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Controversial cartoon by Michael Ramirez sparks fierce debate over free speech

Michael TaubeThere was a time when most editorial cartoonists believed the cherished principle of free speech was the equivalent of a best friend. That perception has dramatically transformed in today’s society into a worst enemy.

Here’s a recent example.

Michael Ramirez is one of North America’s most successful editorial cartoonists. He’s worked for several newspapers, including the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Los Angeles Times, Investors’ Business Daily and currently the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He’s won an enormous amount of prestigious honours in his long career. This includes the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning (1994 and 2008), the National Cartoonists Society’s Division Award for Editorial Cartooning (2006, 2008, 2011, 2013 and 2014), National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award (2015), Mencken Award for Best Editorial Cartoon (1996) and Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism (1995, 1997 and 2007).

Free speech stifled at the Washington Post Michael Ramirez

Composite photo courtesy Bank Phrom and Michael  Ramirez Facebook page

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Ramirez is one of the few conservative voices in his industry. He’s also been employed by and sold plenty of work to liberal publications, including the Washington Post, where his cartoons have appeared more frequently since last summer. The majority of Washington Post readers may disagree with his political ideology, but there’s no disputing his success and track record.

Or so we thought.

The Post published a Ramirez cartoon on Nov. 10 called “Human Shields.” It depicts an angry-looking man next to a Palestinian flag with a large nose and the word “Hamas” on his suit jacket. He says in a thought balloon, “How dare Israel attack civilians …,” with four young children strapped onto him with rope and a fearful hijab-wearing woman partially hiding behind him.

In days gone by, most readers would have looked at this cartoon and either agreed or disagreed with the content and message. They would have moved on to the next cartoon (if there was one), newspaper editorial, column, or op-ed. A few would have clipped it for family, friends and work colleagues to read – or displayed it in an office, woodworking area, garage and so forth.

All of this would have been done without batting an eye.

A significant amount of today’s Post readers, however, went completely overboard with their reaction to Ramirez’s cartoon. They felt it was racist, intolerant, one-sided and dehumanizing. They demanded an apology from the newspaper – and actually got one.

David Shipley, the Post’s editorial page editor, wrote a note to readers. “Our section is aimed at finding commonalities, understanding the bonds that hold us together, even in the darkest times,” he said. But the sudden backlash made him feel he had “missed something profound, and divisive.” Shipley opted to take a different course of action. “In this spirit, we have taken down the drawing.”

Although the cartoon had already run in the print edition, it was permanently deleted from the Post’s website. (The Review-Journal has kept it up to their credit.)

This was a foolish decision and a clear attack on free speech.

Editorial cartoonists used to be able to critique left-leaning and right-leaning people, places and things without fear of censorship or concern of job loss. They were the guardians of individual rights, liberties and freedoms in a democratic society. Some represented the conscience of a nation.

Early British cartoonists like painters William Hogarth, Francis Barlow, George Cruikshank and James Gillray were able to accomplish these things – and more. Early American cartoonists like Thomas Nast, Grant Hamilton, Charles Jay Taylor and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin’s famous woodcarving, Join, or Die (1754) left their indelible marks on society. Magazines of political cartoons like Punch, Puck and Judge amused readers and regularly poked fun at royalty, high society, prominent politicians and others.

That was then, and this is now.

Ramirez’s cartoon was clearly a work of satire related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. It’s what an editorial cartoon is supposed to be: controversial, intelligent, thought-provoking, engaging and able to attract reader attention. He’s a master of his craft who respects the hard work of his predecessors and wants to continue that tradition.

The fact that many Post readers either didn’t know this or conveniently ignored the obvious is rather telling. Had the cartoon been more favourable to the Palestinian cause, they undoubtedly wouldn’t have spoken out. Would the other side have chimed in if the hypothetical tables had been turned? Maybe, but the reaction would have likely been more reasonable and even-handed.

Believe it or not, this story has a few silver linings. Since this controversy erupted, Ramirez has drawn more editorial cartoons for the Post. He’s even capitalized on the moment and is selling a line of products related to “Human Shields.”

Who knows? Maybe the friends of editorial cartooning and free speech will ultimately triumph over its enemies.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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