I remember the first time I saw Gerald Scarfe’s work. He was the cartoonist responsible for all the animated sequences in the movie version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I don’t remember hardly anything from that movie but his part in it: the shadowy gollum-like creature with a gas mask for a head; the pompous, towering butt-cheeks-for-lips judge; the goose-stepping hammers. His work in that movie was disturbing, grotesque… nightmarish.
Since I saw that movie, I haven’t really heard Gerald Scarfe’s name much until yesterday. Apparently, he has been a political cartoonist for Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times since the dawn of the nuclear age. That makes sense. Politicized art and aestheticized politics are peculiar earmarks of the nuclear age, and Scarfe’s style seems well-suited to both. But recently, he crossed the line. Well, let me restate that in the mealy words of an anonymous spokesperson for the paper’s publisher: “Some sort of line has been crossed.” Strong words.
So what did Scarfe do? He dared to criticize Israeli foreign policy. And we know that anyone who criticizes Israeli foreign policy is, of course, anti-Semitic. I’m not going to argue about the good taste of Scarfe’s cartoon. It’s of Israeli’s prime minister using the blood of what appears to be Palestinians as mortar for building a wall. It’s definitely grotesque. As is pretty much everything Scarfe has ever done (outside of the work he did on Disney’s Hercules… I have no idea what they were thinking). But honestly, the reactions to the cartoon have been… well, kind of, cartoonish.
Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Sunday Times, tweeted that he was “sorry,” but he was not going to use twitter to make a response. And then tweeted a “major” apology about ten micro-seconds after that. I think his first apology was about as meaningful as his second. He mentioned that Scarfe’s cartoons had “never relfected the opinions of the Sunday Times.” Which, we know, means nothing. The Sunday Times doesn’t have any opinions. The people that contribute to the Sunday Times have opinions, and Scarfe contributes to it. So, Murdoch’s statement means almost nothing. Enter Tony Blair with more hedged words of non-meaning: He expressed “sharp reservations” about the cartoon. Hmmmm. Withering criticism.
The biggest problem with the cartoon was its timing. It was published on Holocaust Memorial Day. Ouch. Scarfe, in a public statement, said he “very much regretted” the timing of the cartoon. And I don’t know if this makes him more or less insensitive to the Jewish cause, but he also declared that he had no idea it was Holocaust Memorial Day. I believe him. In this whole group, he’s about the only person who is talking straight. That includes the Israeli critics. Their criticisms are ridiculous. Jewish leaders saw the cartoon as an invocation of the famous “blood libel” of old. Well, not so famous. In fact, downright esoteric. I would be surprised if Scarfe knew anything about that either.
This whole thing reminds me of the “racial code words” white opponents of Obama were accused of using. It’s ridiculous to me. No one has even discussed Scarfe’s criticism of Israeli policy. That isn’t even on the table. Not anymore. Maybe not ever. But that is precisely the only thing that matters in this discussion. Especially on Holocaust Memorial Day. Holocaust Memorial is not just about the Jews. It is about people in power using their power to destroy and oppress those who cannot defend themselves. And the Israelis are certainly using some heavy-handed tactics in order to deal with “The Palestinian Problem.” I’m not saying that anyone over there doesn’t share fault. But the issue is so clouded by political correctness that no one is even allowed to talk about it for fear of being attacked and persecuted for his opinion without any recourse to defend himself. Which sounds oddly familiar somehow.