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 of 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 way 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.
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.ginabarreca.com.