Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander tells the story of the paper’s decision not to run the syndicated “Non Sequitur” cartoon (at left) submitted by Wiley Miller that was to run in last week’s paper. (Because I inserted the cartoon to the left, I want to note where the following block quote begins and where it ends below). Alexander explains [block quote begins here]:
Editors at The Post and many other papers pulled the cartoon and replaced it with one that had appeared previously. They were concerned it might offend and provoke some Post readers, especially Muslims.
Miller is known for social satire. But at first glance, the single-panel cartoon he drew for last Sunday seems benign. It is a bucolic scene imitating the best-selling children’s book “Where’s Waldo?” A grassy park is jammed with activity. Animals frolic. Children buy ice cream. Adults stroll and sunbathe. A caption reads: “Where’s Muhammad?”
Miller’s cartoon is clearly a satirical reference to the global furor that ensued in 2006 after a Danish newspaper invited cartoonists to draw the prophet Muhammad as they see him. After the cartoons were published, Muslims in many countries demonstrated against what they viewed as the lampooning of Islam’s holiest figure.
Miller’s Sunday drawing also keyed on “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!,” a free-speech protest this year by cartoonists responding to what was widely interpreted as a death threat from an Islamic cleric against two animators who depicted Muhammad wearing a bear suit in an episode of the “South Park” television show. If enough cartoonists drew Muhammad, protest organizers reasoned, it would be impractical to threaten all of them.
What is clever about last Sunday’s “Where’s Muhammad?” comic is that the prophet [sic] does not appear in it.
Still, Style editor Ned Martel said he decided to yank it, after conferring with others, including Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli, because “it seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message.” He added that “the point of the joke was not immediately clear” and that readers might think that Muhammad was somewhere in the drawing.
[Block quote ends here.] Miller is not amused. Alexander quotes him speaking pointedly about the likes of the editors of the Washington Post:
The award-winning cartoonist, who lives in Maine, told me the cartoon was meant to satirize “the insanity of an entire group of people rioting and putting out a hit list over cartoons,” as well as “media cowering in fear of printing any cartoon that contains the word ‘Muhammad.’ ”
“The wonderful irony [is that] great newspapers like The Washington Post, that took on Nixon . . . run in fear of this very tame cartoon, thus validating the accuracy of the satire,” he said by e-mail.
Alexander adds that the the “Where’s Muhammad?” cartoon was put on the Post’s Web site through an apparent oversight. Forgive them, they didn’t know what they were doing! Brauchli disclaimed knowledge: “Ideally, we wouldn’t have done that if we withheld it from print.” It’s not too late to take it down! Alexander adds some context suggesting that the Post has descended to a new low in dhimmitude:
Oddly, The Post published a similar cartoon by Miller at the height of the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006. It showed a street artist next to a sign reading: “Caricatures of Muhammad While You Wait!”
Alexander omits from his account any reference to the fate of Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who proposed the observance of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!” Norris has disappeared from sight. She has gone underground, seemingly having entered a cartoonist protection program along the lines of the FBI’s program for turncoat Mafia witnesses.
Alexander renders a mildly negative judgment on his colleagues: “Post editors believe their decision was prudent, given the past cartoon controversies and heightened sensitivities surrounding Islam. But it also can be seen as timid. And it sets an awfully low threshold for decisions on whether to withhold words or images that might offend.” The thought that the Post’s self-censorship “can be seen as timid” also serves ironically to render judgment on Alexander’s column. Reading Alexander’s column esoterically, befitting a certain kind of work written under conditions of persecution, we find the column’s secret message at the center of the column in the quoted words of the unamused cartoonist.