Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — on the difficulties that may be posed when “reading” graphics ]


The question I want to ask in this post is: how much can you safely read into a political cartoon?

Here is the particular cartoon I have in mind:

It was published in The Guardian (UK) yesterday, and as you may be able to see, it portrays Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as a puppet-master, with British politicians Tony Blair and William Hague as his puppets, and was published to illustrate the cartoonist’s view of British reaction to the Gaza situation.

How much can we read into it?


If you are used to seeing cartoons such as these —

showing Khamenei pulling Ahmadinejad‘s strings and Petraeus as a puppet of GW Bush, when you come across the Netanyahu cartoon in the Guardian, you may well view it as another in a long series of political cartoons suggesting that someone is running someone else’s show behind the scenes. It’s the old idea of the eminence grise, in other words, expressed in cartoon form.


If, on the other hand, you’ve been exposed way too often to cartoons like these —

the one portraying Churchill, FDR and Stalin as Jewish puppets, taken from a 1942 issue of the Nazi paper, Fliegende Blätter, or the one depicting McCain and Obama as Israeli puppets, taken from a 2008 issue of the Saudi paper, Al-Watan… you may well see the same cartoon in a very different — and distinctly antisemitic — light.


The last two graphics, at least, are extremely offensive, and I would like to offer another graphic here — one which also uses our “puppet master” theme — as a visual equivalent of offering a glass of water to cleanse the palate:

I’ll be addressing this My Fair Lady poster from a very different angle, in a later post in my “form is insight” series — this one on “dolls within dolls”, the “world stage which we have dotted with stages of our own devising” and “turtles all the way down”…


Having hopefully reduced the emotional freight which some of the cartoons above must surely have carried with them, I would now like to offer you some background which seems relevant to me. Characteristically, perhaps, it comes from a very different field of knowledge.

EC Zeeman‘s April 1976 article Catastrophe Theory in the Scientific American was my introduction to the mathematician Rene Thom’s remarkable body of work, an introduction which sailed mostly over my head — but one of Zeeman’s points, which he illustrated with the graphic below, made perfect sense to me.

The annotation to this illustration read in part:

If an angry dog is made more fearful, its mood follow* the trajectory ‘A’ on the control surface. The corresponding path on the behaviour surface moves to the left on the top sheet until it reaches the fold curve; the top sheet then vanishes, and the path must jump abruptly to the bottom sheet. Thus the dog abandons its attack and suddenly flees. Similarly, a frightened dog that is angered followes the trajectory ‘B’. The dog remains on the bottom sheet until that sheet disappears, then as it jumps to the top sheet it stops cowering and suddenly attacks.

My translation:

A dog that reaches the point where its ears are fully pinned back, indicating full-on fear, and its teeth are also fully bared, indicating full on rage, will behave differently depending on whether its fear level or its rage level was the first to be raised to “full”.

Just as a dog’s reaction to a full on mix of rage and fear may depend on which stimulus came first, so — I am suggesting — our own reaction to the cartoon in question — inherently antisemitic, or merely critical of a particular Israeli operation — may depend on our previous exposure to cartoons, politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or antisemitism.


We now have several levels of ease or difficulty in reading graphics. The Zeeman graphics are hard to read because they’re too small to be legible — but put them in the context of Zeeman’s article, and view them full size as originally published, and the only problem might be in following Zeeman’s text, itself a popularization and simplification of Rene Thom‘s work.

The Bart Simpson graphic is fairly straight forward, and regular viewers of the show would “read” it in line with hundreds of similar frames in which Bart writes repeated lines on a classroom chalkboard, from Season 1 episode 2′s “I will not waste chalk” to Season 23′s “There’s no proven link between raisins and boogers”.

And then there’s the disputed Netanyahu graphic… which can be “read” differently, depending on what previous “puppet master” associations the viewer beings to the task. Here, it seems to me, the task of interpretation can be viewed in one of two ways: (i) as an exploration of how it is likely to be read, which I’m suggesting will depend on previous association, and (ii) as an exploration of what “must have been” in the cartoonist’s heart.


Assessing the cartoon’s probable impact on segments of the public is one thing — knowing what the cartoonist intended, even though we tend to conflate the two, is quite another. Not for nothing does St Paul in I Corinthians 2.11 ask (in my own translation)

Who knows the qualities of a man but the spirit of that man within him?