This controversy is stale, so it almost feels safe to write about it.  I’m talking about the New York Post chimp cartoon “some linked to Obama.”  For those of you who, like me, don’t read enough newspapers and only find out about current events by accident, and therefore may not know about the cartoon or the controversy, suffice it to say that the New York Post published a cartoon by Sean Delonas that depicted a chimp shot dead by police officers–a reference to the recent news story about the chimpanzee who was shot by police after mauling and disfiguring a Connecticut woman–and one of the police officers says, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”  This cartoon offended many people who saw it as a thinly-veiled insult to President Obama, especially disgusting because of its racist implications.

The Post has since issued a sort-of apology, essentially saying that the cartoon was not intended to have any racial component and they were awfully sorry if anyone was genuinely offended, but folks like (the unnamed) Al Sharpton need to get a life and there’s no way they’re apologizing to him, er, them.  I’m not a fan of the sort-of apology.  You’re either sorry for something, or you’re not.  If you didn’t intend to cause offense, and moreover, don’t feel that your actions merited offense, you can feel bad about the situation, even to the point of regretting your actions because seriously-who-needed-that-hassle?-not-you–but there’s not much point in saying you’re sorry unless you’re going to admit to wrongdoing, even if it means lying through your teeth.  The sort-of apology says, “I’m sorry that your sensitivity has caused you to become angry with me. Can we get on with life now?”  Really, calling it a “sort-of apology” is something of an overstatement.  It’s not an apology, just a request to shut up already because you’re tired of dealing with it and would like the whole thing to be over.  It’s totally understandable, but it’s kind of cowardly.  Moreover, it doesn’t appease anyone who was really offended.  It’s just politesse.

What upsets me about this story is that the cartoon really is offensive–to the poor woman who had her face torn off by her friend’s pet.  It’s in very poor taste, considering the human suffering involved in the real-life incident.  I think the cartoon is tacky.  I don’t think it’s racist.

It’s true that I’m white and haven’t ever been the victim of racism, and so it’s possible I’m just not sensitive enough to these things.  I don’t know, though.  I was a lefty for many years, and I’m pretty well-schooled in Stuff That’s Racist.  I know that even stuff that shouldn’t be racist can still be racist, so it’s often better to avoid such stuff than to risk giving offense.  I’m not into offending.  I know that some folks have said they were not familiar with the old practice of comparing black people to lower primates.  My response to this is, “Wow, you’re lucky.  Do some people not even have racist grandparents?”  My first week in college I heard a fellow student refer to a group of black students as “monkeys” and the girls who were with him just laughed.  I think that might have been the first time I’d heard such a blatantly racist remark coming from someone under the age of 75.  (And yes, I did go to college in the south, but the racist-remark-spewing-and-laughing-at students in this story were all from northern states, so take that for what it’s worth.)  Anyway, my point is that while I haven’t been exposed to much of this stuff firsthand, I realize that while it’s much less common than it used to be, it still goes on.  Also, it’s kind of hard to imagine a scenario in which comparing a human being to a monkey (or any animal, really) isn’t offensive, so ignorance of this peculiar aspect of racial history is a lame excuse.

However, in the context of this cartoon, the chimp isn’t meant to represent any human being.  The pertinent facts which allow one to “get” this cartoon (as much as one can “get” something that’s only mildly amusing, even without the offensiveness) are these:  1)  There was a chimpanzee that went wild in Stamford, Connecticut, and had to be shot dead by police officers.  2)  There was an economic stimulus bill passed by Congress that some people thought was really stupid and crazy.  3)  A chimp is pretty smart, for an animal, but it’s not nearly as smart as a human, especially when it’s scared and instinct takes over.  The cartoon implies–intentionally–that the stimulus bill was so stupid and crazy that it might as well have been written by a scared chimp on a rampage.  Ha.  Ha.  That crazy stimulus bill.  However, some folks–a lot of folks, actually, including Al Sharpton–took it as “the stimulus bill was so stupid and crazy that its author–Pres. Obama–must actually be a chimp.”

No, it doesn’t matter that the bill wasn’t actually written by the president (indeed, I think he had hardly anything to do with its formulation, but that’s another story).  On that much I agree with folks who took offense to the cartoon.  The bill was championed and signed by the president, so he owns it and may as well be the author.  I just think it’s overreaching to infer that the chimp in the cartoon is meant to represent the president or any other human being.  That completely removes the punchline of the joke (such as it is).  You would have to believe that not only was the cartoonist a racist but that he assumed everyone else would be racist enough to understand that the chimp was supposed to be the president–and also, that he didn’t mean to be funny but merely to make a vicious statement about the president and about all black people.

Should the cartoonist have been savvy enough to predict that some would misinterpret the cartoon?  Well, it’s easy enough to say so in hindsight.  Perhaps he should have.  But I don’t think it’s so far-fetched to say that the cartoonist honestly did not foresee it, and neither did his editors.  Some people–a lot of people, actually–can look at a chimp and just see a chimp.  It should be heartening that so many people exist, but it’s not.

If the chimp represents the president–or Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or any of our human elected officials–then the cartoon is worse than racist.  It’s saying not only that this person is a chimp–insulting in itself–but that he or she deserves to be shot dead for advancing a particular political agenda.  That’s disgusting and morally reprehensible, all racial angles aside.  If this chimp represents the president, the cartoon is a thinly-veiled assassination fantasy, which is so sick that it almost makes the racial aspect seem trivial–almost, except that in our society, race is never trivial.  The controversy over this cartoon makes that clear enough.  Race has a way of inserting itself in everything, even where it should have no significance.

I’m not about to tell anyone how sensitive they “should” be about anything.  People feel what they feel, and “You’re too sensitive!” is not a useful statement.  But look at this:  we live in a world where someone draws a cartoon that references a chimp and an unpopular piece of legislation, and the first thing a lot of white and black people think is, “That chimp represents our black president.”  That is sad.  Sad and depressing.  Coincidentally, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech last week in which he said the United States was a “nation of cowards” about race.  Unfortunately, he is right.

Madhousewife is the Political Cartoon Czar for the Obama administration.

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