Biting Symbols

It is often argued that today’s editorial cartoonists are not biting enough. This cannot be said of Pat Oliphant, the veteran cartoonist known for scabrous attacks on Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Cheney. So it is a pity that his most recent commentary on the Israeli-Gaza crisis is so filled with disturbing stereotypes. They don’t just bite, they scar.

First, there is the Star of David shown as a menacing carnivore with shark teeth. While the reference is meant to be Israel, the star represents the entire Jewish people, not simply the state; it brands all Jews, even those against occupation, as complicit. Second, the soldier pushing the star on a wheel (strange idea) is wearing jack-boots and goose-stepping, an unfortunate comparison of the Israeli army to the Nazis. Third, the tiny mother and child, a common symbol for war-ravaged peasants, labeled “Gaza,” tells only one side of this tragic struggle. Incidentally, the headless goose-stepping soldier is based on a famous WWI-era Robert Minor cartoon (below) of an army doctor examining a hulking torso with the caption, “At last, the perfect soldier.”

No one ever said that editorial cartoons should be fair or kind. They are intended to provoke and anger. We want them to sting when attacking an enemy. Nonetheless, understanding the subtle implications of charged symbolism is key to being a responsible cartoonist. Oliphant is usually right on. This cartoon, however, is so wrong and off the mark and so off-putting that it demands critique. What do you think?

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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