More than words can say

2014-04-14 00:00

THE editorial cartoon has long been part of our political discourse.

Much of its power comes from its immediate visual impact, the way it draws your eye into the page. Then there is the message. One well-thought-out cartoon can say as much about the state of the nation as a whole truck load of articles — and much more quickly and concisely too.

They are also simpler to judge. To read a 1 000-word column from even the best of humorous writers does not necessarily guarantee you will enjoy it all. There may be bits that don’t quite add up, attempts at humour that fall flat. With cartoons, you either laugh or you don’t.

Back in the golden era of newspapers, when the press barons ruled supreme, the editorial cartoonist occupied a fairly high position in the cultural hierarchy and these visual opinion pieces were considered to carry real political clout.

Thomas Nast, the father of American cartooning (famous for having created the definitive symbols of the Republican and American parties — the elephant and donkey — and inventing Santa Claus, taking a minor central European saint and turning him into the personification of American materialism), is generally credited with having brought down an entire political establishment.

As the staff artist for Harper’s Weekly, he set out to expose big-city corruption in New York, most notably the infamous Tammany Hall Ring, headed up by the city’s mayor, “Boss” William Marcy Tweed, who ran an efficient and corrupt political machine based on graft and patronage. He turned Tweed and his unprepossessing gang into the very archetypes of evil: they sprouted wings and became vultures, or fangs and became tigers, their bodies were made to grow, contort or elongate, in the image of their fear and corruption.

Throughout the election season of 1871, Nast hammered away at his theme. Bribes were offered to his superiors at Harpers to try to get him to shut up while circulation continued to soar. The cartoons produced reporting and the reporting produced editorials, and eventually the ring broke up.

Tweed, himself, acknowledged Nast’s power: “I don’t care a damn for your newspaper articles,” he said, “my constituents can’t read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”

Incredibly, the story didn’t end there. Tweed later fled to Spain where he was identified by one of Nast’s cartoons that had been circulated in Europe. When he was arrested, he was found to have every one of Nast’s cartoons in his suitcase.

Times have, of course, changed since then and the newspaper cartoonist is no longer assured the massive captive audience he or she had before the invention of the radio, TV and computer. This does not mean, however, that his or her ability to cause consternation and prick inflated egos has completely waned.

During World War 2, for example, the New Zealand-born David Low, one of the century’s greatest political cartoonists, did such a good job raising awareness of the danger the Nazis posed that he wound up on Adolf Hitler’s death list. When British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax visited Germany in 1937, the offensive nature of Low’s cartoons in the Evening Standard was one of the topics of conversation. When Halifax returned to England, the matter was discussed with Michael Wardell, the Evening Standard manager who then tried to persuade Low to play the matter in “a less personal key”. Low ignored the advice.

Even Sir Winston Churchill found reason to take offence with the way he was once portrayed, writing bitterly in 1954 about a cartoon that showed him at his desk, looking elderly and infirm. “Punch goes everywhere,” the prime minister complained. “I shall have to retire if this sort of thing goes on.”

In a similar vein, Paul Conrad, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times , earned a place in history when he was put on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list in 1973.

More recently, and much closer to home, President Jacob Zuma took such umbrage at Zapiro’s infamous Rape of Justice cartoon that he tried to sue him for millions, before staging a tactful retreat.

As a rule of thumb, despots don’t seem to like us either. Satire has been banned in North Korea, and in Zimbabwe it is a punishable offence to make jokes about President Robert Mugabe.

All of which tends to suggest that while humour may not be able to topple a tyrant or defeat a brutal regime, it can help by slowly chipping away at the edifice on which the whole structure is based. Take a self-important politician and turn him into a figure of fun and you not only rob him of his dignity, but you take away some of his power as well.

As George Orwell wrote: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

• Anthony Stidolph is The Witness cartoonist.

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