The Outstater: The Indy Star Strikes a ‘Racist’ Cartoon

November 24, 2014

MANY OF US HERE would rather ignore the Indianapolis Star’s Gannett-speak, as do most thoughtful persons. But the newspaper is an Indiana mass medium, so our mission statement requires our attention to it.

Respecting the membership’s time nonetheless, we are stating the conclusion up front: The Star as an indicator of the public mood, a bellwether, a prescient commentator on the serious issues of our day, is not worth the 50 cents it costs.

If you have a minute, though, we can work through the details of how a once-great newspaper came to naught.

Over the weekend, the executive editor felt compelled to apologize for his cartoonist, Gary Varvel. The cartoonist built his career outside the corporate culture and was apparently unaware that it is verboten to express the message that there is no inherent difference between: a) people inviting themselves into your country (cultural migrant is the politically correct term); and b) people inviting themselves to your Thanksgiving Day dinner, the scene of the offending cartoon (still accessible here).

In the Varvel image, a mustachioed fellow with his family behind him is attempting to climb through a window to crash a traditional (North) American Thanksgiving dinner. The New York Times picked up the story, assuming with the Star editors that it is about the defeat of racism in flyover country, that it is news for Hoosiers to stand against racist sentiment. “Many (Indiana) readers took issue with the heavy mustache worn by the immigrant father when the cartoon was posted on Friday,” the Times reported to its perhaps shocked readership:

“The mustache was later removed from the cartoon before the entire cartoon was taken down. (The Star’s publisher) said that the cartoonist did not intend to be ‘racially insensitive’ or for the cartoon to be read literally. ‘He intended to illustrate the view of many conservatives and others that the president’s order will encourage more people to pour into the country illegally,’ he said.”

But, of course, poor Varvel failed in an intention, always regrettable but excusable in liberal circles. The Gannett management team nonetheless made clear to its errant cartoonist that, in addition to refraining from embarrassing its editors in the eyes of their New York Times friends, he shall heretofore consider the portrayal of people from Mexico entering the country illegally as prima facie racism.

A member of our foundation writes that Mr. Varvel could have saved himself this public humiliation had he depicted the gathering as a reunion of gay black Muslims: “It would not have altered the message — and it is the message, not just the caricature, that the carpetbaggers imported by Gannett to run the Indianapolis Star find offensive.”

So where does this leave us? Earlier, some may recall, the Star banned the word alien from its pages, rendering indistinguishable all persons in this world and the galaxies beyond. What words, then, what caricatures, can be used to discuss the core question of immigration reform?

That question, dare it be framed, is this: How can U.S. law differentiate between a foreign national who wishes to come here to work and apply for citizenship and those, however few, who simply want to come here and gather largesse? (Members of that last group, in case you missed Varvel’s joke, are the ones climbing in the window.)

Well, that particular question on this particular issue cannot be voiced, typed or sketched. And any logic to the contrary, i.e., that the subjects of Varvel’s caricature have in fact invited themselves, that they are in fact at least temporarily aliens in the U.S. and that racism by definition has nothing to do with it, must be thrown down the memory hole.

Which brings us to George Orwell’s timeless essay, “Politics and the English Language.” A passage:

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but also the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

The Star editors aptly demonstrate why racism should now be put on Mr. Orwell’s list — that and why they should find honest work outside the protection of the First Amendment.

— Craig Ladwig

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