Friday, February 03, 2006

The Curious Case of Tom Toles

Tom Toles, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist (Buffalo News, 1990), has drawn fire from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a political cartoon that he drew for the Washington Post.

The cartoon depicts a quadruple amputee in a hospital bed, with a declining graph labeled "U.S. Army" as his medical chart. Dr. Rumsfeld is at his bedside, saying, "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened.' I'm prescribing that you be stretched thin. We don't define that as torture."

The cartoon refers to Rumsfeld's remarks last week when he stated that the U.S. military is a "battle hardened... enormously capable force," in response to a Pentagon-sponsored study that warns the Iraq war risks "breaking" our Army.

Interestingly, while the Joint Chiefs are up in arms over the cartoon (and it seems to be the thing these days, to become indignant when cartoons infringe on our comfort zone), Dave Autry, deputy communications director for Disabled American Veterans, said that while he thought the cartoon was graphic, he was "certainly not" offended by it. Rather, he said, it drove home an important point.

In my opinion, one of the heroes in this op-ed drama is Fred Hiatt, The Post's editorial page editor. Hiatt said he doesn't censor Toles, and that cartoonists work best when no one is breathing over their shoulders. Go Fred!

See, whether or not I like what you have to say, the fact that you are allowed to say it is important. As soon as I make it illegal for you to air your opinions, who's to say that the next opinion to be outlawed won't be my own? The penduluum swings both ways. We can't have editorials that support one side without allowing essays making a case for the other.

"It is the nature of cartooning that someone can read an analogy a cartoon uses to mean things other than what was intended," Toles says. "The only way to avoid that problem is to draw cartoons that have no impact."

In the end, it's not whether I agree or disagree with Toles' editorial slant. It's whether or not he is free to voice his opinion. If it becomes a punishable offense to write, draw, state, blog, or hint that we disagree with the Powers That Be, we'll have to chalk "democracy" up as a failed experiment.