pointedly NOT writing the bill, and an ape in the next cubicle over doing so. Even then it is a poor cartoon that presents nothing resembling a viewpoint. It is a potshot, nothing more. At whom is the question.

AJ, I have not heard of anyone but some right-wingers who are saying anything of the sort, and I watch a lot of political TV. I don't think it is "many people" in any case; if anything, it is a "select few". Most correct-thinking people understand the racism here, and decry it. But feel free to prove me wrong - a link or two would be sufficient. (In other words, I completely believe and understand that some people are going to be exactly like what you said, I just don't think it is fair to overstate it.)

Ink, some people have been saying, like the paper did, that it is not offensive because Pres. Obama did not write the bill and everyone knows it. Balderdash I say. He is directly linked to it, so he is the de facto author, even if he never set pen to paper. There also used to be a horribly racist trend in political cartoons to represent blacks as monkeys or gorillas. Now, this was years ago, but it would not surprise me to find some on the right who would bring that practice back post haste.

David, did you mean "disingenuous"?

I agree with you 99.9%. The only thing I differ on is who to ascribe the blame. By all accounts, the editor-in-chief is directly responsible, independent of pretty much anyone else at the paper. He snuck it in under the wire without anyone knowing, and no one was happy. The employees were pretty upset, and distanced themselves from it pretty quickly. Even Rupert Murdock was reportedly pissed. And the fact that they issued any apology at all, half-assed or not, is testament to just how upset he was. Normally they would just ignore the criticism and it would be business-as-usual. I'm the first to jump on the right for their jerkwaddedness. But in this case, blame pretty much goes to one guy who retires shortly - Col Allen.

9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In France (small country just east of Nowhereland, right after when you've crossed the Great Waters), law would just say this guy who did this shit and the newspaper which printed it are guilty.

And it would have been printed in a confidential ultra-right wing paper, not in a notorious tabloid.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think I've been reading more comment threads than watching political TV. Does that count?

The thing is, many doesn't mean "most" and usually means "more than just a couple". "Few" definitely does *not* cover the number of people who have that opinion. But indeed, it's not "most". Either that clears things up or makes you believe I'm Bill Clinton or some clueless furriner.

And that apology is not really an apology. If they were feeling really sorry, wouldn't they have, um, actually made a real apology? Even the tears of Rupert Murdoch wouldn't make me believe he was upset if that was all the apology he could get out of his underlings.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Corby Kennard said...

I see what you are talking about, AJ. I think the gulf here is between what people are willing to put their face to on TV and what they are willing to hide behind anonymously on the Net. I've always been of the opinion that people are more outrageous online than they would be in person, and that their truth is somewhere in-between. I also think that people who would say such things look for an outlet to say them. In many cases it seems like the same ten or twenty people saying the same thing in tons of different forums. Which is all a long-winded way of saying, yes, that clears it up, thanks.

I also agree with you that it is no apology at all, but my point was that Murdock would have to basically been one step away from detonating some form of IED under Allen's butt for the Post to even make THIS much of one. It's one of those "Well, this is all I'm getting, so I might as well appreciate it for what it is" type of things, IMHO.

10:51 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Yes. I meant "Disingenuous".

"Indigenous?" WTF? Brain farts happen. In public. Feel free to laugh at me. I'm doing so myself at the moment. :)

12:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean, this is in the New York Post, from a cartoonist who repeatedly mocks Muslims, homosexuals and any other number of discrete groups. I'd like to say I'm shocked, but sadly I fear it's par for the course. You're one hundred percent right, David.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Bryan Russell said...

Thanks for the context, David. Much appreciated. In light of that it definitely seems a few steps too far. And the covert actions of those involved seems to confirm some of the intent. Pretty sad, really. Now the interesting question might be... does this lead to less of such attempts, or more? Just wondering about those floodgates...

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

10:02 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


I honestly think we've made incredible steps forward in terms of our perceptions of race in this country. Things have happened - yes, I mean Barack Obama - that can never be undone. It's happened before the eyes of a largely appreciative world, as well.

But that progress, that irreversible shift in the order of things, is going to stay hard for some people to accept. So, yes, I think there will be more of such thinly veiled attacks. Success and change makes them inevitable.

Success and change also makes them irrelevant. :)

2:56 PM  
Blogger Corby Kennard said...

BTW, in case nobody noticed, Rupert Murdock released an apology about this yesterday.

Murdock. Apologized. This represents such a sea change in the business of Newscorp that it is almost unbelievable.

9:45 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Really? Yikes. I missed that. I'm watching Obama speak right now, so that's eaten into other news coverage for awhile. Thanks for the heads up on that. And thanks for adding to this conversation in general.


9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post and your readers' comments are the best analysis I've seen of this issue so far. Great minds!

10:36 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Isn't it cool? I'm sorry, but sometimes I geek out. I love it that smart people come here and talk to each other in ways that inform me as I read. Awesome.

Here's hoping it continues.

11:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"They'll have to find someone else to write that next stimulus bill." Meaning who wrote this one is lying in the street shot up. Someone. A person. Obama. Chimp.

If the stimulus bill itself was shot in the cartoon (as has been speculated), it would read, "Now they'll have to write another stimulus bill." Not referring to someone, a person.

Pretty simple.

Ah, freedom. You can always pick out the people who don't quite know what to do with it.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wonderful, cogent analysis. I have to make this blog a frequent stopover (and pick up one of your novels-- any suggestions on which to read first?)

Question: So what, are you for censorship?
Answer: No.

I'd go farther. I'm happy that we live in a culture that protects even racist utterances as free speech. Better the devil's true colors be known.

The French approach is problematic in that it appears to buy into the premise of Newspeak: that language so molds our thoughts that we can eliminate bad thoughts by preventing its expression.

Racism will always be with us. Even if surface differences were eliminated between people (like in LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven) we'd find some other difference to highlight (obsure reference: purple versus green scarves). It's basic human evolutionary psychology.

And thank the flying spaghetti monster that we can celebrate and embrace our differences.

10:43 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Thanks for stopping in, for your comments and for your interest in reading one of my books. I'm proud of all of them and to me they're similar in many ways, but the trappings of them are pretty different. So where to begin really depends on you. If you lean toward literary fiction I'd go for Gabriel's Story. For large scale historical it's Pride of Carthage. But if you lean toward fantasy definitely try Acacia.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I picked up Pride of Carthage!

Ancient history was my first love: I studied classics in college, before pragmatism forced me into computers.

While I like some fantasy, I just don't have the stamina (ok-- maybe it's that there are too many books to read, and too little time) for multi-volume epics. Sometimes I wish fantasy writers would write one-offs.

9:14 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Thanks for getting Pride of Carthage! It is, without a doubt, a standalone novel, as dictated by history.

I'd argue that Acacia came pretty close to being standalone. As of when I finished it was a complete story. But there's something about this genre that makes it hard to leave the characters and possibilities alone.

12:15 PM  

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