Monday, September 17, 2007

Troublemakers (Part 1)

Late last month, there was outrage at cartoonist Pat Oliphant and his provocative depiction of Cuban-Americans.

The Cuban American National Foundation called it "incredibly bigoted and exceedingly inaccurate." Blogger Marc Masferrer from Uncommon Sense called it "filth" and believed it showed that "it's OK to hate Cubans." Jose Reyes, writing for the Cubanology website called it "communist propaganda." Blogger Charlie Bravo at the Kill Castro blog called Oliphant a "racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Cuban, anti-Arab, anti-Catholic bigot." Professor Antonio de la Cova called the cartoon "inconsiderate" and thought it revealed "how Mr. Oliphant does not need to hide behind a white hood to express his racist views."

But, in my opinion, the most extreme reply comes from everyone's favorite (and hysterical) columnist Humberto Fontova. His reply is titled "Hate Speech at the Washington Post" and believes that Oliphant has depicted Cuban-Americans as "these vermin [that] should be shoved off en masse to Stalinist prison camps by a smiling Uncle Sam."

It's a cartoon ladies and gentleman. And its Pat Oliphant.

Just last year, an important debate over the impact of cartoons and caricatures took place when the Muhammad Cartoon controversy occurred. One of the debates, of course, was about the impact of offensive imagery in cartoons. One of my favorite cartoonists, Art Spiegelman, confronted the whole controversy in a June issue of Harper's Magazine (which at the time was among the first to bravely confront the issue) and pointed out some harsh truths about cartoons and caricatures:

"Caricature is by definition a charged or loaded image: its wit lies in the visual concision of using a few deft strokes to make its point. The compression of ideas into memorable icons gives cartoons their ability to burrow deep into the brain..."

Spiegelman clearly points out the fact that cartoons (especially caricature) belong to a limited language. Every political cartoonist, like Oliphant, has to work with "memorable icons", cliché images, even stereotypes to make a point. Stereotypes that are already "burrowed" in the brain. That's the inevitable and dirty work of the cartoonist. They are "[a] breed of troublemakers by profession," as Spiegelman honestly puts it.

But, that doesn't mean we should excuse cartoonists and their work all the time. Spiegelman and Harper's Magazine confronted the Mohammad Cartoon controversy by publishing the offensive cartoons as "a matter of demystifying the cartoons and maybe even robbing them of some of their venom" because "open discourse ultimately serves understanding," and this act allows everyone to ultimately confront and eliminate social stereotypes.

In the end, it's IGNORANCE that we struggle with. There's no question that Oliphant exploited his personal biases of Cuban-Americans and revealed his bigotry and ignorance in his cartoon. But, it was Oliphant the Cartoonist: the one that is REQUIRED to burrow into grotesque imitations and personal representations. It wasn't Pat Oliphant the Man. And, if he made an error, then point it out in the work. Don't condemn the man.

I'm sure we have all made errors of judgment at one time or another, especially based on our own biases. Stereotypes, and ethnic bigotry are still abundant today as they were many years ago. But, if a person makes such an offense, then we correct or enlighten them in order to raise their consciousness on particular issues. We don't excoriate them.

What if the tables were turned? What if a Cuban-American made a bigoted statement in the media? Should the offended ethnic group immediately condemn the person? Or, simply confront the offense with facts that dispel such common stereotypes?

This past Saturday, Carlos Perez on Radio Mambi made such a bigoted remark against African-Americans. I wonder how the African-American community should respond.

[Part 2]

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