We live in cranky times, as heightened ethnic sensitivities collide with humor's new brutalism, yielding uncertainty and frayed nerves. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in newspaper editorial cartooning, where politics, ethnicity and the possibility of the Great Insult share our daily bread.
Unlike prat fall humor which relies on connections hard wired to the banana peel of our brain's surface—where a blind person's stumbling is as "funny" as Michael Jordan's—editorial cartoonists traditionally dig for the disjunction between pious posture and venal behavior that triggers their craft. The character or policy flaws thus skewered range from goofy to genocidal, but they should embody earned, relevant criticism. The target's offenses must result from free actions (earned) and reflect their impact on the world (relevant).
What is out of bounds? What is wrong with cartoonists exaggerating unattractive physical traits or using ethnic stereotypes as long as everyone get equally skewered? Where—literally—do you draw the line?
When editorial cartoonists pilloried Vice President Quayle for his learning disability, the standard of earned relevance was gleefully violated: he was not hired to spell, nor did he claim it as a Conservative Virtue. Mocking the spelling, golfing or obesity of a public figure is little more than a drawn pratfall. Instead of digging for the political implications of a naked Emperor, we are directed to his pot belly. This sugar rush of superiority deflects attention from the weakness of a strong person to the weakness itself. We will return to the significance of this deflection.
In another approach, Jeff Danzinger of the Christian Science Monitor presents a family watching television in horrified shame as troops beat on children. The generically drawn people are identifiable only by captions: "Israeli troops," "Palestinians," "Jewish Americans" (watching TV). And thus is found a somber, textured "joke" capturing the poignant contradictions of Israeli policies, Jewish history and identify—a critique of a policy, not a people.
Imagine, now, an attempt to equitably add ethnic "coloring" to these approaches.
Danzinger could have drawn everyone as stereotypically Semitic—swarthy, large nosed, aggressive. Jews and Arabs, among many other such groups, have sufficient physical markers to make this an easy task. Like the prat fall, such images reside on the instantly retrievable RAM of our cultural consciousness.
By playing up the target's physio-ethnic icons, the cartoonist insidiously conflates caricature with character, and character with ethnicity. Having a large nose (typically an ethnic biological trait) becomes a flaw; so being Jewish, Palestinian etc. becomes a flaw. The weakness itself that we are deflected, is no longer just an irrelevant but relatable slice or pot belly, but an accidental feature of a vulnerable group. Under conditions of ethnic tension and violence, this group portrait may be the equivalent of drawing a fire in a crowded theater.
As we have seen, there is no symmetry here because the power relations reflect mocking relations. Reflecting their relative power and immunity to threat, the most powerful elements in our society do not make very good visual targets ethnically speaking. How would one capture Quayle?
Are people skewered for being fit? Tall? Having small noses? Nordic features? Wearing tasteful, conservative, clothes? Having clear, light skin, blue eyes, and straight blond hair?
The "joke" could be the disjunction between his ruling class appearance and not so elite skills. But that mocks an individual weakness in the face of a class strength, which has a fundamentally different feel—and—impact, than drawing virtual arrows to the pressure points of vulnerable groups. Not only are more powerful, WASPY types relatively immune to "even handed" ethnic caricatures, but those who rely on ethnic slander act as though the meek have already inherited the earth. They merrily seize the low road so that to recoil at ethnic caricatures is to be seen as being uptight. Suburban whites denigrating Black dialect enjoy the flag wrap of outlaw status—naughty rebels tweaking a humorlessly correct establishment. And when the threatened act threatened, they mockingly ask; what's the matter, can't you take a joke?
The "correct" response to which is; what's the matter, can't you find one?