Cartooning for a cause

This week’s media (or “media”) controversy in Australia again concerns News Corp. Readers of last week’s tirade will already know my views about that organisation, but there’s an important point to make here about the way that its sins are presented even by its critics.

What happened was that the Australian last Friday published a cartoon by Johannes Leak (which I won’t link to) depicting the Democrat presidential ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Biden was shown using words that he had actually used, but torn from their context and framed in a way that made them demeaning of Harris.

Paul Barry on Media Watch again has a careful explanation of the affair. In his words, “Leak twisted Biden’s words to suggest he was referring to Harris, when he clearly was not.”

When accused of purveying racism and sexism, the paper’s editor replied that the cartoon was actually accusing the Democrats of those things. He was clearly right about that.

His critics responded that that attack was false and absurd. They were clearly right about that, too. That makes the cartoon at best stupid and unfunny, and at worst an exercise in bad faith. But does it make it racist and sexist?

Janak Rogers, a journalism lecturer at RMIT University, thinks it does. Writing in the Conversation, he said “this cartoon should never have been published, and it has no place in Australian media.” But it seems to me there is a gap in his reasoning.

When Rogers says that the editor’s “explanation [of the cartoon] is unconvincing,” he runs two different things together: whether or not the cartoon is an attack on Biden, and whether or not the attack is credible. The claim of credibility is indeed unconvincing, but an unsuccessful attack is still an attack.

A bogus accusation of racism and sexism is not just a piece of toxic politics; it also trivialises those issues and therefore threatens real harm to their victims. But is that enough to be able to say that it is itself a racist or sexist act?

Rogers doesn’t spell out the argument, but I think what he’s saying is that the lack of good faith here is so transparent that the attribution of racist or sexist views to Biden just can’t be taken seriously. And if the representation of Biden’s voice is inauthentic, then the cartoonist has to be taken as speaking in his own voice.

That’s fair enough. But the culture of illiberalism runs so deep at News Corp that I’m not convinced “bad faith” is really the best description. It would not surprise me if many of its people have quite genuinely lost the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. I’m not a big fan of Kevin Rudd, but I think he does a better job of characterising the problem when he refers to “fuelling racist and sexist prejudice” and “encouraging ridicule on racial or gender grounds.”

And I do worry a little that putting the focus onto racism and sexism risks losing sight of the fact that News Corp’s agenda is fundamentally political. Its belittling of women and people of color is not a free-floating evil, it’s part of an overall political campaign whose ultimate range of victims will be much broader.

The media, however, don’t want to frame the problem in those terms. It’s less confronting to think of News Corp as a media organisation that happens to have some blind spots about race and gender, or to have a few bad apples among its employees.

But it’s not. It’s a political player, and a powerful one. I have no idea whether Leak is personally racist or sexist; that’s beside the point. The point is that he’s doing his job.

8 thoughts on “Cartooning for a cause

  1. Edgy irony is a risk at best of times. The impeccably woke HuffPost learned the hard way in 2017 that not everyone got, or appreciated, the meta-layers behind its “Goy, Bye!” headline on Bannon’s White House departure: https://forward.com/fast-forward/380495/huffington-post-goy-bye-headline-bannon/
    Way back in 1984 or ’85, after John Howard mused reflectively that some people – not, of course, he himself but just, you know, some people – thought Australia had too many Asian immigrants, Howard convened a policy retreat for Liberal MPs at Thredbo ski resort. The “Bulletin’s” cartoonist, probably Mark Lynch, ran a cartoon showing Andrew Peacock demanding of Howard “I knew you said we’d be hitting the [word associated with skiing, also used as a racial slur against Asians] this year, but…?” A few seconds’ thought would show that the cartoonist was taking a swing at Howard for bashing Asians for electoral advantage, but still nonetheless the Bully’s letters page ran hot. Interestingly, the complaints were not from the more recent, second-order “Yes I know Mark Twain intended HUCKLEBERRY FINN to have an anti-slavery message, but intent isn’t magic, and simply seeing The N Word in print is literally like taking a bullet for me” angle but more the old-school, first-order “This person uttered or wrote a racial slur so therefore their intention must have been racist” perspective.
    That said, the Murdoch papers have form at twisting their opponents’ words in the worst possible light to generate one-click outrage mobs, so no sympathy from me if someone uses the same trick against them for a change. You want to traffic in edgy meta-ironic pseudo-racism, you need to be Sarah Silverman-level dextrous (and with waterproof left-credibility on all other issues) to pull it off. No one at Limited News has that many hit-points to spare.

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  2. Another example (again, from three decades ago) where using ironic meta-racism to criticise racism backfired badly was Sandy Gutman aka Austen Tayshus’ 1988 comedy routine “Highway Corroboree”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway_Corroboree. Tayshus, son of Jewish Holocaust survivors, was obviously angry about white Australia’s Bicentennial-year treatment of Aborigines. Some of it was funny (“White man never gave an award to the blackfulla that discovered the Three Sisters. But they gave a Logie to Jack Thompson, though. Best he ever did was two sisters”) and some was just angry (“What’s the difference between a white man and a bucket of shit? The bucket”).
    However, Gutman performed this routine in blackface, with an Aboriginal tricolour headband, and assuming the persona (and speech mannerisms) of an Eighties Aboriginal character from central casting. It was controversial enough in 1988 – I saw it on “Sunday” one week, and Jim Waley was apologising profusely for it a week later – and it would be un-releasable today.
    Saw an interview with Gutman a few years ago, probably in the SMH “Good Weekend”, where he said that was the start of his career nosediving. He’d topped the charts in 1983 with “Australiana”.
    Perhaps the best strategy for white performers who want to help the cause of Aboriginal rights is, ask some Aborigines first what they think. Otherwise you can end up like Gutman – or like Midnight Oil, stuck with lyrics on your Greatest Hits sleeve about Truganini and “forty thousand years” which many Indigenous Australians would consider offensive.

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  3. I see that Leak’s cartoon has put “the dark heart of White Australia’s racism” back on the world news feeds. Exhibit A is not, as we would expect, Aboriginal mortality rates or deaths in custody, but two more media-friendly soundbites:the 2009 “Red Faces” blackface skit, and the 2010 KFC ad showing an Australian cricket fan placating hostile West Indies supporters at a match with fried chicken. Both much easier targets: simpler, digestible, more visible if you’re after clicks.
    The blackface skit was astonishingly clueless. The KFC ad slightly less obviously so – Australians are not necessarily cued to every nuance of US racial politics, as shown by the other red faces when a planned 2010 state visit by President Obama to see PM Rudd was initially codenamed “Operation Bluegum” by someone unaware that Australia’s favourite fictional koala’s name is apparently slang for a lazy African-American stereotype. (Did you know that? Did anyone in Australia know that? I’ve read “Huck Finn”, “Black Like Me” and “To Kill A Mockingbird”, all the way through, several times, and didn’t know that). And Australians hearing of “Uncle Ben” and “Aunt Jemima” being cancelled as brand names, and worrying that you too have carelessly offended Black Australians by using those terms – relax, “Uncle” and “Aunty” are exactly the titles that Aboriginal Australians want their traditional elders and custodians to be called. The words lose their inherent racist sting and become less bullet-like as they cross the Pacific, apparently.
    Likewise, any media report which omits the – to me – highly relevant detail that the leader of the Red Faces blackface group was an Indian-Australian, seems to be less than 100% good faith. (No, it doesn’t “make blackface okay”, but it complicates the simple narrative of “racist white people who hate and mistrust those darker than them.” In fact criticism of the “Jackson Jive” five was reported in India, along with attacks on Indian students, as an example of Australian racism against _Indians_.) And while I totally get that capitalism is racist and is deeply complicit in racism and that racism serves capitalism etc etc, it’s also the case that business executives are out to – how you say? – “maximise profits” and that insulting Black customers, or for that matter encouraging associations between their product and “lazy stereotypical Negroes” in the minds of white customers (not the first association that would occur to the typical Australian cricket fan, who would read the subtext as “KFC is so tasty it can bring together even opposing sports fans”), is not a business model they would adopt deliberately.
    Meanwhile, there’s still the mortality rates and the deaths in custody. But they don’t make vivid clickbait.

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    1. Indeed. This is one of the problems when you combine a globalised world with American insularity. Everyone’s expected to be aware of American racial politics, and Americans assume that it plays the same way everywhere. But it doesn’t, and strange things result when it gets imported without its context.

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      1. Charles, exactly. And it is complicated by the fact that BIPOC equality movements around the world take inspiration from the US (which has the largest _absolute_ number of wealthy, influential Black people of any country), often importing the terminology and slogans word for word. (Every right to do that, if it works). So Australia had “Freedom Rides”, like the US, in the Sixties and now “Black Lives Matter” rallies in the Two-Twenties. But the South African anti-apartheid activists who took inspiration from Martin Luther King did not copy the USA’s rejection of “Colo[u]red”; it remains a perfectly respectable term there. Australia has taken up the revision of brand names to some degree – Coon Cheese will be renamed (I assume this bloke https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/12551 will likewise purge his surname, which is pronounced the same way) but “Aunty” and “Uncle”, as noted, are not problematic. Intent may not be magic, but context matters.

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      2. … Meanwhile, while Australians are supposed to be au courant with the latest Dixiecrat racial slurs from the 1940s, lest we use one inadvertently (shades of the “Frontline” episode where Harry Shearer was sent back to America after using “rooting” in a story about a female Cabinet Minister), Americans happily use “a dingo ate my baby!” as a hilariously funny punchline: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dingo_ate_my_baby

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