Friday, February 20, 2009

The Infamous Chimp Cartoon

The almost-instantly infamous New York Post cartoon depicting two police officers standing over the dead body of a Chimpanzee has caused quite a stir, and has even prompted an apology (of sorts) from the Post. We still have a lot of questions, though. In no particular order, here are some of our thoughts:

The cartoon in question.


1) By and large, cartoonists working for major newspapers like the Post are well-paid, seasoned professionals. They're hired for their artistic skill and for, uh, their wit. It's very tough to believe that this cartoonist did not understand the implications of the cartoon.

An example of figurative representation of a government entity.


2) It's not uncommon for political cartoonists to use a figurative image (of, say, an elephant or a giant) to represent an aspect of government, but typically, the entity is explicitly identified, as is the case in the above cartoon where an enormous football player is labeled "Congress." Why, then, if the Chimpanzee is supposed to represent the Congress, rather than President Obama, didn't the cartoonist make that explicit? That ambiguity has allowed him an easy out while leaving in place the implication that, in fact, the Chimpanzee represents the President.

3) References to other news: Clearly, this cartoon is a reference to the terrible story out of Stamford, Connecticut about a pet chimp named Travis who attacked his owner's good friend earlier this week. It's hard to miss, however, that the cartoon has some similarities to the police shooting in Oakland on New Year's Day that lead to the death of Oscar Grant III.

Nasty Example of Monkey/Ape Imagery Used to Dehumanize African Americans #1: The Nazis banned jazz performances in Germany, and it's pretty obvious to see here what they thought of black jazz musicians.


Nasty Example of Monkey/Ape Imagery Used to Dehumanize African Americans #2: Ah, the elevated level of political discourse from the right wing...


4) Images of monkeys and apes have been used for a very long time to dehumanize African Americans, even as recently as this past election cycle. Given that the election of Barack Obama is an historical first, and that he's only been in office for a month, it's very difficult to disassociate the use of this image from its racist connotations. Again, this is a professional cartoonist: he's either blind to these references, or he was using the imagery intentionally.

Police dogs were used to subdue and intimidate African Americans throughout the south before and during the Civil Rights movement.


A statue in Birmingham Alabama stands as a reminder of the brutal suppression of African Americans there.


5) "Beware of Dog": Billy clubs, dogs and fire hoses may seem innocuous to some, but anyone familiar with the Civil Rights movement is necessarily (and justly) going to have some pretty negative associations with those things. That said, is there any reason to have a "Beware of Dog" sign included in this cartoon? If, in fact, this cartoon was supposed to represent a simple criticism of the stimulus package, what's the sign doing there?

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