February 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

That “stimulating” New York Post cartoon, recession denial on the American campus, and other strange happenings

With a doffed snow-covered cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon (for borrowing his signature phrase): nobody asked me, but…

WHAT WERE THE EDITORS OF THE NEW YORK POST THINKING WHEN THEY PUBLISHED that now infamous cartoon by Sean Delonas, a cartoon that could be construed (in the words of Foon Rhee of the Boston Globe) to “tie President Obama to a rampaging chimpanzee killed by police,” and therefore might be regarded as racist?

The cartoon linked the recent passage of the economic stimulus package and the shooting of a violent pet chimp in Connecticut. Delonas depicted two police officers looking at the dead chimp, with one remarking: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” (View the cartoon here.)

Al Sharpton quickly attacked the Post: “Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama and has become synonymous with him, it is not a reach to wonder, are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post echoed Sharpton:

“At its most benign, the cartoon suggests that the stimulus bill was so bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Most provocatively, it compares the president to a rabid chimp. Either way, the incorporation of violence and (on a darker level) race into politics is bound to be controversial.”

For his part, an unrepentant Delonas characterized the uproar as “absolutely friggin’ ridiculous” and told CNN: “Do you really think I’m saying Obama should be shot? I didn’t see that in the cartoon. It’s about the economic stimulus bill. If you’re going to make that about anybody, it would be Pelosi, which it’s not.”

Delonas received support from left-wing editorial cartoonist Ted Rall who said he didn’t think the cartoon was aimed at Obama or that it was racist: “It’s about his economic advisers who wrote the stimulus bill, and they’re a bunch of white guys.”

The editors of the New York Post eventually offered a qualified apology for the cartoon: It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period….But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologise.”

That didn’t quiet the critics, and after threats of a boycott by civil rights groups, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corporation (the owner of the newspaper) had to offer his own apology (“Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted…I can assure you — without a doubt — that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation.”)

Was the cartoon racist? Certainly any use of chimps or monkeys as symbols for black people trades on centuries-old racial caricatures, as Brent Staples of the New York Times pointed out in his piece “The Ape in American Bigotry, From Thomas Jefferson to 2009.” (Yes, Mr. Jefferson made a bizarre connection between male orangutans and black women, according to Staples).

But it’s a stretch to see the Delonas cartoon as deliberately racist: that grants the cartoon more coherence than it deserves. Delonas is guilty of dead-line laziness, trying to graft a high-profile news story (the chimp attack) onto the stimulus package, not racism. And the cartoon consequently makes little sense: the authors of the stimulus (whether Congress or Obama) weren’t stopped (“shot”), so what exactly is Delonas trying to say? Beats me.

Should Americans newspaper editors be sensitive to racial or religious slurs in cartoons and comics, intended or unintended? Yes. The editors at the New York Post should have caught the potential for insult in the Delonas cartoon before publication. (The dangers of cartoonists employing monkey imagery in connection with African-American candidates was a topic of discussion in a media course I taught at NYU last semester, months before the controversy.)

Should they overreact, as did the Washington Post in apologizing preemptively for a humor column (“Monkey Business“) that had absolutely nothing to do with African-Americans? No. I read the column and looked at the allegedly insulting illustration and I couldn’t find any troubling racial overtones, (unless they reside in the psyches of Washington Post editors). Perhaps the apology really should go to Gary Hart, whose presidential bid in 1988 collapsed when it turned out he vacationed with a young woman (not his wife) on a yacht aptly named Monkey Business.

WHAT ARE EDUCATORS THINKING WHEN THEY DON’T, OR WON’T, HELP OUT on behalf of their university during hard economic times? How deeply entrenched is the Culture of Entitlement on America’s college campuses? Endowed professor Florence Babb has challenged the University of Florida’s request that she increase her teaching load to three courses a year. This comes as her university “is slashing its budget and laying off faculty and staff,” according to Inside Higher Education.

Babb argues her appointment letter in 2004 stated she would only have to teach one course a semester, but the University counters that “changing teaching loads is permissible under Florida’s collective bargaining agreement with the union” representing Babb. How does being asked to teach one additional course represent a hardship for Babb (who is highly compensated and has a very light course load)? Beats me.

Another educator (or should that be “educator”?), Jim Calhoun, the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball coach, also is in recession denial. He has openly balked at any discussion of adjusting his out-sized compensation ($1.6 million a year) while his school (and the state of Connecticut) struggles with budget shortfalls. Calhoun’s tirade after being questioned about his salary by a freelance journalist prompted the Governor of Conneticut, M. Jodi Rell, to call it “an embarassing display.”

Yet another sad case of American elites (and college professors and Division I basketball coaches fall in that category) putting personal gain ahead of institutional loyalty. That educators are embracing a “me-first” attitude is particularly unappetizing.

WHAT WAS LIAM NEESON THINKING WHEN HE AGREED TO STAR IN “TAKEN“? Has the talented Irish actor been harboring a secret desire to appear in action-adventure films (a la “The Bourne Identity”)? Neeson’s considerable talents are wasted in a derivative and cliched effort. It’s disappointing because the script for “Taken” is from the usually inventive Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (collaborators on “The Fifth Element”). The plot holes in “Taken” are so gaping that viewers are left wondering whether numerous explanatory scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

WHAT WERE THE BOSTON CELTICS THINKING WHEN THEY SIGNED STEPHON MARBURY, a “me-first” player with a well-deserved reputation for wearing out his welcome? It’s true the defending champs have struggled against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers this season, and Marbury can provide needed backcourt scoring, and Marbury is saying all the right things about his willingness to be a “team player,” but he has caused chemistry problems at all of his prior NBA stops (Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix, and the New York Knicks). Odds are Marbury’s stint in green will end badly.

JOHN RICH’S POPULIST “SHUTTING DETROIT DOWN” has been quite popular on country music stations around the country. Rich, a John McCain supporter (who wrote a campaign song for the Arizona Senator “Raising McCain“), is closer to the Main Street wing of the Republican Party, which remains suspicious of Northeastern elites, including the Wall Streeters who generously supported George W. Bush. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

SIGN OF THE TIMES: “Honk if you are paying my mortgage,” hand-lettered sign on the back of a pick-up truck, spied on the Henry Hudson Parkway near the George Washington Bridge on the last day of February, 2009.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AUTHOR AND PHILOSOPHER HANNAH ARENDT (1906-1975): “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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