The topic we are looking at is on cartoons and their relation to nationalism. Three topics are covered: the infamous Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, that sparked off mass protests, and how they were used by political parties; the character of Superman and his relation to American national identity; and the use of children’s cartoons, such as Bugs Bunny, as propaganda, particularly during wartime.
The Danish Cartoons
The 2005 publication by Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, resulted in widespread protest and a very public world wide dialogue on the sometimes complicated relationship between free speech and religious tolerance. Many Muslims around the world condemned the publication of the cartoons, suggesting that their publication represented an insult to Islam. The crisis caused by these protests, and subsequent boycotts of Danish products were described by The Economist as Denmark’s “biggest crisis since the Nazi occupation” (2006a). While the publication was defended as an exercise in free speech that a liberal, democratic government could not oppose, it was also widely condemned as an unnecessary or irresponsible act that served no purpose other than causing offence.
After the publication of the Danish cartoons (and their republication in a variety of European news sources, two incidents occurred involving the use of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by nationalist parties. First, the Danish Peoples Party,a far-right nationalist party, utilised a cartoon in a campaign ad (http://bit.ly/WbZtMR). Though the cartoon used was not one of the more inflammatory set that had been originally published, its use was clearly referencing the earlier controversy.
A party spokesman commented that the party “were just trying to say that we are not bound by Islamic law” (http://bit.ly/WbZtMR) while the party leader elaborated that the cartoons were “part of an election campaign centring on Danish values, which we want to push forward” (http://bit.ly/WfPWnF). While condemned, the election ads were allowed to go forward in the name of free speech.
Around the same time, the Swedish Democrats, a similar far-right nationalist party in Sweden, created its own cartoon for publication on its website. After the publication of the cartoon gained the Swedish Government’s interest, and the host of the website took down the entire website, the Swedish Democrats cried foul, suggesting that their free speech had been illegally censored (http://bbc.in/15g1EiP). The subsequent firestorm of debate resulted in the resignation of the Swedish Foreign Minister, who, it was alledged, played a role in the removal of the website (http://bit.ly/XXiYpo).
Significant differences between these two cases exist. First, the Danish People’s party is the third-largest party in Denmark’s parliament, while the Swedish Democrats are a far smaller party. Secondly, the reaction to the use of inflammatory cartoons differed, though the doctrine of free speech ultimately prevailed in both cases. A few questions that arise from these cases are:
1. To what extent do the publication of these cartoons represent the celebration of national values such as freedom of speech and expression?
2. Is the publication of the cartoons more rooted in an attempt to politically exploit xenophobia and/or intolerance?
3. Is the publication of the cartoons a nationalist act or a xenophobic one? In the case of far-right nationalist parties, is it possible to always separate the two?
Superman and his citizenship
On April 25th 2011 Superman stood before the United Nations and renounced his U.S. citizenship. His actions were condemned for showing a “blatant lack of patriotism” that “[belittled] the United States as a whole” (McKay, 2011). One commentator stated that “if Superman doesn’t believe in America, then he doesn’t believe in anything” (Batty, 2011)
Obviously, Superman is not a real person: he’s the fictional creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. As he is fictional, his citizenship is equally fictional. And yet the renouncement of his citizenship sparked outrage and was reported in national, and international, news (BBC, 2011). Despite some commentators talking as if Superman was real, others took the more prosaic line that those running the Superman comics were imposing their liberal beliefs and, naturally, their hatred of America (Gustines, 2011) on the character.
This raises an interesting point about how a figure as important in American popular culture can be seen to be identified with the values of the nation and, consequently, play an important role in that identity. Superman, as his slogan often states, fights for ‘truth, justice and the American way’ (though originally it was just truth and justice, the ‘American way’ was added during the Second World War and carried over into the 1950s TV series). He, despite being a fictional alien from a fictional planet, is seen to embody the qualities of America and specifically the values of the American nation. With his removal of citizenship, he is, or so it seems, implicitly rejecting the last part of the slogan. This, then, annoys ‘patriots’ who see the defender of truth and justice not agreeing with them that their values and their country is the best in the world.
1) What difference is there between patriotism and nationalism? Is Superman lacking patriotism, or is that a nationalist claim?
2) Do fictional characters play a role in maintaining a sense of national identity? If so to what extent?
3) Can with think of Superman (and other superheroes) as being part of Michael Billig’s (1995) notion of ‘Banal Nationalism’? (see specifically chapter 7, or his article on Richard Rorty, “Nationalism and Richard Rorty: A Flag for Pax Americana”, in the New Left Review, Vol. 202).
Childrens Cartoons as Propaganda
During the second world war there were different cartoons for children used as propaganda. Especially America used this tool to educate children about who was right and who was wrong during the war. It was in 1942 that President Roosevelt created the Office of War Information to control the media. Everything was used to produce propaganda, so it is not surprising that they used for example Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny as anti-Japanese and Anti-Nazi propaganda. The movies were not just used to demonise the enemies, but also to glorify the own nation. See for example this Donald Duck videos (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gdM9Xitof8 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMTLMPcyprg).
During the war nobody thought there was anything wrong with these movies, but after the war a lot of these propaganda movies were banned due to their racist perceptions. It was argued that especially children were very susceptible and they would not see the difference between for example war enemies or the German/Japanese people. A good example of sterotyping can be found in this video of Bugs Bunny (http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=-4UPQ9-jw6M&feature=endscreen)
By the time the movie was showed the description was: ‘Bugs Bunny, castaway on a Pacific isle, thinks the setting is ideal until he finds his paradise infested with Jap soldiers. How he single-handedly exterminates the enemy makes for a laugh-filled few minutes of typical Bugs antics, off-screen remarks and action in this Technicolor cartoon produced by Leon Schlesinger’. It was just seen as good fun, and nobody was aware of the racial stereotyping (for example the yellow face and the teeth).
Besides the normal figures like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, also superheroes like Batman and Superman were on the side of America to protect the country from its enemies (Nazi Germany and Japan). One of the most famous comics, especially created during wartimes, was Captain America. Captain America can be seen as a very patriotic figure, totally dressed up in the style of the American flag. In 2011 the story of Captain America was told again in a movie called Captain America: the Avengers.
>Patriotism or/and nationalism? What messages do you see?
>Superheroes or ‘normal persons’ > compare Donald Duck to Captain America/Batman/Superman
>Captain America during the second world war and nowadays: Does it still have the same message? Patriotic?
>Compare for example the US propaganda and the Soviet propaganda (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taA1cr85-L8)
>Compare the cartoons and the leaflets for adults (http://www.crestock.com/blog/design/the-evolution-of-propaganda-design-us-retro-posters-122.aspx)