On 25 April a Portuguese cartoonist’s drawing in the international edition of The New York Times sparked off a universal storm of controversy. Moreira’s silent but scathing commentary on the bond between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu would have been an editorial success if not for the fact that it opened a Pandora’s box and unleashed all the tweeting trolls of world politics. So many demons went loose that a newspaper we normally expect informed judgments and lucid, incisive, even merciless political critique from has decided to stay clear of the risks of publishing opinions in drawn form. It surprises me that NYT turns its back on its own traditions. Why with that particular drawing and why at this particular time would be two interesting questions, but what’s alarming about the decision is that it confirms how hard it has become to engage in debate or question ethical and aesthetic values.
When I saw the original image of the row in question, a guide dog with a hotdog body and Netanyahu’s face leading a blind Trump, it rang a bell and memories led me back to a large illustration by Hirschfeld in the September 1933 issue of the magazine Americana. In it a big-eared Dachshund resembling Moreira’s but with the face of Chancellor Adolf Hitler pulls on the leash held by President Hindenburg as it barks on a poor hairy Jew. The president reins back his dog: “Stop squawing, it’s only a harmless bitch!” For Moreira’s drawing I can imagine phrases that would change its meaning completely, such as “I hope he knows the way out,” but because it’s mute, each one puts in the words they want the cartoon to say, a declaration of intolerance or of antisemitism. But it’s just a wordless caricature. And the dispute about its meaning has seen the untouchable values of democracy, such as freedom of thought, the inalienable values of national states, such as supremacy, and the sacred values of religious belief, such as authority, mixed up with the imperative tenets of politics, such as ideology, propaganda, geostrategy, and fidelity to lobbies. It was already expressed by Wittgenstein at the end of his Tractatus that there was no sense in discussing ethics and aesthetics, a warning despite which the press must opine, if not judge, and should fuel the debate, however true it is that deliberations and values are in practice increasingly irrelevant.
1930s caricatures could be truly caustic, and aggressive cartoons were accepted. In a period that invented Agit-Prop, grand-scale agitation and propaganda, everything was permitted. In this I think Peridis has succeeded in El País, but the more usual case is the coarse caricature with clever but often miserable text. It simply has to abide by the ideology of the newspaper and the supposedly fan(atical) reader.