Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The devil's advocate fears Pravda
(Or, Why the Korea Times's Thailand-based French cartoonist, who should have been fired long ago, should not be fired now)

I'm no fan of the work of Korea Times's Monsieur Stephane Peray, an internationally syndicated political cartoonist who is based in Thailand. In fact, I've been critical of his work a number of times (e.g., "Oh, dear God" and "Exhibit 62 why you shouldn't choose your cartoonist through contests involving submissions of box tops from Froot Loops packages"), and I mockingly commended him for pushing the envelope by inadvertently getting the Korea Times to print the P-word, a no-no even in places less conservative than Korea.

Here's what I wrote last year:
Sometimes you look at a cartoon and you have to look long and hard to figure it out, because it’s so subtle or its meaning so complex.

But the KT guy’s cartoons seem the opposite. Looking at them to discern their message reminds me of my nephew coming back from preschool and showing me his fingerpainting. As he says, “Look! Look!” I am in a panic because I can’t figure it out and I don’t want to upset him… I scan for clues, but what looks like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon turns out to actually be, according to my nephew, a dinosaur devouring a cow.

In other words, our (the Korea Times readership) inability to “get” his cartoons may not suggest anything bad about us. Rather, it may mean that the cartoons themselves are simply lame, stupid, childish, and/or just plain unfunny. In some ways this lack of talent by someone in a rarefied journalistic position who is held onto despite such universal opposition is so… well… Sheltonesque.
I have long thought the guy's work did not belong in the KT, and now I may have gotten my wish. According to Pravda, the KT has fired Monsieur Peray. This is being talked about at Chosun Bimbo, Brian's site, and The Marmot's Hole (the latter has a long list of links to past K-blog complaints about Monsieur Peray).

Apparently the straw that broke the camel's back was this one:

But the thing is, I didn't really get my wish. My hope was that the KT would wake up and realize that Monsieur Peray's presentation was often too lame or too opaque for the audience to get it, much less be challenged by it or gain an appreciation of his style, but instead he got canned for pissing off the Russians. Got that? He got kicked to the curb because he offended Moscow.

Am I the only one who finds that the least bit disturbing?

As I wrote at Korean Rum Diary, my interpretation of the above cartoon is that the bear represents Russian imperialism, not merely Russia, and the ongoing separatist battles inside the Caucasus are a direct result of that imperialism, so this seems to be suggesting that the Russian bear is crying over something that is — to some degree — of its own making.

Now, if I'm right, is that not a legitimate point to be making in a political cartoon? Let me make clear that I'm playing devil's advocate, but it admittedly is not very hard. In the Caucasus, tens of thousands of Chechen civilians have died — estimates of 25,000 to 50,000, including the "disappeared." In some Battlestar Galactica-type world, some do see such terror as perhaps the only means to get an imperial power to back the fu¢k off. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and all that.

I'm not of that belief, but in such a world, is it not reasonable to point out that the terror inflicted on the Russian bear's cave is a direct result of prior actions of the Russian bear?

Okay, I can play double-devil here and point out that Monsieur Peray's depiction of the dead is crude and disrespectful, in the above cartoon and in others, such as the one below (about the execution of the Bali bombers):

Could the above cartoon have had the same message but without the strewn body parts? Perhaps, but maybe he felt it was important to depict the carnage created by these terrorists to show what they were doing in the name of their brand of Islam. I don't know; I'm not in his head.

Indeed, maybe that's Monsieur Peray's problem: we're not in his head. I sometimes think I see what he's getting at with some of his more controversial cartoons (like the one above), but I'm never entirely sure, and I've even written to him in the past for clarification. I asked him about the Australian cartoon dealing with the bush fires:
Can you explain the point of cartoon with the heads on fire in Australia? Your message seems a tad muddled and I didn't really get it.
And he replied:
Yep apparently some readers didn't get it too and think it is insensitive. I tried to point out the fact that Global Warming is most certainly the cause behind those heat waves so the fire on the little people is symbolizing human madness and greed and consumption that created this Global Warming. Nothing to do with the poor victims of the fire (but some people tend to look a cartoon on the first degree...
Nothing to do with the poor victims of the fire... who burned to death. Okay, like I said, the guy is somewhat misunderstood, but it's largely his own fault for drawing sensitive subjects in a crude and and gory way. Anyway, if an emailed explanation is the only way to really get it, then something is clearly wrong.


How this has gone down is all wrong. If the guy's unfunny, then fine, go make a complaint (as many did). If the guy's presentation is too opaque, childish, or "out there" for people to get it, then fine, go make a complaint (as many did). But if you're complaining you don't like the message — and he does take some harsh digs at the US and apparently the Russians for imperialism and war-mongering, not to mention his dislike of neo-Nazis — then this is where some red flags pop up with me.

Again, to recap, this guy was apparently canned because he offended the Russians. The Russians whose pendulum has swung away from the precipice of democratic rule, back toward the loving embrace of totalitarianism. Hey, if that's the way the Russian people want to live, I can't do much to stop them, but when they start wielding that hammer against a newspaper in my 'hood, I take issue. This is almost — though not quite — as troubling to me as Chinese students waving their flags downtown and assaulting those exercising the right in South Korea to free speech.

Indeed, I am a bit alarmed that so many in the K-blogosphere are celebrating this move. Is free speech valued only when it's our own or something we agree with?

In some ways, this reminds me of the controversy over the Dutch cartoons depicting Mohammed. On the one hand, I am appalled that anyone would kill or plot to kill someone over such things. But on the other hand, I always found the justification for printing them in the first place to have been rather bogus: What it boiled down to was deliberately offending hundreds of millions of people — and I'm talking about the vast, vast, vast majority of Muslims who did not engage in any violence over the cartoons — just for the sake of offending them. It was childish eye-poking gussied up as an exercise in free speech.

Anyway, I have trouble reconciling a reaction against Muslims offended by the Dutch cartoons with a movement to remove Monsieur Peray as the KT cartoonist. Not that I know of anyone who takes both positions (but I suspect there are some). For all his offensiveness, Monsieur Peray has been making valid points, regardless of how controversial they are.

And isn't that what political cartoonists are supposed to do?

So again, (and just so we're clear, this is my thesis) he should have been discontinued for doing his job badly, not for doing it controversially. This is not a cause for celebration.

But what do you expect? The controversy over Monsieur Peray gets into all kinds of silliness. Not just a few people have bashed his cartoons as a sign of Korean insensitivity, even to the point of calling for boycotts of Korean products (not French, not Thai, but Korean). But Monsieur Peray is not Korean nor is he in Korea. So should the KT be responsible for an internationally syndicated political cartoonist offending people, which is what even good political cartoonists do?

Many writers, like Korean Rum Diary, nevertheless consider the KT directly responsible responsible, since they reprint his stuff. Frankly, though, I don't see it that way. As I wrote at KRD:
Respectfully, I don't think they printed it because it's anti-Russian. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that the editor might not even perceive it as anti-Russian at all.

I think it was printed because Monsieur Peray is their syndicated cartoonist, and he's almost certainly their syndicated cartoonist because they have a facile notion that international = globalized = better quality.
All of Monsieur Peray's cartoons appeared in the KT, apparently. Were they to have refused to print some of them on occasion out for fear of offending, I'd be a bit troubled by that.

But maybe that makes me an outlier.

I'm also a bit annoyed by the notion that "Koreans" (as in a monolithic, singular entity) can dish it out but not take it. From KRD:
Yesterday a South Korean oil tanker (with Filipino and Korean crew) was hi-jacked by pirates. Could you imagine the uproar if an internationally known newspaper ran a cartoon mocking the South Korean Navy in light of both this and the Cheonan sinking?

I seriously think Koreans would burn down the embassy of the country whose paper printed that cartoon.
Hmm... For eleven years, one of the most popular television shows in America was a comedy about a war in which perhaps a million Koreans were killed. Sure, many Korean-Americans and other Asian-Americans protested M*A*S*H and how it depicted Koreans and Asians, but in South Korea there were no embassy burnings during the eleven-year run of that show and its laugh track.

Anyway, I don't have high hopes for them finding a good replacement. I’ve been a newspaper cartoonist in college and I can tell you — from my own experience and from watching others — that it’s easy to run out of “funny” ideas very quickly. There are a lot of one-trick ponies in the comics, which is why I stopped reading the funnies. And when someone is bereft of clever or funny ideas, the results can be very weird if not downright disturbing. Offending for offense’s sake can easily become the preferred path, and we might end up with someone just as "edgy" or worse. (If they're going to go with a syndicated cartoonist, might I suggest Tom Tomorrow, even though it's heavily America-oriented?)

Sigh. Oh, and if you're wondering why I don't comment at Hub of Sparkle anymore, despite all the links here to past comments, it's because I was banned from there a year ago.

Free speech, yay!

Monsieur Peray has responded to my email, which I made into its own post.

Monsieur Peray has written me a second email, telling me "nobody was fired at the Korea Times."

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  1. Good points here. You're right that the cartoons should have been discontinued because they weren't a good fit for the paper, not because they necessarily offended Russians. I'm not a fan of political correctness, but I think the guy's cartoons were just plain bad, not controversial.

  2. I'm at work right now and don't have time to write a proper comment... but NICE TITLE! Wish I'd thought of that.


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