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Fire All the Editorial Cartoonists
The Washington Post's latest racist crime against art is no outlier.
Here is a quick prompt for you. An intellectual exercise, if you will. I am going to link to an image of an editorial cartoon that was published today in the Washington Post. I cannot place it directly in this blog because of copyright issues, and also because I think it is despicable and I don’t particularly want it on our website. That is how I feel about it; I would like you to consider how you feel. Here is the image.
What do we think? Is this incisive political commentary? Is it particularly affecting art? Or is it a racist caricature whose only intellectual point relies on a lazy observation of the realities of guerilla warfare by a paramilitary force embedded in a civilian population, a situation that has been used to justify mass murder, genocide, and widespread atrocities by nearly every imperial force in history? I think you can see that I think it is the latter.
The cartoon is by Michael Ramirez. Ramirez is a two-time Pulizter Prize-winning cartoonist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a virulently right wing newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson. If you go to this page and scroll down you can find a little slideshow of his recent work, which includes more pro-Israel propaganda and a handful of cartoons depicting Black Lives Matter activists as overweight Hamas supporters. Classy stuff.
This prompts a question: Who actually reads editorial cartoons anymore? Certainly not people in my generation—the only reason I know this cartoon exists is it started to go around on Twitter. To a certain extent, memes and other self-referential content have supplanted the niche of the editorial cartoon for many news consumers, even those who may still regularly read articles from the Post or Times. That means that even more so than written opinion sections, the work of these establishment editorial cartoonists is dominated by this kind of content, which is vaguely indistinguishable from a series of wet Metamucil-fed baby boomer farts in the direction of a sketchpad.
But the fact that no one young is regularly consuming this stuff doesn’t mean it’s meaningless: these boomer memes are being read by boomers, who vote, and who are (as a whole, not necessarily as individuals, sorry Mom) largely devoted to an obstinate refusal to acknowledge the disastrous effects of their avarice-obsessed politics on the generations that succeeded them.
What editorial cartoons are is a visual representation of where a paper’s intended audience is at, in terms of overall intelligence and political bent. The fact that the Washington Post feels comfortable publishing something this intellectually lazy, unfunny, and racist is an indication that they know their core audience is vaguely stupid and slightly reactionary. To be sure, there are editorial cartoonists who are slightly less noxious (standard liberals), but the fact that their work never really rises above the humor of an ice-cold Andy Borowitz take is another indication that keeping the average febrile newspaper reader happy is the only thing the powers that be at the publications still care for. In their worst form, all these cartoons do is insipid hagiography for whatever aging celebrity or political figure has most recently shuffled off to the gates of Hell.
The reason this makes me so fucking angry is that we have seen time and time again that art—visual, written, spoken, acted—has the power to inspire real political change. There are even brilliant editorial cartoonists, like Eli Valley and Mattie Lubchansky, who work outside of legacy publications because their art actually challenges both their audiences and people in positions of power—which is literally the foundation that political cartooning is built on.
What power structure does Ramirez’s racist filth challenge? (He would say “duhhh the WOKE left,” of course). Hell, even right-wing psychopath Ben Garrison’s work is more interesting than the output of most major editorial cartoonists if only because it is so frenetic and ludicrous that it sometimes becomes genuinely insightful into how far gone the right wing truly is. The bar is incredibly low for some of these places — there’s little reason a far-right mouthpiece like the Review-Journal should keep publishing this milquetoast chucklefuck scrawl when it could just go whole hog and publish the psychotically-horny fascist gremlin Garrison himself. But for publications who still do have some tenuous connection with journalism as a public good, or at least with the desire to publish information and commentary that informs and challenges the public, there are so many better uses of money than republishing this kind of dreck.
It’s worth noting that on some level it’s clear that newsmakers realize this too. The Pulitzer Prizes have started to shift away from editorial cartoons, perhaps in acknowledgment that the bullshit that most publications’ “cartoonists” are putting out only exists to titillate people born well before the year 1970 while they scrabble around for a pair of reading glasses in order to read the business section. The category in which the Pulitzers used to award people like Ramirez is now called “Illustrated Reporting and Commentary,” which means that it is open not only to “editorial cartoonists” but to other editorial or journalistic work that encompasses illustrated art.
As you can see by the winners in the past two years, since the prize was changed, this has been a staggering and monumental step up in quality: in 2023, Mona Chalabi’s reported, informative, incisive and amusing visual depictions of Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos’s wealth won, and the year before, a collection of artists and editors at Insider won for their graphic-novel like reportage on China’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims. It’s mind-boggling to look at this stuff and not conclude that this kind of work is what major publications should be funding. This format is not new—publications have been experimenting with illustrated reporting for, well, centuries, and recent examples of it have been affecting and novel ways to show readers parts of the world they may otherwise not understand.
So: Fire the cartoonists! Hire more editorial illustrators! Let artists who have something to say have their day—and erase the sloppy mess that an outdated generation of tired and complacent hacks has left behind.