Politics & Policy

A Tale of Two Cartoons

Censorship at home and abroad.

All the buzz over this week’s New Yorker cover has nothing to do with good or bad taste and everything to do with self-censorship.

What happened was that The New Yorker scored an own goal against the liberal elite’s home team. By caricaturing the Obamas as Bonnie and Clyde on jihad, the magazine’s attempt at humor boomeranged, missing the intended target (Middle America) altogether. That’s the real reason for all the earnest hand-wringing, chin-pulling, and manufactured outrage among the liberal chattering classes.

“What were they thinking?” is the anxious question raised by The New Republic, another openly pro-Obama publication. The author goes on to link The New Yorker’s unwitting self-parody with an apparently “infamous” Washington Post news story on misconceptions about Obama:

Both outlets claimed not to support the allegations they were visually or rhetorically putting forward — obviously! — and yet a reader would have to have a fairly sophisticated understanding of each outlet’s ethos to immediately intuit the intended ironic distance.

Turns out that most Americans — even those without formal training in postmodern literary deconstructionism — somehow managed to “intuit the intended ironic distance” for a good belly-laugh at the expense of The New Yorker and its anointed candidate.

More instructive was Sen. Obama’s characteristic unwillingness or inability to respond immediately by engaging in the ordinary give-and-take of an unscripted encounter with the press. While his boss was at a loss for words, Obama’s press spokesman was left to speculate that “most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.”

On Tuesday Sen. Obama finally emerged from behind this presumed consensus to appear on Larry King Live, the only media venue remotely comparable to a set-piece speech before a hand-picked crowd. Anyone expecting a deft deflection of this contre-temps with self-deprecatory humor — and a ringing reaffirmation of the First Amendment — was in for a disappointment.

I do think that, you know, in attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions about me instead. But, you know, that was their editorial judgment. And as I said, ultimately, it’s a cartoon, it’s not where the American people are spending a lot of their time thinking about.

So much for irony and grace under pressure — and all the other stylistic parallels with John F. Kennedy that the Obama campaign keeps belaboring by means of studied poses, props, and stagecraft. Altogether missing was Kennedy’s characteristically disarming (and spontaneous) wit and his lively appreciation of the larger context (free speech amidst the hurly-burly of a presidential campaign). Instead, there was only Obama’s humorlessness and massive self-regard (“misconceptions about me”). To borrow an apt line: Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

As Obama heads for Europe in search of venues in which to appear presidential, there’s yet another cartoon controversy — with decidedly higher stakes — brewing across the Atlantic. This one also has Islamic overtones, just like The New Yorker cover and the celebrated Danish caricatures, but with a troubling new twist. This time around, it’s a European government — not rent-a-mobs torching embassies — that’s censoring free expression and effectively enforcing Islamic blasphemy laws by other means (vague and sweeping anti-discrimination statutes, in this case).

This latest case arises in Belgium, home to the European Union and NATO, where authorities have arrested and charged a previously-obscure freelance cartoonist for lewd, anti-Muslim cartoons appearing on his personal website. The cartoonist (who understandably goes by a pseudonym) was arrested at his apartment in May by “six plainclothes officers, two uniformed policemen and a trio of functionaries from the state prosecutor’s office,” according to a detailed overview in the July 12 Wall Street Journal. If formal charges follow, the accused faces up to two years in jail and fines exceeding $25,000.

The artistic or political value of these cartoons is certainly debatable, but also beside the point. For the right to free expression covers both the puerile and profound. Yet this bedrock principle of international human-rights law generally enjoys far less robust protection elsewhere than the First Amendment provides here (see here for a recent survey). And it’s coming under sustained assault from political Islam everywhere, even in Canada (see here, for instance).

To say it can’t happen here is happy talk. Censorship is already affecting Americans, especially in the form of foreign judgments banning books that Islamists want suppressed, as Sens. Arlen Spector and Joe Lieberman argue this week on behalf of their Free Speech Protection Act of 2008. So far, their legislation (S. 2977), introduced in May, has attracted no Senate cosponsors — the single most reliable indicator of a bill’s prospects for passage. What say you, Sens. McCain and Obama?

– John F. Cullinan, a lawyer, is an expert on international human rights and religious freedom.

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