Thursday, March 01, 2007

The face you show the world

Somebody please give me a better explanation of this cartoon (via Olaf):


Because all I'm coming up with is racism and authoritarianism.

Apparently, this editorial cartoon -- which ran in the Hamilton Spectator -- was in response to the Supreme Court's ruling against the "security certificates" section of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001.

First of all, the obvious: the terrorists are all turban-clad bearded men, leaving us no guesswork as to whom the artist considers the biggest threat to Canadian security today. Is it too much to ask people to remember that in one of the most prominent occasions that the Canadian government has reponded to a terrorist threat, it was from white francophones? The FLQ crisis is also relevant because, yes, it shows how arbitrary the state can be when it comes through your living room. How about the fact that the last time armed Canadian soldiers were deployed domestically it was at Oka?

Now, the artist shows the terrorists being caught -- protected -- by the Charter, apparently because a cartoon of Beverly McLachlin french-kissing a bearded swarthy male was too hard to draw. But the contempt is obvious -- the Charter is protecting terrorists and putting good Canadians at risk. As if it weren't clear enough, the words "it's all fun and games" makes it clear how little the artist actually thinks about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- something trifling, amusing, but ultimately dangerous if taken too far.

It's difficult to interpret this cartoon in any kind of decent light. Basically, we're being told to surrender, in law, basic freedoms from arbitrary state power. Or else They Will Kill Us. One of the cornerstones of present Canadian democracy is positively dangerous. The terrorist threat is so dangerous that a basic aspect of our politics needs to be changed -- or maybe abandoned outright?

This is why Oka, or the FLQ crisis, are relevant. Yes, if Canadians are ever subject to terrorist attacks in the future, the Charter will defend the accused (assuming they make it to trial, unlike the London or 9/11 criminals.) But the two examples above show that we actually don't know who the state will end up rounding up on any given day. The War Measures Act was passed in 1914, when the biggest threat facing Canada was... Kaiser Wilhelm II. Yet it was used to intern Ukrainians in WWI, the Japanese in WWII, and against the people of Quebec in 1970.

The War Measures Act is gone, and it's replacement is now subject to the Charter. If we are truly fortunate, the Government of Canada will never repeat the old mistakes of the WMA. This is due to the simple fact that Mackay (the artists of this cartoon) wants you to forget: the Charter doesn't just protect the accused -- it protects us all.

But it's just a cartoon, right? No. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There is a long, storied, and (sometimes literally) colorful history of editorial cartoons being used to propagate paranoid, authoritarian and racist "memes" going back at least as far as the French Revolution, and perhaps further (my reading only goes so far.) Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) got his start writing left-wing editorial cartoons in the 1930s, that occasionally veered into virulent anti-Japanese racism. (See the excellent book "Dr. Seuss goes to war.") Political cartoons are incredibly effective means of rhetoric, because they are simple yet symbolically dense. Just look at how verbose I've had to be to analyze this one. The same process happens in a few seconds of glancing at it, but it happens deep in our lizard brains. And it is clearly meant to elicit an unreasoned, irrational political response.

A few years back, right-wing bloggers took to calling themselves "South Park Republicans", which made me laugh. The whole idea of associating your ideology with an (admittedly funny) cartoon, whose sole political content usually comes from a two-minute monologue at the end of an episode full of scatological humour seemed to be an exercise in delegitimizing your own side. Cartoons are obviously not only a right-wing phenomena, but the right really did adopt South Park as a touchstone for a while.

In the broader context, this is the kind of communication that is being repeated -- propagated -- by the right. I don't think Olaf is an authoritarian/fascist/racist/Nazi for putting it up on his site. In fact, it's jarring how the cartoon he used as a pictorial headline contrasts with his otherwise reasoned and informing post beneath it.

But Olaf: Did you consider not putting it up?


That guy said...

Yes, and isn't it just marvelous to see that the cartoonist considers democracy nothing more than "fun and games"?

Olaf said...


I actually didn't consider not putting it up, and from my perspective, it can as easily be taken to reveal the absurdity of the position that I've opposed on countless occasions (that someone is "soft on terror" if they believe that our current laws do not strike the right balance between civil liberties and security). I wasn't endorsing the cartoon, it was simply the only topical one I could find.

And you're right, it does have a certain connotation, and it's one that I think represents the opinions of many Canadians (that our security is being neglected for the sake of "rights"). Sure, it could be seen as propaganda, or it can be seen as a reflection of some individuals opinions. Whether we agree or not does not change the fact that such a sentiment exists.

If someone wants to ascribe an opinion to me based on a cartoon expressing the artist's opinion (which isn't supported in any way by my opinion written below), they can feel free.

Anonymous said...

For more material on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms I encourage you and your readers to visit -- an unbiased, plain language, and interactive look at the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also contains relevant case law and precedents. The website is available in English, French, Chinese (traditional), German, and Italian with 6 more languages planned.

celestialspeedster said...

Cheer up, Dymax! Let's not jump to conclusions about the intentions of the artist. Maybe he meant something more harmless like, "It's all fun and games until...":
- someone lights the trampoline on fire
- someone sticks a big red candle up your butt
- racist caricatures light up our lives
See? Funny!

Anonymous said...

Is the Spec not a CanWest paper?

The Aspers do their bit to shape the debate and most are none the wiser for it (John's best efforts notwithstanding).