Old Pictures in New Frames: Images of Islam and Muslims in Post World War II American Political Cartoons

By Michelmore, Christina | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Old Pictures in New Frames: Images of Islam and Muslims in Post World War II American Political Cartoons


Michelmore, Christina, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


This paper briefly surveys the images of Middle Eastern peoples presented in American political cartoons since World War II. It then focuses attention on the images of Islam and Muslims created by political cartoonists in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Ever since the 1870s when Thomas Nast's scorching cartoons of Boss Tweed reputedly helped to bring down New York City's political machine, political cartoons have attracted the attention of historians and others interested in the formation, persistence and change in popular attitudes. The attraction presumes that cartoons both reflect and shape the climate of opinion prevailing on a given subject.

Cartoons do not just illustrate the news. They are graphic editorials, and like all editorials they analyze and interpret a situation; they pass judgment. They tell readers what to think and how to feel about what is happening-amused, sympathetic, chagrined, angry, afraid. According to one professional student of caricature, cartoonists engage in "the production of meanings through image-making" (Streicher 439). There is substantial anecdotal evidence to suggest that political leaders, particularly in the pre-television era, recognized this image-making ability. Ulysses S. Grant attributed his 1868 presidential victory to "the sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast" (Fischer 26). Harry S. Truman collected political cartoons because, he said they "express[ed]the opinions of the times better and more succinctly than any of the usual solecisms of columnists and editorial writers" and had a "powerful influence on public opinion" (Giglio and Thielen ix). In 1903, Governor Samuel Pennypacker of Pennsylvania, weary of being portrayed as various unsavory animals, tried to have an anti-cartoon law passed (Hess and Northrup 22). But William "Boss" Tweed's angry cry-"Stop them damn pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures"-still stands as the most famous testimony to the determining power of political cartoons (Hess and Northrop 8).

In fact, no one really knows whether, or how much, cartoons affect popular opinion. There is a vast and largely inconclusive literature on the general relationship between the media, public opinion and policy formation. Despite considerable effort, those who deal with this triangle cannot conclusively demonstrate that the media influence the construction of national images or stereotypes. Still less can they establish a categorical relationship between national attitudes and images and the making of policy (Sankari). There is currently debate over whether the potential importance of cartoons in shaping popular perceptions has been reduced by widespread literacy or enhanced by the visual sensitivity of today's video-fed generation ("Finer Art").

But if the influence of political cartoons on the public is hard to gauge, what cartoons tell us about contemporary assumptions and prejudices is not. Because political cartoons must have a compactness of meaning, cartoonists strive for symbolic simplicity. Because the symbols they create must be understandable to the general public, cartoonists deal in widely and instantly understood referents and allusions. Because cartoons translate complex and abstract ideas into simple and concrete form, cartoonists claim the right to exaggerate, stereotype, and distort. This necessity, along with the latitude often given to and by humor, allows cartoons considerable freedom of expression. In these culturally sensitive times, editorial cartoonists can often draw what editorial writers cannot say (Douglas, Harte and O'Hara 1). "Good cartoons...," says Doug Marlette, Newsday cartoonist, "hit you primitively and emotionally... A cartoon cannot say, `On the other hand' and it cannot defend itself. It is a frontal assault, a slam dunk, a cluster bomb" (Hess and Northrup 10). In this sense, political cartoons reflect popular understandings and perceptions, sometimes at their rawest. …

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