Blog by John Miller

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Caricature assassination?

Bruce Mackinnon and Duncan Macpherson share the distinction of being two of the best editorial cartoonists in Canadian history. MacKinnon, who still draws for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, has won seven National Newspaper Awards, and Macpherson, who died in 1993, won six for his excellent work for the Toronto Star.

Although much of their work depicts politicians and others in the public eye, Macpherson’s wife Dorothy insisted that her husband wasn't particularly political. "He just had an innate sense of right and wrong, or who was honest and who wasn't.” An icon in some of his cartoons was the disheveled figure of the common man, John Q. Public, who Macpherson depicted as an onlooker puzzled by the excesses and hypocrisy of public figures.

That’s what distinguishes MacKinnon’s stunning cartoon that has gone viral on social media this week. It depicts a blindfolded Lady Justice being held down by Republican hands as her scales of justice lie beside her. One of the hands is covering her mouth, which seems to allude to the way in which Christine Blasey Ford last week described an alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, when they were teenagers.

MacKinnon said he was inspired to draw the cartoon because he believes the hearing was a “watershed moment” in how allegations of sexual abuse are treated in North America.

It seemed Republican members of the committee wanted “to smother justice before it had a chance to be heard,” MacKinnon told the Washington Post after his cartoon caused controversy.

Causing controversy is what good editorial cartoons should do, since humour usually gets to the nub of hypocrisy and entitlement faster than anything else. MacKinnon’s stunning creation should, if there’s any justice, earn him his eighth National Newspaper Award this year. (Full disclosure: Once a cartoonist on my university newspaper, I was a member of the judging panel that awarded MacKinnon one of his National Newspaper Awards in the 1990s).

Good editorial cartoons are a combination of depiction and intention.

The best ones are self-explanatory. They require no captions. MacKinnon’s certainly didn’t need one. We got his point instantly—the Republican majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee wanted to speed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court before the allegations of sexual assault had been fully investigated. We knew because the testimony of Ford and Kavanaugh last Thursday rivetted a North American television audience and rivaled the popularity of major sporting contests.

Yes, the graphic depiction of a rape was upsetting, particularly to women who have suffered sexual assault themselves. But MacKinnon’s intention was to skewer the hypocrisy of U.S. lawmakers rushing to confirm someone to the highest court in the land without due process, and I think he accomplished that superbly.

Sometimes, it is true, cartoons go over the line.

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten created a furor in 2005 when it published 12 cartoons it had commissioned depicting the Prophet Mohammed. It was a deliberate provocation. Editors claimed to be standing up for free speech, citing the unverified example of one author who claimed to be unable to find any artist willing to depict Mohammed for an upcoming illustrated book. The publication of the cartoons was condemned as blasphemous around the Islamic world, and led to the burning of Western embassies and an axe attack on the home of one of the cartoonists.

The newspaper’s action struck many as a xenophobic reaction, telling Muslim immigrants that they are interlopers who want too much power. See, we’re standing up for Western values of a free press and freedom of speech, and we have the right to blaspheme your prophet if we want to. Thankfully, most  other editors in Europe and North America refused to reprint the cartoons.

A cartoonist’s job is not to provocate. It is to make us think, and MacKinnon managed better than anyone else to make us think about what is going on in Washington these days.

A wise man once said: “The cartoonist is not interested in showing that the enemy is in league with the devil but rather the extent to which a bit of the devil is in all of us.”

I think Duncan Macpherson said it better.  “You’re a heckler, basically,” he said. “It’s the same as the old political meetings when you’d hire a couple of fellows to go into the hall and raise hell.”

Cartoonists: Here’s to raising more hell.