Blog by John Miller

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Over the line

As a former cartoonist and editor, let me shed some light on where we should draw the ethical line between acceptable and unacceptable these days. At issue is whether the Cape Breton Post should have published an editorial cartoon that some readers call racist.

It showed two bearded men in turbans sitting on a pile of skulls and reading a newspaper headlined "Oslo." They are celebrating last week's massacre of nearly 100 adults and schoolchildren by a Norwegian extremist, Anders Behring Breivik. One man says "Wow ... they're blowing themselves up." The other replies "Perfect ..."

The paper's editor doesn't understand what the problem is, and stands by his decision to publish.

The cartoonist says it's his job to be controversial.

Readers say the cartoon promotes hatred.


Is it funny? Bad timing? Good point? Decide for yourself. We all know newspapers publish what they like, and I'm all for that. No one is suggesting any limits on free expression here.

But does the newspaper's justification for the cartoon stand up to scrutiny?

The cartoonist, Sean Casey, says he wanted to make a political point -- that extremists are alike, regardless of doctrine.

Fine, but he didn't draw extremists. The two men are smiling, and while both are undoubtedly meant to be Muslim, neither is armed. One is drinking tea. The drawing suggests to me that the cartoonist thinks any Muslim might be happy that so many Norwegians died at the hands of one of their own, saving Muslims the trouble.

So let's examine that logic more closely. Isn't there something racist in suggesting that Muslims see any white European, even innocent schoolchildren, as their enemies? More importantly, why would any Muslim, even a terrorist, rejoice at the Norwegian tragedy? Breivik's stated goal was to sow terror among the political elite in his country who have embraced multiculturalism and equality and who support immigration, including Muslim immigration. The only reason Muslims might rejoice is that the gunman was captured alive and will go on trial for his crimes.

The cartoon is like any stereotype -- it's easy to grasp but sometimes it doesn't fit the situation. This one doesn't.

The cartoonist seems to have a misguided idea about what he claims to be -- a "responsible journalism editorial cartoonist." He says "if there is a venue for an image that might be despicable or insensitive, that's the editorial cartoon. You can't do that in a regular newspaper (Oh, is he saying that the Post isn't a regular newspaper?)"

Lest we equate that with Breivik's justification for his killing -- that what he did was despicable but necessary -- Sean Casey adds: "A cartoonist is supposed to be like a jester in the king's court who gets away with saying things ... when a regular person would have their head cut off by the king."

Well, he's right and he's wrong. A cartoon is an exaggeration for effect. It can use metaphor and caricature and it can be satiric or ironic. Occasionally it can be outrageous, but it always must be grounded in accurate facts. This one was not.

Should the Post have published it? Well, it did. There's nothing much we can do about it, except decide if that is the sort of judgment we want to trust with telling us our news.

Fortunately, some people in Cape Breton get it.

Unfortunately, none of them seems to work at the newspaper.