Wednesday, 18 March 2015
The Problems of Drawing Bibi
After a questionable vegetable pizza early in the evening (something I rarely eat but, for once, made an exception when one was offered), I spent the rest of last Tuesday night in the company of my growling guts which didn't put me in the mood to be funny. I instead found myself doodling the above picture of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitch McConnell and contemplating the thorny problem of anti-Semitism and, in particular, the even thornier problem of George Galloway.
I drew last week's Galloway cartoon entirely tongue in cheek. For what it's worth, I find Galloway as entertaining a presence on the British political stage as I also find him a somewhat creepy and fairly repulsive comedic turn. Occasionally I find myself agreeing with him but more often than not I think he's plain wrong. Yet he's often wrong in a very convincing way. He argues in favour of the underdog (which is honourable) but often does so by praising vile extremists who just happen to side with the underdog. He is rhetorically gifted but the rhetoric is often in the service of the wrong camp. He claims to be on the side of the angels but too often keeps the company of devils.
Despite all of that, I don't consider Galloway to be an anti-Semite, though perhaps you'd expect me to say that given that he's currently suing a number of Twitter users who suggested otherwise. 'Anti-Semite' is an unfortunate term which is thrown around too easily given that it historically has a looser meaning that many would wish or want to admit. Although the term 'anti-Semite' is generally accepted as a term meaning 'hatred of Jews', the word 'Semite' can also refer to people of Arab descent.
Yet even if the term didn't have this slight doubleness, it still wouldn't mean that Galloway is in any way an anti-Semite. He's clearly not. Galloway is too much of a political animal. He thinks in terms of politics and argues in terms of politics; politics that often blind him to larger truths. Galloway is anti-Zionist, which is where the problem really lies. Many inside Israel believe that Zionism is itself integral to the Jewish identity. It's at the very core of their belief and so, they would argue, to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Semitic. That's why the Question Time studio a few weeks ago was filled with so many angry voices shouting Galloway down. It's the same as you see in America, with Jon Stewart only last week accused of being anti-Israel simply because he didn't agree with the policies of their government.
The whole debate is deeply divisive, nuanced to hell and back, and for that reason, that's as far as my thinking, knowledge and (frankly) my interest takes me. The semantics of language becomes as unhelpful as unpicking the history of those troubled lands. They both lead you deeper into the political mire and provide no helpful way of turning away from all the brutality and hatred. All I'll say is that from the perspective of somebody without Jewish roots, from a good distance away, and with no political allegiance to either side, I feel great sympathy for both sides. It disgusts me when Hezbollah fire missiles into Israel but it also saddens me to see the plight of people inside Gaza. Finding common ground between the two sides is, I fear, an impossibility given that both have claims to that 'common ground' based on ownership, political treaties, religious texts and untold amount of blood already spilt.
What I did want to write about was the problem of drawing satirical cartoons, particularly caricatures, around these hostilities without falling foul of people who search for offence. Watching Peter Brookes' interview on the Times+ the other night, I was surprised when he expressed a concern that has been troubling me. For Brookes, the problem was drawing Obama. He was concerned about drawing features which could lead him to be accused of racism. It's a very difficult area. Offence is so easily taken and extremely hard to avoid in every instance.
Cartooning without any offence is impossible in the sense that offence is often taken when none was intended to be given. When Gerald Scarfe drew his now infamous picture of Netanyahu building a wall in which Palestinians were trapped inside blood coloured cement, he was accused of deliberately repeating the 'blood libel' which (justifiably) offends many people of Jewish descent. Now, I hadn't myself heard about the 'blood libel' until the controversy occurred. However, I know that Scarfe is particularly fond of the colour red and blood features heavily in many of his cartoons. You only have to see his bloody Blair or baboon Bush standing beneath a US flag dripping with blood (both, below) to realise that the Netanyahu skit is a relatively mild one. What's more, I know as a cartoonist how my own mind would work and I know that had I the talent to come up with that image of innocents trapped inside a wall of Netanyahu's building, it would have seemed sensible to make the cement red. That is just what you'd do when drawing a cartoon to attack the Israeli Prime Minister.
In a sense, the Scarfe Conundrum is one all cartoonists face when they sit down to draw a cartoon that attacks a strongly help political or cultural viewpoint. Yet even inside Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is a divisive figure and satire has an important part to play in commenting on divisive figures. All a cartoonist can do is to the best of their ability avoid the tropes that will cause the most offence. Cartoonists won't always know enough history or have enough cultural sensitivity to recognise the perils but there's a whole literature on 'reader response' theory to explain why that will always be the case.
However, what interested me the other night was how simply trying to draw Netanyahu led me to some difficult problems.
Type 'Netanyahu cartoons' into Google and you get an interesting selection of cartoons of which (I would argue) Scarfe's example is still the greatest and most potent. However, the majority of the cartoon are not in any sense 'good'. With perhaps the exception of one example penned by the genius hand of Brookes, the majority of the Netanyahu cartoons don't attempt to caricature him. They instead choose to draw him, which is something else entirely. I'd challenge you to type in the name of any other world leader followed by 'cartoon' and see how many of the cartoons contain caricatures. There will, naturally, be many that are more illustrative than grotesque but not to any great degree. Why is that? It Netanyahu particularly hard to lampoon or just too easy to draw accurately?
I'm not sure which it is but I'm willing to hesitate a guess based on my own approach. When I started, I felt deeply self-conscious that I didn't want to draw anything that might be construed as anti-Semitic. I felt that not because I was afraid that people would take offence at this blog. I'm simply too unknown and unimportant for anybody to get upset by anything I do unless, of course, I insult Harry Potter and then all hell is unleashed upon me. I simply didn't want to draw anything that could be construed as anti-Semitic because I would hate anybody to think of me in that way. Last week, I simply wanted to draw a cartoon that simply expressed my thoughts about Netanyahu's hawkish speech to the US Congress.
So how would you draw Netanyahu without falling foul of accusations of anti-Jewish propaganda? Any guidebook to caricature tells you certain established rules, such as exaggerating a person's most obvious feature. That is difficult when that person has features that are strongly indicative of their nationality.
I phrase that carefully. Here I have to talk about racial stereotypes which are, I think we would agree, a bad thing. However, if you study any amount of critical theory based around Structuralism, you would know that certain elements crop up repeatedly in human history. If you look at the myths of most civilisations, even civilisations so remote and ancient that they could not have communicated with each other, you will find, for example, myths involving gods made to suffer at the tops of trees or placed upon crosses. Certain myths are deeply rooted in our identity as human beings. Bad guys commonly wear black because we, as a species, are a species who operate in the day and generally fear the night. I used to bang my head against tables so many times when teaching structuralism to undergraduates because, at least once a semester, one would self-importantly declare 'I think it's wrong that Darth Vader is dressed in black because I personally consider that racist'.
It's an easy, lazy, but understandable leap of logic to wrongly equate the cultural trope of 'black=evil' to the struggling emergence of a multicultural society. We have to be more sophisticated in our thinking and to recognise that there is a telling difference.
The same is true when dealing with caricature. For example, I'd suggest cartoonists have to be careful when drawing Netanyahu's nose but, at the same time, can't ignore it. He has a great nose, full of character but cultural sensitivities mean that you have to draw it in a way that doesn't remind the viewer of anti-Semitic tropes. It's at the root of my defence of Scarfe, who admirably managed to pull Netanyahu's face apart and reconstruct it in a way that bears absolutely no similarity to anti-Jewish propaganda. Yet that's a difficult trick to accomplish. Just a twitch of the pen at the wrong point and you are liable to offend.
The fact that people can be offended so easily is, I guess, an expression of how deep the hurt and how long lasting the suspicions. It's too easy to say 'no offence was intended' because anybody with the wits to see should realise they are walking a path through a battlefield where too many lost their lives. Yet that doesn't mean that cartoonists shouldn't try. The problem is we quickly find ourselves defending the indefensible. How, for example, can I write 1400 words explaining why I'm cautious about drawing a picture of Bibi Netanyahu but I would defend the right of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to draw the Prophet Mohammed?
The answer, I could speculate, is one of prohibition. Yet no sooner have I written that than I realise that it's simply not true. Scarfe was not expressively forbidden from drawing a 'blood libel' cartoon, even if that was what he drew. Yet when he did, he was widely criticised and even Rupert Murdoch apologised. So, with hindsight, we realise that it is forbidden and rightly forbidden. So why don't we share the same cultural sensitivity to Mohammed?
Some would argue that there's a form of doublethink going on. We believe in the absolute freedom of expression except when that expression is forbidden by some but not by others. Yet I don't believe that's true. The most essential difference is the difference between mocking a belief and mocking a people. It's where all this navel gazing began. It's right to mock Netanyahu for what he believes; it's right to mock his person; it's not right to his family, his, nation or his people. Ideas and individuals are the rightful objects of our scorn. Anything beyond that should rightly remain taboo.