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 THE ART OF CONTROVERSY

Political Cartoons and their Enduring Power

by Victor S. Navasky

Alfred A. Knopf  - New York - 2013

Hardback, 231 pages with many illustrations

Reviewed by Robert Edwards

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 I was approached by Victor Navasky sometime last year for the purpose of giving my side of the story regarding The Stormer comic, for which I was imprisoned in 1981. I had drawn the cartoon strips. He told me he was doing research for a book on the subject of controversial cartoonists and he wanted to include me. His personal assistant, Ben Waltzer, acted on his behalf, even requesting a good copy of a cartoon strip, which I willingly submitted for the purpose of illustration in his book. They were interested only in the The Real Menachem Begin Story, which appeared on the back page of the original comic.

Victor Navasky is not only a winner of The National Book Award in America, he is the former editor and publisher of The Nation and a former editor at The New York Times Magazine. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is no lightweight.

In my experience, it pays to co-operate with people like Navasky because if you do not they will simply be “creative” in their assessment of you. God knows what they will write. Be polite is the golden rule and put your trust in good, honest journalism, if you can find it.

The Art of Controversy was published in early April, well ahead of the original publication date, and I was eager to get my hands on the copy I had pre-ordered through Amazon.co.uk.

I was taken aback to discover I have my own little section in this book in a gallery of the great and good, as well as a mention earlier in the book in the chapter titled ‘Caricature’. I am more the infamous among this lot, it turns out.

The list is long and includes William Hogarth, James Gillray, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Der Stürmer, David Low, Philip Zec, Victor Weisz (Vicky), Herbert Block, Ralph Steadman, Robert Edwards, Naji al-Ali, Edward Sorel, Robert Grossman, Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro), David Levine ... among several others. I was honoured, indeed.

Each has his own potted history or biography and I am no exception. Navasky had, indeed, done his research. Naturally I am more interested in what he has to say about me. It is a personal thing.

He declares himself to have been a Jewish boy growing up in New York City, by way of an introduction. He further declares he remains a strong believer in the establishment of the State of Israel, although he regards present policies directed at the Palestinians to be “ill advised and self-defeating”.

Of The Nation, he says it was instrumental, in 1947, in  revealing the ties between the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Nazis, when the Mufti was living in exile in Egypt. He relates this as background before coming to the subject of myself and my cartoons and his reactions to them.

According to Navasky, I am “the last Westerner to be put in prison for drawing a cartoon”, although I am unaware of any other British cartoonist who has suffered this same fate. Navasky is very helpful with a “timeline” of cartoonists, around the world and in all periods of history, who have suffered under draconian laws. The list is breathtaking. Imprisonment and even death are not unknown.

He makes a few minor errors that need to be mentioned before we can review the book in greater depth. He says I was “dishonourably” discharged from the Army for attending a Mosleyite meeting in uniform. In fact, my Record of Service states ‘good military conduct’. The pitfalls of availing yourself of the services of the Searchlight organisation. The other minor error concerns my year of birth, set at 1928 by Navasky but, in reality, 1948. A typographical error, without any doubt.

My ‘services were no longer required’ after I had attended several Mosleyite’ meetings in uniform, as well as wearing uniform on a march and demonstration of white South African and Rhodesian students around Trafalgar Square in the 1960s. I was also a supporter of the Anglo-Rhodesia Society. On that march, I received a warning from a Special Branch officer, “Get off or you are in serious trouble”. I can hear the sound of his voice ringing back to this day. Youthful enthusiasm is not so easily suppressed. Then, I was unaware that wearing army uniform at political gatherings is an offence against military discipline but you live and learn.

Navasky makes reference to an International Holocaust Cartoon Competition organised by Iran in response to the Danish Mohammad cartoons. He quotes the entire letter I wrote to the editor of Hamshahri, who sponsored the competition, where I declare to be “in agreement with the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. Navasky also honours me with the accolade of being “the first entry submitted from Europe”. There is also a quote from an interview I gave to Blood and Honour, the “white power music zine”, where I openly and frankly discussed my imprisonment.

Navasky does not disappoint with his verdict on my imprisonment and which I anticipated from an American writer, albeit a good Jewish boy.

He writes, “The Emersonian civil libertarian in me thinks Edwards, who would be entitled to legal protection in the US on free speech grounds, should not have been put in prison.

The anti-anti-Semite in me is deeply offended by his casually provocative flirtation with Der Stürmer and all that it represents (including the stereotypical Jewish noses in the Begin and other strips).

The Israel-watcher in me acknowledges that he got Begin’s activities as a member of the Stern Gang right, but feels that Edwards undercuts his own observation by the hatefulness of the message implicit in his visual language.

The citizen in me finds his ideas repugnant, yet the sociologist in me wonders why the authorities find his work, which itself is a caricature of conventional bigotry, sufficiently threatening to earn him imprisonment.

Navasky omits a crucial detail here which I had explained to him previously. The reason I was imprisoned was on the strength of the initial complaint from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. My solicitors, at the time, had revealed this to be a political trial and a custodial sentence was on the cards ... before the trial had even begun. Trial by Jewry, indeed!

After the passing of over three decades, it is refreshing to discover genuine libertarians who defend free speech and expression.

However, Navasky contradicts his own libertarianism in the section on Der Stürmer. He focuses on the German cartoonist, Philipp Rupprecht (Fips) who drew all the cartoons for Streicher’s paper. Julius Streicher was hanged and cremated in Dachau and his ashes dropped into the Isar. Navasky opined that Rupprecht only served six years for his part and should have been cremated with him.  Yet Navasky thinks I should not have been jailed for my cartoons. Work out that one.

My section precedes that of Naji al-Ali and I wonder if this is by design. Described as “the most respected cartoonist in the Arab world”, Naji al-Ali was shot in the head as he walked to the offices of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas in the Chelsea area of London. There are several theories behind this assassination, from Arafat to Mossad. He had received hundreds of death threats before his death and he had been detained, censored and expelled from Kuwait before settling in London.

Navasky closes this section with, “Cartoons are totems which once unleashed are not merely uncontrollable themselves but can have uncontrollable and in this case deadly consequences for their creators.

Published in ESA No 45

COMMENT: by Michael Engel - Published on Amazon.com

Format: Hardcover

A very sloppy, superficial, and self-centered work. Navasky puts himself at the center of the book--which cartoonists he talked with, which ones he interviewed, which ones he knows and what he thinks of them, and so on. The book starts with what he calls "theorizing", which seems to be a polite word for a very confused and poorly focused discussion of different aspects of the art of caricature. At one point he offers some "country-by-country snapshots of what has been going on"--all of four pages covering Germany, Britain, France, the US, and Holland!

Then we get to the choice of artists, which seems arbitrary to say the least, and careless to say the worst. Hogarth, Gillray, Daumier, Nast, and Goya get glossed over in about 25 pages. Anti-Semitic propagandists "Fips" (from the Nazi "Der Stuermer"), and Holocaust denier Robert Edwards get 8--about the same as Herblock, Low, and Mauldin combined! There's a brief discussion about Picasso, who most certainly does not belong in this group. Navasky says absolutely nothing at all about the new generation of cartoonists--Ted Rall, Tom Tomorrow, and the like. Apparently the history of political cartooning stopped thirty years go.

A history of political cartoons deserves a scholarly, thorough, well-informed, and carefully researched study. This one is a mess.

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