The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Recent events reminded of a political cartoon from 2012—actually, a photoshop of a photograph and a cartoon that had been in the news—that struck me as an excellent example of the cartoonist's art: I was impressed by the sheer amount of humorous (and other) meaning packed into a single image. In a sense it struck me as analogous to the famous Minard map, which is praised for capturing so much information (geographical, numerical, temporal, directional, and weather) into one map, there of Napoleon's invasion of, and retreat from, Russia (right click and Open Image in New Tab to see more):
The cartoon is from September 2012, the day Netanyahu spoke to the UN about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. The speech itself yielded this actual photo of Netanyahu showing the delegates a chart:
Consider all that's going on here visually:
1. First, focusing on Netanyahu, imagine Netanyahu actually displaying this cartoon in the UN, especially with the serious facial expression that he's wearing. That's pretty absurd, given the meltdown that it would generate, which is a bit funny by itself.
2. But at the same time, while it's absurd that Netanyahu would show the cartoon, the cartoon likely captures pretty well (I can't read Netanyahu's mind, but it's a good inference) what Netanyahu is actually thinking. To him, Ahmadinejad—who was then the president of Iran—and much of the rest of Iran's hardliners are exactly the Turban Bomb Muhammads that the cartoon depicts.
3. What's more, deep down inside (or maybe not so deep) Netanyahu and many other Israelis, especially ones on Netanyahu's side of the political divide, likely secretly wish that someone would indeed go into the UN chamber and show the Turban Bomb Muhammad-Iran cartoon. In a sense, the cartoon is thus a picture of what might be (again, no-one knows, but political cartoons like this aren't about conveying provable information) Netanyahu's dream the night before his speech: That he might go into the UN and thumb his nose at his enemies this way.
4. Now let's set aside Netanyahu, and focus just on the cartoon. I'm confident that most Muslims have no wish to be Turban Bomb Muhammads themselves—most of nearly any large religious group just want to live calm, peaceful lives, and in fact do indeed lead such lives. Many Muslims don't support terrorist attacks on civilians, or even non-terrorist wars against Israel and America.
But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fits the cartoon (in attitude, not appearance) quite nicely. He's literally trying to develop a bomb. And his past rhetoric suggests that he might well light the figurative fuse on it. As I mentioned in item 2, Turban Bomb Muhammad is a pretty good representation of him. And there's even a bonus subtwist in the form of his name, which as I understand it is a derivative of Muhammad (though the cartoon would work well even without that).
5. What's more, the Iranian hardliners were among those who went apoplectic over the Muhammad cartoons—this cartoon tweaks them by using the same image to refer to them, and in a context where some of the criticisms of the original cartoon (that it doesn't fairly represent the great bulk of peaceful Muslims) are inapt (see item 4).
6. This is likely in the eye of the beholder, but the Muhammad cartoon, used in this context, very much reminded me of a young (more Ahmadinejad-like) version of the iconic photos of Khomeini, the symbol of modern Iranian Muslim extremism.
And say what you will about the use of Muhammad cartoons simply to shock, or to show solidarity, but that's not what's going on in that image. The cartoon conveys a complex set of messages in a way that would be very hard to illustrate any other way.
Political cartoons, I think, are especially interesting when there's a lot going on conceptually in a very limited visual composition. This one, it seems to me, is an especially good example.