In October, cartoonist Ann Telnaes spoke at the 2004 Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University. The title of her talk was “The Red, White and Blue Scare,” and edited excerpts from her remarks are printed below. As her talk began, Telnaes had the following words projected onto the screen behind her:
“Disgusting and lacking patriotism.”
“Anti-American …” —Written comments in guest book for Humor’s Edge exhibition, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Shortly after 9/11 the political satirist Bill Maher made a comment on his television show that the terrorists were not cowards. There was an immediate public outcry, politicians denounced him, and the White House press secretary warned, “… they’re reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say and watch what they do.”
In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General John Ashcroft accused critics of the administration’s domestic antiterror-ism measures of aiding the terrorists. And conservative activist and columnist Phyllis Schlafly wrote, “Let’s bring back the House Committee on Un-American Activities. We need congressional watchdogs to close the cracks in our internal security.”
Even now, three years after 9/11, accusations of anti-Americanism and calls for limitations on free speech continue. During the Democratic convention, a wire-link and barbed wire fence pen was constructed for antiwar protestors. The Bush campaign held invitation only “Ask President Bush” rallies where several attendees who wore anti-Bush T-shirts were forced to leave. In one instance, a mother whose son had died in Iraq was arrested after interrupting a speech by Laura Bush.
How did the news media react after 9/11 to this spreading cloud of patriotic intimidation? The overall performance of the television news was dismal. After the terrorist attacks, then leading up to and during the Iraq War, many journalists turned into flag-waving cheerleaders. Publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times recently ran stories questioning their own prewar coverage. CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, when asked by CNBC commentator Tina Brown if “we in the media, as much as in the administration, drank the Kool-Aid when it came to the war” answered that she thought the press was muzzled and that they’d muzzled themselves.
What about the editorial cartoonists? How did they react after 9/11 and the Iraq War? Did they drink the Kool-Aid, too? Or were cartoonists among the first in the press to question the actions and justifications of the administration? Some cartoonists did question, even under pressure from editors and intense criticism from readers—but most didn’t.
Being human, it was natural that cartoonists had feelings of wanting to band together with their fellow citizens in times of crisis. But as a whole, American editorial cartoonists were slow to break free of flag-waving images, what I call “the red/white/blue cartoons.” Jingoism colored many cartoons and self-censorship, whether voluntary or a reaction to editorial pressure, was very evident in the work of cartoonists after 9/11.
Recently a colleague of mine, whose earlier work had supported the administration’s justifications for invading Iraq, admitted to me that the reason he did was because he wanted to trust our leaders and not question them in times of war. Once I also heard a cartoonist during a panel discussion at a cartoon convention contend that we shouldn’t criticize the government in times of war. But I believe our role as editorial cartoonists is precisely that—to question authority and not blindly follow it.
Each of us brings to our job an ideological slant. But if in our roles as
cartoonists we don’t challenge and poke the pompous and the powerful, then all we do is illustrate propaganda. Defending the right of free speech is our first responsibility; it’s that constitutional right that enables us to do our job. It is our protection to express whichever opinion we choose without the threat of beatings and arrests that face our colleagues in other countries who lack this protection. We do our profession a disservice if we turn a blind eye to our leaders’ intimidation of dissent and disregard for the constitutional rights of all Americans. Legendary cartoonists like Thomas Nast, Herblock, and Paul Conrad each played an important—I’d say essential—role in this nation’s political dialogue during pivotal times in our history. Instead of following the status quo, they spoke out against the political and social majority. And that was because their palette’s colors weren’t limited to red, white and blue.
Ann Telnaes won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. In 2004, an exhibit at the Library of Congress featured 81 of her cartoons, as does her recent book, “Humor’s Edge: Cartoons by Ann Telnaes,” published by Pomegranate in July 2004.