14 May 2008

Hatred, Insensitivity and Just Desserts

The latest issue of The Nation arrived in my mailbox today. I always check out the letter columns of new magazines before filing them in my to-read pile. This week's letters included expressions of outrage over a cartoon by Rick Meyerowitz published in the 28 April issue. As shown here, it seemed so innocuous to me that I didn't give it a second thought, but it disturbed others. Judging by the letters printed, reader response was three-to-one against the cartoon. The consensus was that Meyerowitz had crossed a line of propriety (or simple decency) by making a joke out of Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston's affliction with Alzheimer's disease.

Hiasaura Rubenstein of Madison WI "could not believe [her] eyes," and failed to find the cartoon "the least bit comic." Instead, it was "thoughtless and cruel," provoking Rubenstein to write, "Shame on you!" to the editors. Ethel Hayes of South Dennis MA found the cartoon "beyond the pale," in part because a friend of hers died of Alzheimers. "You let your ideology run away with you," she chides. Gloria Del Vecchio of Morrisville PA emphasizes that "all who end their lives with this terrible disease deserve compassion," and asks, "Has The Nation lost its humanitarian marbles?"

Nancy Bey Little of Honolulu expresses the minority view. "You will probably get flak for the cartoon showing two right-wing icons in 'Lost Marbles Valley,'" she writes, "but they both deserved it" because "they were powerful, harmful actors." Meyerowitz himself gets the last word:

My drawing was meant to be mean, inappropriate and out of line, and it did attack Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston for being senile instead of the things they are usually attacked for. It was the visual equivalent of a Bronx cheer, and I'm a Bronx boy, born and bred. My drawings are provocative. Some find them hilarious; others, insulting. Usually they're both. Someone will always be offended by something. If I worried about who I'd offend, I'd never do anything (I can hear the cheers).

Meyerowitz goes on to recount his attempt to make humor out of his own father's affliction with Alzheimers. "His name was Hy," he explains, "I made a sign for him above his bed [that] said WORLD'S ONLY KNOWN VICTIM OF ALZHYMIE'S DISEASE." He claims that "the nursing staff and the doctors loved it," while his dad "would've laughed at the sign too if he hadn't forgotten how to read."

Frankly, the joke isn't that funny and neither is the cartoon, not because they're offensive or insensitive instead but because Meyerowitz isn't as brilliant as he might think. Still, his was a brave response in our hypersensitive era. He dared to say, as I understand it, that Reagan and Heston deserved, not necessarily to become senile, but to be mocked for their senility, to be mocked in general and made contemptible for posterity, for their misdeeds. To some readers, this will prove that Meyerowitz "hates" the two dead men. After eight years of Clinton and eight years of Bush, hatred has come to be politically incorrect. Hatred has been identified with a desire to see someone suffer or even die. Hatred has been confused with prejudice, as if people hate Clinton or Bush in the same way that they might be prejudiced against another race or gender. What's been lost in the confusion of hatred with "hate" (as in "hate crime") is the idea that an individual, through his deeds, might deserve to be hated by his peers or by posterity. In our age of easy celebrity, we've lost track of the significance of fame and its importance as a motivator in public life. Being "famous" is seen as value-neutral, but fame was once something that had to be earned through exemplary activity, and its negative counterpart was infamy, the fate of being despised and accursed down through the ages. If people were honest, they'd admit how they feel about Clinton or Bush, or both, but admitting "hate" might make them look bloodthirsty or vindictive. I don't know about bloodthirst, but we ought to be vindictive toward wicked people if we want to warn our heirs to avoid their example. It's all very nice to say that every bad person was merely a well-meaning failure, but do that too much and you make it sound as if well-meaning is all that counts -- and some of us will still dispute whether everyone really does mean well. At the very least, the threat of ill fame, of being hated in his lifetime and despised after death, ought to exist as a deterrent for any public figure. Meyerowitz's cartoon is just a small gesture in that direction, but it ought to be encouraged.


hobbyfan said...

I took a look at the cartoon. This is my take.

Meyerowitz admitted that the piece was done as being mean spirited. That paints the picture of the artist as being unrepentant and morally/culturally insensitive, despite the fact that, as he admitted, he could relate from personal experience. Alzhemer's Disease is not funny in the slightest bit; you're right about that.

Charlton Heston & Ronald Reagan earned iconic status with our society. They don't deserve to be subjected to such artistic abuse after they've passed on. They didn't deserve to be afflicted with Alzheimer's, either, but I don't think we'd wish that on anyone, anyway.

crhymethinc said...

No one is obligated to be "morally/culturally sensitive". In this country, we have the right to say whatever we wish, no matter how "insensitive" it might be. Anyone who disagrees with that obviously doesn't take the First Amendment seriously and probably should consider moving to some culturally-backward society that agrees with their conservative nature.

Samuel Wilson said...

Hobbyfan: You concede that Reagan and Heston earned "iconic" status but seem unwilling to admit that Reagan, at least, earned scorn, derision and mockery from many people for the rest of his days for his reactionary regime as California governor and American president? Will you concede that Heston earned a few sneers for posing as a champion of individual liberty while enabling mass murderers? Do you disagree with my main point, that the threat of such a fate might serve as a deterrant for future leaders? Do you understand that the cartoon is mocking Reagan and Heston, not Alzheimer's disease? Neither I nor the cartoonist would suggest that either man deserved Alzheimer's specifically, but I say again that they deserved mockery, in degrees fitting each man's offenses, no matter what befell them in later life. If you're uncomfortable with mockery, consider it a moral judgement.

hobbyfan said...

"Unwilling to admit"? You be daft, man. Reagan had his equal share of detractors as defenders while in office, we all know that. He was just as much of a warhawk as the Bushes (Gee, y'think?), which would explain his attack on Grenada and his pursuit of Khadafi. My point of emphasis, "Sammy", was the "icon" aspects of both Reagan & Heston. The negative aspects didn't come into consideration.

Samuel Wilson said...

Hobbyfan: In your first comment you suggested that Heston and Reagan's "icon" status exempted them from "artistic abuse." Do you now acknowledge that, "icon" status notwithstanding, the detractors have a right to have their say by bringing up the "negative aspects" and judging the icons accordingly?