Comment of the Day: “9 Observations On The Boston Herald’s ‘Racist’ Cartoon”


In my post on the matter, I called out to Barry Deutsch, a.k.a. Ampersand, an accomplished political cartoonist and blogger who has graced this space in the past, for his professional reaction to the controversy over the Boston Herald’s Jerry Holbert suggesting, in a cartoon about the recent Secret Service debacles, that President Obama would use watermelon-flavored tooth paste. He was kind enough to register a rapid, and typically thoughtful, response.

Here is his Comment of the Day on my post, “9 Observations On The Boston Herald’s “Racist” Cartoon”:

Keeping Holbert on or not shouldn’t be decided based on a single appalling mistake. First, because it’s a better world if everyone gets a second chance when reasonably possible. (I can think of exceptions – airline pilots who show up to work drunk shouldn’t get another shot, for instance – but as a general rule I want employers to err on the side of mercy.)

Second, and more important, firing people for one stupid mistake sends a terrible message to all the other cartoonists, and would lead to worse cartooning in the long run. If cartoonists (and columnists) believe they can lose their careers based on a single day’s single stupid error, that will encourage meek, boring cartoons.

Wouldn’t he be afraid of ever criticizing Obama again, and wouldn’t that render him useless?

If the goal is to avoid meek, overly cautious cartoons, then it’s better to retain Holbert than to fire him, for the reason I state above.

If six months from now Holbert has turned out six months of terrible cartoons, then let him go at that time based on his terrible work. Pre-emptively firing him based on speculation about his future work maybe declining is wrong.

* * *

I generally agree with your post.

A friend of mine did a long series of cartoons representing the US government as various sorts of monkeys and apes. He quit doing that series once it became clear Obama was going to be President. That was the right call to make; good political cartoonists avoid images that carry racist baggage when dealing with Black public figures. The question isn’t “is the cartoonist’s heart pure?,” but “is there an obvious horrible reading of this cartoon that the cartoonist could reasonably have avoided?”

Also, agree with you that Liberal America’s cutting out the caption was appalling. I wrote the editor, but probably she’ll ignore me.

I’m back. In general, I would subscribe to the “no one mistake” standard that Barry is suggesting, just as I have defended that standard in other fields, like talk radio. My problem with this instance, and thus Holbert, goes back to my secon observation: I can’t think of an explanation for the gaffe that shouldn’t disqualify him on the basis of trust. I never thought about trust like this before (thanks, Barry), but it when it’s gone, it is legitimate to “pre-emptively fir[e] him based on speculation about his future work maybe declining.” We keep people in jobs because we have reason to believe that they will perform competently. When we have reason to believe the opposite, that’s a good reason to let them go find another job. Yes, forgive one bad act, if there is no reason to think the individual will do it again. Is that true in this case?

I have serious doubts, because I don’t understand why Holbert did this in the first place, and the only reasons that I can come up with argue for sending him packing: 1) he intentionally made a racist joke about the President; 2) he is disturbingly ignorant of racial history and Jim Crow symbolism; or 3) he was lying his head off in his apology. I think 1) and 3) require dismissal. 2) would shake my trust in his qualifications to register trenchant political commentary. What else doesn’t he know?

11 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “9 Observations On The Boston Herald’s ‘Racist’ Cartoon”

  1. I was going tempted to comment on the other thread, but resisted the urge. Now that you have doubled-down on this issue with a second post, I will give you my take.

    I don’t think it is a racist joke about the Predsident. I get the watermelon reference Part of what bugs me about the cartoonists apology is that he claims not to have understood the connection. It seems implausible and makes it difficult for me to figure out what was going on.

    However, my view is that the picture itself is the real joke. The guy made it up to the bathroom. What was in his speech bubble could have been just about anything for the joke to work. “You know where the towels are?” “This Presidential soap is awesome!” “Excuse me. A little privacy please!” (That one actually has some irony to it.) So, what was in the speech bubble is almost irrelevant to the joke.

    However, the comment had a racial component. I know: the cartoonist says he did not reralize that and I can’t wrap my brain around that. Anyway, the racial component reflects on the speaker as a racist, and is not really a slur directed at the President.

    Now, why would the cartoonist do that (even accidentally)? I don’t know. The one thing that keeps popping out in reports of this is that the President rode in an elevator with an armed person and that the fence jumper had guns and bullets in his car (as if that would have done him any good). Part of these reports seem to spring from genuine concern that the President could have been injured. Part of it comes from gun paranoia. But, in any case, the reports seem designed to cast the intruder in a bad light, that he had some evil motive. (How that will play out with his alleged PTSD, I have no idea.)

    But, if you are trying to make a joke about this incident, and you want to suggest that the intruder is a bad person, and you don’t want to make light of the possibility that he has some sort of mental disorder, and you don’t want the comic to appear to be promoting violence against the President (the cartoonist certainly would not want the Secret Service knocking on his door), how do you make the intruder look like a bad person?

    I don’t know…have him make some kind of racist remark (even though the cartoonist claims to have no idea that the remark is racist).

    So, Jack, I can’t agree with your analysis. I don’t think he was slurring the President. At the same time, I cannot understand the cartoonist’s explanation either.


  2. I’m actually confused over the outrage. I think the joke is stupid because my understanding is the intruder was a lunatic; i.e., NOT a racist/asshole (obviously those characteristics are not mutually exclusive). But, assuming the intruder was a racist/asshole, one would assume that such person would make a racist remark. It’s actually clever in that regard. It’s not racist because it is not making fun or making racist claims about the President, it is making fun of racist assholes. When did that become controversial?

    Some related remarks though — shame on the cartoonist for a very lame explanation (although my daughters also use watermelon-flavored toothpaste, it’s a thing among the younger set I guess). Shame on anybody for reprinting it incorrectly. And, finally, shame on anybody using this for political ranting period.

    • I considered this point, Beth. It’s redolent, I think, of the comic who gets caught being offensively sexist arguing, “I wasn’t really being sexist, I was riffing in the voice of someone who is really sexist.” This was the Andrew Dice Clay act. Michael Kinsley wrote a persuasive rebuttal of the defense, ending with a section where he said (I’m reconstructing from memory): “I’m not really defending these sexist comics, of course: I’m writing in the voice of someone I’m mocking who would defend them.”

      The intruder the cartoon showed was white. The actual one was black. If the black intruder was shown making the watermelon remark, then I’d believe the cartoonist didn’t know it had racist connotations….since a black man wouldn’t use a racial slur on another. But since the comment comes from a white character and is completely gratuitous, I have to say this is the cartoonist’s joke, not the cartoonist speaking in the voice of a white, racist intruder.

      • Andrew Dice Clay’s routine “wink wink” celebrated sexism. I don’t think this cartoon does that — it merely points out the ineptitude of the SS and that racism still exists in America. If the intruder actually was motivated by racism, I can see the Daily Show or the Colbert Report making the same joke.

  3. Maybe the cartoonist just colossally trolled the entire Left so successfully that it trolled everyone else also and no one saw he was trolling anybody. So backfired, he had to retract his position and play dumb.

    But I think Jack’s analysis is accurate. Ockham’s razor.

    • I don’t know that I would necessarily agree, Tex. There is an advertisement on national TV, featuring an obviously Asiatic family discussing automobile insurance. Along come two white guys in a golf cart who want to know if everyone is ready for the garlic festival. The problem with that is that, in Japan, “garlic eaters” refers to their traditional victims, the Koreans in much the same way that the “n” word does to blacks here in this culture. I assume that this is acceptable here, in this country and culture, because few, if anyone, is aware of the implied insult.

  4. As long as more voters are energized by perceptions of racism and outrage about racism, publishing the cartoon was for a good cause. (gives me an additional outlet for my sarcasm, too, so I am grateful)

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