This week we got a voice mail message directed to the “editor-in-chief” from a woman asking us for a public apology for running a “Kwanzaa commentary” that was deeply offensive. She said that we should have known it would be offensive, and that the author “Mr. McGruder” should be fired. I couldn’t remember running any Kwanzaa commentary—for a moment I thought one could have slipped by me in the readers’ contribution issue we published on Christmas Eve. And we don’t have anyone named McGruder working for us.
Then I recognized the name: Aaron McGruder is the cartoonist who writes the Boondocks comic strip. I went back and checked the last two issues of the paper, and sure enough, Boondocks, in its quest for sacred cows to skewer, had landed on Kwanzaa, and I’d missed it. Lately the strip has seemed a bit labored, and I haven’t been reading it as regularly as I did when it first came out.
From her voice, I imagined the caller to be an African-American lady, middle-aged or older. In other words, probably just the person Aaron McGruder is longing to offend, perhaps someone who would remind him of his grandmother or his aunties. I know him from a New Yorker profile and from reading Boondocks as an African-American himself and a congenital Bad Boy who loves to shock.
Humor often skates on the thin ice of offensiveness. Most of the angry communications we’ve gotten from readers in the past year are about humorous, and more specifically satiric, items. Pictures are the worst offenders. A writer did a gently mocking report of a Berkeley parade staged by practitioners of a variety of non-centrist religious beliefs. While he offended some readers by not capitalizing the word “pagan”, the photo which accompanied the story was the real irritant. It showed two buxom and scantily clad young women leaning on the hood of a pickup. They were wearing fairy wings and smoking cigarettes, a combination which looked comic to many and offended some. We got letters from many self-identified Pagans around the world (and a few pagans) complaining about both the story and the picture.
Editorial cartoons are the home of satire with a serious side, and one Planet editorial cartoon provoked particular outrage from some readers while getting praise from others. It showed a prone figure in Arabic dress impaled by a flagpole flying a flag which combined symbols from the Israeli and American flags. The cartoonist’s intent was to criticize the foreign policies of the two countries as they pertained to Palestine, and like many political cartoons it was more serious than humorous in intent. Some letter writers and callers took this cartoon to be generally anti-Semitic, because the Star of David was the part of the Israeli flag which was incorporated into the combined flag. Some thought it carried a hidden implication that the U.S. government is controlled by Jews, a la Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Of course, neither interpretation is correct, but expressing the same political criticism of the two governments in words alone might not have offended in the same way.
This cartoon prompted a few readers to call our advertisers and tell them to cancel their ads. To their eternal credit, instead the advertisers called us to let us know what was going on, and refused to cancel. We especially appreciated one call from the Jewish owner of a small business, who made it clear that he didn’t like the cartoon and was made personally uncomfortable by any coverage of the Israel-Palestine controversy. He suggested that the paper should just stick to covering local news. I told him we were sorry to make him unhappy, but we thought it was our duty to cover all the news our readers are interested in, and many local readers are interested in the issue. He made his point forcefully, but when we disagreed with it he didn’t cancel his ad, for which we thank him. His willingness to live with controversy is paying dividends-- just this week someone told me about an expensive purchase she’d made at his store because he’s a Planet advertiser.
This issue and subsequent ones will reprint some of the strongest pictures and cartoons which appeared in the Daily Planet in 2004. Some of them will certainly offend someone again. We won’t be re-running the offending Boondocks cartoons because we get them from a syndicate which only lets us run them once, but sometime in the new year, perhaps as early as next week, Aaron McGruder will surely annoy someone else. Our photographers will probably again capture some hapless subject in a comic pose in the next year. Our editorial cartoons, we hope, will continue to irritate.
It’s our job, best described by John Kenneth Galbraith: “In all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also, one should afflict the comfortable, and especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong.” Not that our readers are ever wrong, of course.