Political cartooning in America is in terrible trouble.
When was the last time you saw a lugubriously impoverished man walking down the street completely naked except for a cheap wooden barrel suspended from his skeletal shoulders by shredded leather straps? When did you last encounter a wealthy, lard-bellied, cigar-smoking industrialist wearing striped pants, a bow tie, and a top hat? And, while we're at it, are there any organ-grinding, cymbal-clashing monkeys performing on the street where you live?
These questions hardly need to be asked, much less answered, unless you are one of the few diehard devotees of the traditional editorial cartoon, where such bone-tired emblems (somehow, the top hat seems even more surreally out of touch with the world we live in than the wooden barrel) are lazily commonplace substitutes for actual thought.
Political cartooning in America is in terrible trouble, and some of the blame probably could be pinned on dwindling newspaper readership and advertising revenues, timorous editors, and the increasing consolidation and corporatization of the media. But more of the responsibility can be placed at the hands of the cartoonists themselves, among them Khalil Bendib, who has somehow managed to cram all three of the above images into a single uninteresting cartoon.
Bad songwriting rhymes "love" and "above." Bad paintings feature leaping day-glo dolphins and poker-playing dogs. And bad editorial cartooning depicts a world populated entirely by trembling, saucer-eyed starvelings and ponderously smug, cigar-smoking plutocrats. In Bendib's collection Mission Accomplished: Wicked Cartoons by America's Most Wanted Political Cartoonist, there are no less than 12 iterations of these stogie-rolling bad boys, one of whom, to make matters as exquisitely clear as possible, is emitting a stream of smoke festooned with dollar signs.
But the predictability of this collection extends far beyond its iconography. Once one learns that the pot-bellied fellow is the "military industrial complex," the jitterbugging monkey is George Bush, and the barrel-bound indigent is the "US taxpayer," everything else falls neatly into place. Pharmaceutical companies? Bad. Globalization and offshoring? Bad. (Though this book was printed and bound in China.) Abortion restrictions? Bad. Israel? Very, very bad indeed. There are no deviations from the leftist line on display in this volume, to such a degree that any panel, selected at random, is a kind of hologram from which one can discern the easy attitudes and prejudices that will be on display in every other cartoon.
For those of a leftward persuasion, the temptation may be to excuse these failures of imagination because Bendib's heart is in the right place. And, indeed, often it is; just because the world is a more complex place than he imagines, where sometimes pharmaceutical companies actually save lives with vaccines and ambitious entrepreneurs pull themselves out of poverty and wealthy industrialists contribute vast sums to charities, it doesn't mean that some industrialists aren't bad guys, or that many people aren't oppressed and marginalized.
Bendib takes on a lot of deserving targets, like the incompetents and idiots behind the New Orleans levees and the post-Saddam Iraq war. But he also has a bad habit of positing immoral equivalency where there is none. In one cartoon, he depicts three walls -- one, from Auschwitz, labeled "fascism"; the second, from Berlin, labeled "Stalinism"; and the third, from Israel, labeled "Zionism." But his glib point is just dumb, even if it is shared by many others on the left: the first wall enabled the outright murder of many millions of innocents; the second kept victims of Communist tyranny, which also murdered millions, from getting jobs and living productive lives in the West; and the third prevents suicide bombers from murdering many of the same people who were imprisoned behind the first and second walls.
Although there is evidently some confusion on the left on the topic of causality, terrorist bombings are not some form of protest against security checkpoints, fences and walls; in fact, the security checkpoints, fences and walls appeared after, and as a response to, many decades of terrorist bombings. Bendib, who is a Muslim-American, wishes to grant Palestinians (and many other minorities) their full humanity, which of course is all to the good, but he apparently assumes that this is a zero-sum game, and as a result doesn't even attempt to grant the people of Israel the same gift.
Many of these shortcomings are not Bendib's alone. There is something inherently unfair about all political cartoons, which are, because of their small size and rigid formatting, virtually forced to squeeze out subtlety and countervailing factors. (Whether these strictures are more unfair to the cartoonist, the subjects of his attacks or the reader is hard to say.) But this constricted format looks worse and more old-fashioned than ever in an age when blogs and online chat rooms allow for endless debate, and is yet another reason that the traditional editorial cartoon may not even last as long as the print newspaper itself.
However, even though Bendib is a practitioner of an endangered art form who is only sometimes on the right side of the issues, it's only fair to point out that (when he isn't indulging in cliches) he is a first-rate illustrator. His jug-eared, goofily grinning George Bush is one of the best caricatures of the President ever committed to paper, and he possesses a vibrant line and a wonderful gift for composition.
But Bendib is actually a far better artist than even the cartoons would suggest. He is a sculptor, painter, and ceramic artist as well (his work is on display at www.studiobendib.com). His gorgeous ceramic pieces, in particular, depict scenes of Arab life with great charm, sensitivity and humor and, needless to say, far more subtlety than is on display in his editorial cartoons.
Khalil Bendib lays claim to being "America's most wanted political cartoonist," and, according to the author of this collection's foreword, is "America's most censored political cartoonist" as well. But, as with various outspoken actors and Dixie chicks, there is an element of self-congratulation in these hollow claims of persecution; as this very glossy collection proves, Bendib, who is syndicated in more than 1,700 periodicals worldwide, is free to write and draw as he chooses. Why he chooses to be so simplistic in his editorial cartoons when he is so artful in his art is a mystery.