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On the (now infamous) New York Post dead chimpanzee cartoon and its ramifications: Was this the Post's Macaca moment?

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There has been a justifiable furor over the recently published cartoon in the New York Post (NYP) by Sean Delonas depicting two cops, one of whom has just shot and killed a chimpanzee, while the other, looking on, comments "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." Huffington Post has covered it at great length, as have Think Progress, Common Dreams, Buzzflash, CrooksandLiars, and other progressive websites. It has not appeared yet at Counterpunch, but may do so if and when the story picks up more traction. Each website has registered hundreds of responses, overwhelmingly in protest of the racially and culturally insensitive implications of the cartoon. Keith Olbermann has already brought the Rev. Al Sharpton on his Countdown show to discuss these implications.

As many have pointed out, this cartoon is offensive at several levels. Before discussing those, let me first enunciate some of the rationales or justifications put forward by (usually right-wing) commenters, and by the Post itself. The Post justifies it with these words:"is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington's efforts to revive the economy." Others perceive no racial motivation or bias, even while conceding that the cartoon is either in poor taste, or plain foolish or stupid. Some blame liberals as over-reacting, or racism on the other side.

Regarding the Post's self defense (note that most liberals/progressives are intrinsically skeptical about any publication or broadcast medium that is owned by Rupert Murdoch or any of his minions. The right-wing hate-machine named Fox News has fairly guaranteed that)- it is not remotely clear how the two events can be intertwined or parodied. On one page, the Post prints the news of Barack Obama (BO) signing the economic stimulus bill, presumably not without its own derisive commentary. On the very next page, in what would appear to be a perfect afterthought, there is the cartoon based on a completely unrelated, tragic event, in which a woman is critically mauled by a pet chimpanzee, which is then shot and killed in the rescue effort. How the cartoon 'mocks' the efforts to revive the economy is beyond ordinary logic. Is the chimpanzee the dead stimulus bill? That cannot be- after all, the President just signed the same bill, per the previous page in the Post. Is the chimpanzee the "writer" of the stimulus bill? This one gets even murkier. Some have argued (rather lamely, in my view) that Barack Obama could not be the chimpanzee, since he did not "write" the stimulus bill. Some have cited Nancy Pelosi as the likely candidate. Ergo, no racism. Ergo, it was plain political fun. Well, not so fast. As many have pointed out, the "economic stimulus package" has been in the news so extensively, and is so deeply associated with Mr. Obama, that any mention of its authorship would automatically associate him with that bill in most minds. Therefore, splitting hairs between who signed it and who authored it is just semantics. Whether intentional or not (I tend to believe the former)- it no doubt leaves the impression that the dead chimpanzee, combined with the blurb, would connect with Mr. Obama.

As for over-reaction, well- how many times have loaded racial epithets or implied threats of violence been hurled at Mr. Obama within less than one month prior to, and into his presidency? Recall Chip Saltsman and "Barack the Magic Negro," Rush Limbaugh equating BO to curious George (the monkey), the infamous McCain rally participant wearing a monkey-hat with BO's name written on it, and many other instances of racially charged hatred. Race-baiting and racial hatred have long been a right-wing trademark, no doubt leading to great sensitivity on the part of victims of racism to such branding (similar to the N-word). The vicious outreach of such virulent hatred is unimaginable, and, most tragically, corrupts young minds. We need only recall the noose-hanging incident on the campus of a school in Jena, Louisiana barely a year ago. These incidents clearly demonstrate that racism and associated hatred are alive and well in this country.

Now for the broader implications of the offensive cartoon. First, it clearly creates the image of a black man being equivalent to a chimpanzee. Remember, George Allen tried to explain away his "macaca" comment as something picked up from his mother. The truth is that comparing a dark-skinned person with monkeys and apes has a long-standing history. In Allen's case, it was a reporter of Indian origin, but his racial prejudice became entirely transparent in that moment of truth. I recall vividly an incident I watched on TV many years ago prior to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. A reporter was interviewing a white plantation owner, clearly sympathetic to white, racist views, regarding the brutal repression of, and denial of human rights to the black majority in that country. The owner at one point takes the arm of one of his plantation workers (an old, poor, and likely illiterate, black person), and actually asks the reporter, "do you consider this a human hand?"I will never, ever, forget the deep, agonizing shock of that moment. It is deeply imprinted in my mind. The racial dehumanizing of our fellow humans, to me, has to be one of the worst blights of what we define as human civilization. The NYP cartoon will likely also offend animal rights activists. This is not to suggest that a crazed animal should not be disabled (lethally, if need be) in order to save a human life. However, the spirit of this cartoon appears to needlessly regard the killing of an otherwise intelligent animal in a matter-of-fact way. After all, the cartoon does not have any direct reference to the killing being in response to the attack on a person. Beyond this apparent disregard for animal life, and even more ominously, this cartoon reinforces the image of a trigger-happy cop, only too glad to impart street justice with extreme violence. How can we forget so soon the very recent execution-style killing of Oscar Grant by an Oakland police officer? When BO became a truly viable candidate for President last year, many of us worried a great deal about his physical safety, given the proclivity to racial violence in this country. At its most offensive, this cartoon seems like a carte blanche to racists and zealots to inflict violence upon the first African American president.

One argument that has given me some pause in this matter has to do with the use of hateful labels by the other side. Many, including Keith Olbermann, have argued that associating George Bush with a chimpanzee, which happened much during his nightmarish eight years, is just as offensive. If everything else were equal, I would agree with this. However, I believe there is a deep fallacy to this argument (which is used often, and will be used even more, by the right-wing when defending their racism). When human beings, be they writers, thinkers, commentators, or artists, intend to use metaphors or imagery to describe a much-hated individual, it is common to find examples from the animal world, or even the imaginary world. Thus, a murderer, a charlatan, a tyrant, an oppressor, a plunderer, and the like are often compared with real or imagined monsters. This practice, which is widespread in human literary or other creative work, is merely an act of transferring inhuman characteristics to inhuman images. Note the use of words such as "beast," or "monster", or "reptile", or "barbarian", and so forth, in describing brutal human beings to whom ordinary human attributes do not apply. Note that such depiction is by no means a collective, racially or culturally inspired derision of an entire group of people. The most important distinction here is that the beastly association thus applied, is aimed at the actions of an individual, for which they must be held responsible. Racial or cultural epithets, on the other hand, have nothing to do with a person's actions. Instead, they are based on such natural events as their race, stature, voice, speech, or culture, and other such matters for which they are simply not personally responsible. The use of imagery, seen from this perspective, is truly as different as night and day.

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Monish R. Chatterjee received the B.Tech. (Hons) degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from I.I.T., Kharagpur, India, in 1979, and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering, from the University of Iowa, (more...)

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