Is the po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist an endangered species?

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Gina Barreca is a board of trustees dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of English lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut and the au­thor of 10 books. She can be reached at www.gin­abar­

Here’s how I de­fine un­nerv­ing times: When pro­fes­sion­als who write, draw or talk about cur­rent events for a liv­ing worry that if they dare cre­ate any­thing satiric, mock­ing or funny, they’ll be laid off, shut down, let go or put through the wringer.

Amer­ica’s — and the world’s — in­creas­ing in­abil­ity to tol­er­ate irony, dis­so­nance and hu­mor is enough to make you bite your tongue or, worse, put your pen­cil down, as if democ­racy’s test has just been de­clared at an end.

I’m par­tic­u­larly wor­ried about the fu­ture of po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ists. The best po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ists, like gun­slingers, have al­ways been able to hit their mark ev­ery time they draw. They’ve been do­ing this for hun­dreds of years. But as of this spring, they’re not do­ing it for the pages of the in­ter­na­tional edi­tion of the New York Times any­more.

Even one frame of a sin­gle po­lit­i­cal car­toon is con­sid­ered too dan­ger­ous for tra­di­tional sources to risk run­ning them. News­pa­pers ap­par­ently fear be­ing hit in the cross­fire when The Out­raged

fire back.

In the Mid­dle East (I’m think­ing par­tic­u­larly of Saudi Ara­bia, where you can go to jail for mak­ing fun the royal fam­ily), and now in North Amer­ica (I’m think­ing par­tic­u­larly of the brouhaha over Michael de Ad­der’s car­toon de­pict­ing a golf­ing Trump “play­ing through” the bod­ies of the fa­ther and daugh­ter ly­ing dead in the wa­ter at the U.S. bor­der), The Out­raged are what Mr. Trump calls “cocked and loaded.”

Most of­ten they fire back through the in­ter­net, ei­ther act­ing like ro­bots or us­ing ac­tual ro­bots to send what are of­ten ex­actly the same mes­sages to ed­i­tors, editorial board mem­bers or ad­ver­tis­ing de­part­ments, promis­ing to bring upon their heads the full force of de­struc­tion, ei­ther metaphor­i­cally or lit­er­ally.

“The in­ter­net is the world’s big­gest bully — and a stupid one, like Bluto.” In­vok­ing Pop­eye’s huge and dumb an­tag­o­nist, my friend Gene Wein­garten, a two-time

Pulitzer Prize win­ner who writes for The Wash­ing­ton

Post, said that the in­ter­net “de­rives this power both be­cause of its sheer size, and be­cause of the cow­ardly li­cense con­ferred by anonymity. The best car­toon­ists are still good and the great car­toon­ists are the most fear­less ones — a stance that is harder and harder to take be­cause of a sad third vari­able. The news in­dus­try is fi­nan­cially dis­tressed, mean­ing threats by the Blu­tos carry ex­tra men­ace.”

Long­time and in­flu­en­tial po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist, Bob En­gle­hart — who was once a reg­u­lar at my home­town pa­per and whose work is now avail­able at Pa­treon — is quick to add that “The in­ter­net is not the only thing killing news­pa­pers. News­pa­pers are do­ing from the in­side. To be sure, there are plenty of coura­geous ed­i­tors and pub­lish­ers still on the watch­tower of the First Amend­ment, but they’re dwin­dling fast.”

Ed Wexler, a po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist whose work I’ve writ­ten about in ear­lier col­umns not only be­cause he is renowned but be­cause we’ve been friends since high school, told me that he, too, “some­times has con­cerns” when his Trump car­toons are ex­treme. “I’ve re­ceived some hate mail — but there’s still a lot of fun in hav­ing a plat­form in the na­tional dis­cus­sion.”

I feel the same was as Ed Wexler does, and I don’t think that’s only be­cause we at­tended Ocean­side High School in the mid-1970s. As a woman who writes hu­mor, I also get hate mail but nev­er­the­less get a kick out of be­ing in the con­ver­sa­tion.

Yet I don’t want those kicks to be­come lit­eral. And I want to be able, with a clear con­science, when talk­ing to the most dis­en­gaged and cyn­i­cal young peo­ple, to ar­gue that creativity, orig­i­nal­ity, in­sight and a quick wit are es­sen­tial to our na­tion’s civic health. Mary Lou Solomon, who taught art for more than 20 years, put it this way: “Artists, re­gard­less of the medium they choose, are the rebels of their times, and they in­stantly and vis­cer­ally ‘show peo­ple what they didn’t know they needed to know.’”

Fi­nally, Mark Twain’s Mys­te­ri­ous Stranger ar­gued that “Power, money, per­sua­sion, sup­pli­ca­tion, per­se­cu­tion” can be weak­ened a lit­tle over cen­turies “but only laugh­ter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast” be­cause “Against the as­sault of laugh­ter, noth­ing can stand.”

Hu­mor is cre­ated and ap­pre­ci­ated when peo­ple are free.

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