Victor Navasky

The Art of Controversy

VTR Date: October 19, 2013

GUEST: Victor Navasky


GUEST: Victor Navasky
AIR DATE: 10/19/2013
VTR: 05/23/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I don’t often quote at length publishers’ blurbs for books Open Mind guests have just written. 

  But I think that Alfred A. Knopf’s is absolutely “right on” about “The Art of Controversy – Political Cartoons And Their Enduring Power” by Victor S. Navasky – long time editor, then publisher of The Nation magazine and now Chairman of The  Columbia Journalism Review – identifying his new volume as … quote … “A lavishly illustrated, witty and original look at the awesome power of the political cartoon throughout history to engage, provoke, and amuse…[a book that illumines] just how transformative – and incendiary – cartoons can be.”

  In it, my guest “…recounts how cartoonists and caricaturists have been censored, threatened, incarcerated, and even murdered for their art, and asks what makes this art form — too often dismissed as trivial — so uniquely poised to affect our minds and our hearts.”

  Indeed, I would begin today by repeating E. L. Doctorow’s conundrum, as he comments on “The Art of Controversy” … quote … “just how does Victor Navasky, a word man, in investigating the wordless  art of the political cartoon, account for its implosive power?” And I would put that question to you.

NAVASKY: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: How do you account for it?

NAVASKY: You know, in writing about this … towards the end of my … when I got towards the end of the manuscript, I became very self-conscious about answering questions like the one you just posed with words.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

NAVASKY: Since, since what I discovered in the course of my journey was the language of imagery and visual language. And visual … and, and as you know, cause we’ve known each other a long time … I am a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union … I’m a believer in Habermas and the power of the better argument. I think the way to deal with bad ideas is with better ideas.

Along comes pictures that seem to be more powerful than words (laugh) and what happens to that whole world view that one has?

So, you know, what I tried to do in The Art of Controversy was first look at the obvious explanation of why people get so upset by cartoons, their content. And then, second, the obvious thing about the fact that they are pictures, they’re imagery and the power of imagery down through the years, starting with … maybe not starting with … may go back to Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the Old Testament … “no graven images” and then there’s this whole new field of neuroscience and a sub-category called “Neuro-aesthetics” which attempts, which looks at, in effect, art as the stimulus and the brain as the place where the response takes place, and you put all those three things together and begin to get an understanding of it.

But I have to say that I came to it in an odd way because, you know, I used to put out a political satire magazine, many years ago and … but as you said, for a long time in my life … 30 years or more … I worked at The Nation, first as a Editor and then as Publisher … and only once in all of that time, did the staff march on my office with a petition demanding (laughter) that we not publish something. And it was a cartoon, a caricature by the great, late David Levine and with little notes on the side attacking it and, and at the time I thought what, what it was, was … if I can use David’s language …

HEFFNER: You can use it.

NAVASKY: Good. He called me one day and he said he had something he wanted me to look at and possibly … for possible publication in The Nation … because he had done a caricature for New York Review, which was his usual venue and it was … in his words, it was too strong for them. He said, “Let me tell you what it is. It is … Kiss … Henry Kissinger with Kissinger on top and the world in the form of a woman’s body on bottom and Kissinger is screwing the world under an American flag blanket”.

And he said, “Are you interested?” And I said, “David, of course, I’m interested, but it’s going to get me in a lot of trouble.” And he said, “Why is it going to get you in a lot of trouble?” I said, “I don’t know, but I know it’s going to get me in a lot of trouble.” (Laugh)

So the cartoon came over and it showed this, this exquisite caricature of Kissinger who had this look on his face which mingled ecstasy …

HEFFNER: Ecstasy.

NAVASKY: … and evil and, and there was no way you couldn’t … but in his horn-rimmed glasses, and it was funny at the same time as it was deeply disturbing. And the woman had a globe where her head would be and under the American flag blanket he had described.

And about two and a half … later … a petition landed on my desk … little scrawls … one said, “Sexist. Why isn’t he doing it to a third world male?” and it was signed by 25 people … I had thought we only employed 23 people (laughter) actually a couple of people didn’t sign it, but we had Interns who did sign it.

And, at the time … and I called a meeting and we had, we had two meetings and David attended one of them and said all the wrong things because, for example … the very articulate young woman in the office, who was our Assistant Circulation Manager said, “The problem with this cartoon is that The Nation is supposed to be fighting against stereotypes. And this cartoon reinforces the stereotype that sex is something that an active male on top does to a passive woman on bottom”. And, and she’s not wrong about that … although to me …

HEFFNER: That’s the stereotype …

NAVASKY: She’s not wrong about the stereotype and she may or may not be wrong that it reinforces the stereotype (laugh), but to me you publish it anyway because of what it, what it’s saying. And it’s what it’s saying is that Kissinger, depending on how you read it … either as Levine put it as “screwing the world”. Or Christopher Hitchens, who is on our staff at the time, said to me … “He’s raping the world, he ravaging the world”. And, however you read it, it was a cartoon that you could not, not publish. So, it’s a very complicated thing.

HEFFNER: But, you say you could not, not publish.


HEFFNER: But now you say, as you think through all of the power …


HEFFNER: … of the political cartoon …


HEFFNER: … you have second questions.

NAVASKY: Oh, yeah. Because first of all what I didn’t understand at the time … I thought that this was just another case of the Left being … wanting to be PC and not, not wanting to do anything that was anti-PC.

And it was another case of the Left wanting to be PC. But that’s not what upset people so much in my view because, for example, we would have … I mentioned Christopher Hitchens who would write columns against choice at a time when most of the nation … readers and staff … were deeply committed feminists both men and women, believed in choice and if they didn’t like what, what Hitchens wrote they would write a Letter to the Editor, attacking Hitchens column and …

HEFFNER: And you would publish it.

NAVASKY: And we’d publish it … or a counter-column in Katha Pollitt’s case, attacking Christopher’s view of the world on those matters.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was … you cannot answer … it, it was the fact that it was politically incorrect and visually … in the language … in visual language. And that it was the fact that it was an image that was politically incorrect (laughter) rather than just the political correctness that upset people.

And I later decided … and I didn’t understand that it was so obvious … but I didn’t understand it until the Danish cartoonists did their cartoons of Mohammed and people all over the world … Muslims all over the world, marched hundreds of thousands … took to the streets. Embassies were shut down, companies were boycotted, prices were put on the cartoonists heads …and so then I got interested in what’s going on here … your question … and, and it turned out they had thrown Daumier into prison for his caricature of Louis- Philippe and you go all the way back and, and so that’s when I started looking into it and, and here we have the result of it.

HEFFNER: Well, what’s happening now? With the lot of political cartoons?

NAVASKY: Well, you know, there’s a cliché that cartoonists are an endangered species because of what’s happening in the newspaper business and one, one thinks of the classic cartoonist … one thinks of Herb Block and people who illustrated … whose cartoons appeared accompanying editorials on the editorial pages.

And it is true there are fewer of them than there were before on the one hand. On the other hand, the Internet has opened up a whole new opportunity for visual imagery and every day there’s a new “app” invented and there are new visuals that go along with it.

Some of them animation. Some of them sequences. Some of them caricatures. And so I think that they’re here … they’re not only here to stay, they’re proliferating in the culture and the same thing that I started to say applied with cartoons that … when I started to say that if you didn’t like a, a column, you could write a letter to the editor. There is no such thing as a cartoon to the editor (laugh) or a caricature to the editor, unless you happen to be a cartoonist …


NAVASKY: … or caricaturist. So there’s a feeling of impotence that comes … that I think adds to the rage that some people feel if they personally are attacked or someone that they closely identify with … because there’s very little they can do about it.

And then to add fuel to that fire … caricatures are, by definition, unfair. They are … the nose is longer … and they, they, they exaggerate and so how do you take this unfairness and then, on top of that, there is the nagging suspicion in many cases that despite the fact that it is grotesque and unfair and you don’t know how to respond to it (laugh) they got to the real you.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

NAVASKY: That they (laugh) underneath it …

HEFFNER: Why … but why would that be … why would that be true of the visual rather than the written?

NAVASKY: Ahh, well that’s the great question that I grapple with here and in the …

HEFFNER: Do you accept this brain notion …

NAVASKY: No … well, there, there is a whole neuroscience field … which I mentioned, which we can get to. But even before we do that. Historically, the most famous line about … in answer to your question … was uttered by Boss Tweed who was brought down by the cartoonist Thomas Nast with his famous cartoons of Tweed and Tweed said, “I don’t give a … I don’t care about what they write about me, my constituents can’t read. But it’s those god-damn pictures … get rid of those god-damn pictures.” Because he saw that the masses of people would see them and, and, and in an ironic after note … he was actually in flight from this country and was spotted in Spain by someone who …

HEFFNER: Recognized.

NAVASKY: … recognized him from Nast’s pictures and they hauled him back to this country. And he went to prison along with the Tammany ring that, that he was … that was part of the corruption … so …

HEFFNER: Victor, you started off by saying … “have always been a card carrying member of the ACLU …”


HEFFNER: … and then you brought up the question about the cartoon that your staff …


HEFFNER: … rejected. But that you said, “We’re printing it.”


HEFFNER: Now that you’ve studied the matter more, you said you appreciated more what their concern was. Would you have, today, not published?

NAVASKY: Well … interesting question … because there are two … and two parts to the answer is number one, 90% of the people who signed that petition are embarrassed today that they signed it …

HEFFNER: By their position?

NAVASKY: … because … because what happened after, after this appeared … about five years later was The Nation’s 125th Anniversary … Columbia University … where I did not yet teach … decided that they were going to commemorate the anniversary by having an art show of The Nation’s artists over the years. The Nation’s artists have included Ben Shahn, William Gropper, a whole series of the most … some of the most distinguished artists in the, in the country, if not the world and The Nation is America’s oldest weekly magazine … it was founded in 1865.

And so, their Curator went through thousands of pictures, he picked out 40 for the exhibit … David Levine’s was one of 40 …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

NAVASKY: … when the exhibit traveled up to Harvard … they put David Levine’s (laugh) Kissinger on the cover. So, so there was a sort of a vindication in the decision in that … ah … very limited sense.

So the … so, number one, no, of course I would publish it again … in a minute. But … no problem. But … and so would a lot of the people who were there.

On the other hand, when the Danish … when The New York Times wrote a, an editorial saying that … condemning the censorship of the Danish Mohammed cartoons … but nevertheless explaining why the Times wasn’t re-publishing them (laughter).

They said a few things. They said, number one, “It has never been Times’ policy to needlessly offend any segment of our readers, especially when issues of race or stereotype are involved.”

And number two you … besides you can describe them. And so it doesn’t matter if, if you don’t see them.

And as I read the “besides”, I thought “Well, this is absolutely wrong because you can’t describe a cartoon, you’ve got to experience it. You can describe it, but you miss what is essential about it.

When I talked to the great British caricaturist Ralph Steadman he said to me, “You know … what we do, what I do is I, I put in images what you can’t put into words.” He said, “You’ve told me the story about David Levine, that doesn’t begin to describe what Levine did with that picture.” (laugh) And, and that’s what we do … it’s what you can’t put into words … so, so I just assumed the Times was wrong not to run those.

I still believe partly that they were wrong. When the time came to decide “do we publish them in this book?” … there were three or four other factors that came up.

Number one, I had a publisher that was concerned that who knew even though it’s many years late … it’s some years later … that selling this book might not result in a book store being bombed. Whether in New York City or Paris or wherever it was.

Number two, it might result in Amazon deciding not to carry the book on Amazon.

Number three, you can see these cartoons anywhere on the Google, I can tell you how to do it right now … you put Google/Danish cartoons of Mohammed and, and many of them will come up.

Number four, the cartoons were not very good. And number five, I discovered one cartoon about the whole controversy by the French cartoonist, Plantu who does cartoons for the Le Monde that were so much better than all the others and said it all.

And what it shows is an artist’s hand and his crayon and he’s writing “I must not depict Mohammed. I must not depict Mohammed. I must not depict Mohammed”. And by the time he’s written it one hundred times, there is a perfect depiction of someone who looks very much like Mohammed. And that was … captured all of the paradoxes of this thing.

So what I said in, in The Art of Controversy was I, I described exactly what I’m telling you now and then I gave the reader an assignment. The reason you will not find the original cartoons here is a) publisher doesn’t want to publish them; b) they are concerned about Amazon; c) the cartoons are not that good, anyway; d) you can find them on the Internet; e) Plantu’s cartoon is better and a few more reasons; f) all of the above. Correct answer: f) … it was all of the above. So there we are.

HEFFNER: Is this …

NAVASKY: But I said to myself … who am I to … even though I felt bad about The New York Times at that time … who am I to put other people’s lives or real estate at risk for some theoretical principle that I believe … that I believe in on the one hand, although it is true that with the age … in the age of the Internet that you can see them, unlike The Times’ explanation “you don’t have to see them” … you can see them and they’re not all that good and so they’re not all that powerful in themselves.

And there’s a woman named Klausen who’s a Professor up in Boston who wrote a very good book about the Danish cartoons … the Yale University Press published it … they wouldn’t publish the cartoons with it, to her dismay.

But in the book she documents, without question that most of the people who protested never saw the cartoons themselves and that one of the reasons they were so outraged was that two Imans were dispatched across the Muslim world and they showed a set of cartoons, some of which were the original cartoons, one of which … the most powerful of them showed a Mohammed where his turban was … with a bomb on top …


NAVASKY: … which was taken to be a statement that all Muslims are terrorists and that was one of the reasons that people resented them so much.

But, but others were not in the original batch of cartoons … one showing Mohammed’s genitals and other things … so that there was this disjunction between the actual fact and the response.

HEFFNER: Which brings me to the question of whether you’ve softened, calmed down … become less of a civil libertarian … or what?


HEFFNER: Or, is this in the whole category of cop out?

NAVASKY: (Cough) I don’t … well …

HEFFNER: What do you think?

NAVASKY: … that’s for other people to judge, but I don’t think so. I mean my political belief is that cartoons and visual language is a form of expression and, and it shouldn’t be censored either. So even though pictures may be more powerful than words, they should fall under First Amendment protection. And the only time the Supreme Court has dealt with the issue that I could find, was in a case involving of all people, Hustler magazine. And in that case the court said that, that these pictures and they were caricatures of Reverend Falwell in there and he had sued and they said, “They are protected, they are a form of, of editorial statement.”

And I agree with that, although I, I believe that it happens in a very different way … we don’t fully understand yet how it happens.

You asked about neuroscience and there are these experiments in neuroscience which I report on in the book which, to me, suggest something important, but they don’t prove anything.

Ahh, and I can give you an example of one of them. There is a neuro-esthetician name Ramachandran and he … and there was an experiment done that involved Herring Gull chicks. And these Herring Gull chicks … they get their sustenance … the young, the young chicks from … they peck on their mother’s beak and she feeds them.

The mother’s beak is long and yellow and has a read dot on the end. The social psychologists … the neuroscientists introduced into a world of Herring Gull chicks long yellow sticks, and the longer the stick and the more red dots they put on the end, the more avidly the Herring Gull chicks pecked on them. Does that indicate that … that there is an emotional response that goes with the … what, what Ramachandran said is the equivalent of a caricature. The exaggeration of what you, what you see.

And there are a whole set of experiments which show that people tend to recognize caricatures more easily than they recognize photographs of real people. And, and yet they get more emotionally involved in the caricature than in the thing. And there are also experiments with rats with rectangles and squares which show the same thing.

Ramachandran leaps from that to making statements about caricature because caricature involves the same kind of exaggeration that these experiments attempt to reproduce. I’m not persuaded that, that these experiments are anything more than suggestive. They are very interesting. The brain is a mysterious thing. There are hundreds of millions of things that go one in the right side of the brain and the left side of the brain and I know enough to know that I don’t know enough.

HEFFNER: Fair enough. Leading me though to ask you …


HEFFNER: … and I say “leading me” because somebody’s going to say, “How did you get from here to there”, what has happened to your absolutist free speech First Amendment proclivities. Any thing at all over the years?

NAVASKY: Well, I …

HEFFNER: In just a couple minutes that we have left.

NAVASKY: … yeah, a couple of minutes. You know, in, in this book, I reprint the pictures in Der Sturmer and Der Sturmer ran weekly caricatures on their cover that were vile, anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews. And they set the image of the Jew in Germany in the years running up to World War … to World War II. And Jules Streicher who was the editor and owner of Der Sturmer was the only defendant at Nuremberg who was executed who was not a member of Hitler’s … effect military equivalent of a staff. And, and I think the court understood the power of these things.

I was talking about this before some audience of journalists in Rutgers a few weeks ago and, and I said … “If I had been the editor of Der Sturmer … I would not have run these caricatures (laugh) … but that’s not a free speech issue, that’s an esthetic judgment and political judgment. I would have had nothing to do with it.

But, I said, there’s a question about whether, as a matter of law, one should have been allowed to run these caricatures. I still have the presumption that it is wrong to keep people from doing what they should be … what they should be allowed to do as a matter of free speech theory. But I’m troubled by it. And at this point, someone in the audience (laugh) started applauding and …

HEFFNER: Wasn’t Floyd Abrams.

NAVASKY: … and the matter … it was not Floyd … and, and I’ve differences with Floyd about corporate speech, I have to say. We were in school together … I have so much admiration for him and I like him.

But the Moderator at that point wanted to … called on this guy … “Why are you applauding?” … and he said, “Well, I agree with him that there are questions about whether he should do it.”

But the Chairman of the panel was Bob Scherer(CHECK SPELLING) who started attacking me for selling out, because I raised questions about whether you ought to publish these vicious Der Sturmer cartoons.

HEFFNER: Well, the question of selling out is an important one … and it’s the one I wanted to raise and of course, what’s happening is I’m getting the signal, signal we have no more time.


HEFFNER: So we can’t pursue it. But another time we will.


HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me so much …

NAVASKY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … today … Victor Navasky. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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