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Cartoonist Ohman’s offense? Starkly provoking a debate over politics and public safety

In Jack Ohman’s cartoon, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is pictured boasting about his state’s low-tax and low-regulation environment. Next to that is shown the recent blast.

There’s been so much talk of late about the lack of decency in politics, on Internet dating sites, and on freeways, to mention just a few places where even mildly good behavior almost never surfaces. Despite all of the talk, I fear we have become so accustomed to near tolerance of uncooperative jerks and worse that mention of a situation that is truly uncivil and indecent might not merit the full response it deserves.

ohman portrait
Courtesy Tribune Media Services
Jack Ohman

The situation involves Jack Ohman, the nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee. Ohman is a St. Paul native, graduate of Mounds View High School and 2012 Pulitzer finalist who once was the editorial cartoonist for the Minnesota Daily (personal disclosure: Ohman illustrated my recently published novel, “Life Erupted). He has been threatened on Twitter and other social media sites with physical harm and even death because of a cartoon he drew regarding the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion. Texas Gov. Rick Perry demanded an official apology from Ohman and his newspaper, and Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called for Ohman’s firing.

In the cartoon, Perry is pictured boasting about his state’s low tax and low regulation environment (something Perry does often in non-cartoon life), saying business in Texas was “booming.”  On the cartoon’s other side was a drawing of an explosion, presumably that of the fertilizer plant.

Reaction to the cartoon was swift, especially among those who thought it was offensive and that Ohman was insensitive and tasteless. Many of these people thought Ohman was making fun of the 14 people who died in the explosion. 

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‘Way worse than tasteless’

Of course, there also were quite a lot of people (including Ohman’s boss, the Bee’s editorial page editor) who said Ohman was not making fun of the dead and injured but rather was pointing out Perry’s lack of respect for business regulation and special disdain for federal regulatory agencies. In response to his critics, Ohman wrote the day after the cartoon’s appearance that “gambling with the lives of innocent people is much more offensive to me. That’s way worse than tasteless. It’s reckless.”

This is not the first time Ohman or any other editorial cartoonist has produced a cartoon that some thought offensive. Actually, if editorial cartoonists produce only cartoons that are bland to the point of making wallpaper paste taste exotic, they probably are not doing their jobs. Ohman also wrote that “my job, as I understand it, is to be provocative. I provoke, you decide.”  Even the editorial cartoon thought to be one of history’s most significant, Bill Mauldin’s depiction of a weeping Lincoln following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, was considered by some to be overly sentimental. 

stanik portrait
Mary Stanik

When cartoonists who drew the cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad that were published in 2005 by a Danish newspaper were threatened with physical harm and death, a great many Americans (including many Texans) were incensed by the threats and the attacks they represented on journalistic freedom. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for people to say we don’t do that sort of thing here. 

But in reality, some Americans do exactly that sort of thing here.

Tattered social fabric

And what’s happening to Ohman is just one more example of a social fabric gone stained, tattered and torn. If you don’t believe me, spend an hour or so on Twitter or Facebook and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll see all sorts of people (but mostly politicians, corporate leaders and journalists, but also ex-lovers and people who may have cut someone off while trying to get into the Trader Joe’s parking lot) threatened with firing by virtual and literal firing squad, throwing out of office by means other than the ballot box, and putting firecrackers up certain orifices. That last threat was actually leveled at Ohman. 

The interesting thing is that a lot of the people who fired their threats against Ohman also invoked the sanctity of the Constitution. Mostly, as one might expect, the Second Amendment. But none of the tweets I read mentioned even one word about the sanctity of the First Amendment. 

In a society run far from decency, it might be easy to say this controversy will blow over. It probably will, and soon enough.

‘First they came for … ‘

But to ignore it completely is to forget the words of Martin Niemöller, who wrote about the lack of action of some German intellectuals during the Nazi rise to power. His words might seem extreme today, but to many Germans of the time, they were anything but. They are:

First they came for the Communists, 
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists, 
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, 
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Because you never know when you might accidentally cut them off in Trader Joe’s parking lot. Or, try to engender honest and provocative debate on subjects worth discussion.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.

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