Freedom of the Press and Cartoons as Political Statements
Allegorical interpretations of the public sector's opinions and feelings about the U.S. Government have been expressed as political cartoons since the beginning of our Republic. These political cartoons have been most often conveyed through the various newspaper media, and have long been protected under the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Especially early on in America's history as a Republic, freedom of the press was the primary mode by which public opinion and feelings about government were expressed, because newspapers were mass produced and were widely distributed thereby carrying ideas and expressions to a greater number of people who were spread out over a large geographical range. Political cartoons could be understood by people who could not read. They helped to create a forum for debate and a way in which people could relate their own ideas and feelings about government knowing that their ideas and feelings were shared by and with others even though they were lived in remote areas of the country and were far away from the city centers of culture and political activity. But political cartoons also served to influence the ideas and emotions of the public because of the debate they stirred in the public sector, and because they drew the reader or viewer into the concepts being conveyed. Even people who held no political ideology or who were inexperienced in the ways of government became critical thinkers of individual political representatives' positions on issues and government processes and legislation when their thoughts and imaginations were stirred by the images of political cartoons.
Protected by the First Amendment, political cartoons became a tool of those who labored to shape government by way of public opinion. Andrea a. Lunsford, Kirt H. Wilson, and Rosa a. Eberly (2008), in their book, the Sage Handbook of Rhetorical Studies, say that the use of political cartoons in the United States is "a time-honored form of political rhetoric (p. 596)." They go on to say:
"The persuasive nature of political cartoons is perhaps more obvious than that of photographs: Editorial cartoonists, in particular, are assumed, and, indeed, encouraged to engage in social and political critique. Using the term graphic persuasion to refer to such efforts, Medhurst and DeSousa (1991) analyzed an assortment of U.S. editorial cartoons depicting the Ayatollah Khomeini and found three "commonplaces," another term for familiar to public to address scholars, with regard to how these representations were offered and assumed to impact viewers' understanding of Iranian politics (p. 596)."
If we look back at the nature of the U.S.-Iranian relationship since the Shah of Iran was dethroned from his "peacock throne," and the Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded him and installed a theocracy as the governing ideology and power in Iran; and subsequently to the time when the U.S. Embassy in Iran was overrun by Iranian student Islamic fundamentalists in protest of the U.S. backing of the Shah, allegedly delaying the onset of Islamic theocratic governance of Iran. We will find that political cartoons shaped the American perspective on Iran, and provided the foundation from which Americans built their understanding of Islamic rule in general as it is perceived by most Americans today.
The above political cartoon (by Herbert Block) was distributed by Field Newspaper Syndicate and published in the Washington Post April 8, 1979, following the Ayatollah Khomeini's return from exile in France, to Iran. The cartoon depicts the "spiritual leader" looking sinister and cruel, and below his poster are the bodies of Iranians, presumably ideological opposition. One of the men is beheaded, while the other lies dead in the street. The caption below the image of the Ayatollah quotes him as saying
"There is no reason why a criminal should be tried in the first place . . . Once his identity is established, he should be killed right away (Block, 1979)."
There are many direct and subtle messages conveyed by the cartoon. First, that the Ayatollah Khomeini as a spiritual leader is an image that stands in stark contrast to the image most Americans would have of a spiritual leader, such as the much loved and always gently portrayed Pope John Paul II, who was head of the Catholic Church at the time the cartoon was published. The cartoon would have alarmed Catholics and other religious denominations in the United States because it would have aroused their fears and superstitions about Islam, especially surrounding the events leading to the Shah of Iran having been deposed by Islamic fundamentalists.
Secondly, the remarks of the Ayatollah stand in stark contrast to the freedoms held precious by Americans as individual rights. The presumably public executions of people because of their religious or political ideologies would alarm Americans who for the most part associate legal due process with not just Constitutional rights, but human rights. It is a violation of one of the most cherished American principles upon which the Republic was founded on. For Americans, Constitutional rights have long been held synonymous with human rights, and the Ayatollah's expressions are in direct contradiction of those human rights. Therefore, it would follow, that Americans would perceive the Ayatollah as representative of religious and legal persecution. For those reasons, Americans would fear and loathe the Ayatollah and the Iranian theocracy over which he presided, and would be indifferent to the cultural traditions of Iranians and others who follow the path of Islam. The stage was then set for a political standoff between the U.S. And Iran and any subsequent action, military or diplomatic, that the U.S. might initiate or take against Iran.
Understanding the power of political cartoon influences on the minds and ideas of Americans, we can now move forward and examine the rhetoric of other political cartoons that have influenced the ideas and opinions of Americans, thereby helping to shape American politics at home and in the world at large.
Political Cartoons and Freedom of the Press
Freedom of speech exists through the free press, and both are Constitutional guarantees to these rights for Americans. Constitutional rights, however, are subject to interpretation. For instance, freedom of speech does not allow a person in a crowded movie theatre to yell, "Fire!" When the personal freedom of an individual puts the freedoms of society as a whole or in part at risk, then the right of the individual is legally weighed against the rights of society as a whole. Therefore, it is illegal to yell, "Fire!" In a crowded theatre, because it is putting at physical harm and risk the greater society that is in the theatre. So, legally, the rights of the individual are weighed against the risk society as a whole is subjected to as a result of exercising personal rights.
The right to freedom of the press by way of satirical depiction of individuals and government has been challenged from time to time in the United States. One such case, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, tested the Constitutionality of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In this case, Hustler Magazine, a magazine that deals with risque and sexually explicit images targeting men as its consumer base, but which also combines those risque images and images with articles on contemporary issues such as politics and religion, was the unlikely champion of freedom of the press. While many people, especially women with traditional values, would not subscribe to Hustler Magazine, the magazine has a consumer base, and its owner/publisher, Larry Flynt, is an American success story in entrepreneurship.
The case involved a satirical depiction of another American success story, that of the American religious leader Jerry Falwell, whose power base amongst political conservatives and especially "Bible Belt" Christians, had evolved beyond his successful televangelism program to form the politically powerful "Moral Majority (Lively and Weaver, 2006, p. 79)." Falwell was also the founder of Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia, and he was widely published in books and publications. But the Moral Majority, representative of religious and traditional Americans who believe that traditional American values like faith and family are deteriorating in American society, was certainly the basis of Falwell's wide-spread success and even his own personal wealth. The Moral Majority took Falwell beyond his own religious group, uniting a constituency founded on traditional values that surpassed religious affiliation. Their purpose as a political group is to influence lawmakers by the strength of their voting power to enact legislation that they believe prevents the erosion of traditional values, and to oppose legislation, such as abortion, that they believe undermines those values. They are, even today, a powerful political action group backed by the wealth of their membership which is, for the most part, middle class Americans.
As the national leader of the Moral Majority, Falwell became a widely recognized public figure whose image became synonymous with the traditional values of his membership and other conservatives (p. 79). Hustler Magazine represented an expression of free speech and free press that Falwell held as contrary…