Racist cartoon run in local editorial
Halifax’s Frank Magazine recently found itself in hot water after publishing a rather controversial cartoon. The image in question, a response to the ongoing controversy over statues dedicated to Lord Cornwallis, could fairly be characterized as the uninventive flailing typical of aggrieved reactionary editorial cartoons. Included is a callout to safe spaces, man-buns, pink-haired student radicals and hardly amusing caricatures of local notables. Essentially, it’s the artistic distillation of every sub-par think-piece regarding what’s wrong with the new generation, not to mention unfunny to boot. Unfortunately, although the jury is out on intent, the caricature of Halifax activist El Jones happened to perfectly echo a whole slurry of well-known racist tropes. What happened next, from their handling of their apology to their surprise when the internet Nazis made their inevitable appearance, was a shot-for-shot study in doing everything wrong.
First and foremost, it’s important to establish exactly what Frank Magazine was trying to skewer. The ongoing debate over Confederate statues remaining up in the southern United States has brought to attention several controversial aspects of Lord Cornwallis, the man responsible for first colonizing Nova Scotia for the British. Among other things, he notoriously put out a bounty on Indigenous scalps and sought the annihilation of the Mi’kmaq people. Given his unabashedly racist track record, the perfectly reasonable question has been raised by Indigenous and African Nova Scotian groups of why he continues to be honored. While some claim that few scalps were actually collected, that just bumps Cornwallis down from a genocidaire to a land-pillaging treaty-breaking would-be genocidaire, which hardly makes a luminous case for him in the historical record. Others make motions towards “preserving history”, which elides the fact that Europe is doing just fine without its own crop of embarrassing 20th-century statuary. This cartoon notably didn’t take either of these argument tracks, which would have possibly left it worthwhile, and instead caricatured the protesters in a worn-out and not particularly amusing way before taking a turn straight back to the 50s.
Frank Magazine either knew, or should have known better. There are a number of ways to draw a perfectly fair caricature and if they had taken them, then we would have been left with an unproblematic, albeit distinctly unoriginal, editorial cartoon. Nonetheless, they decided to caricature Ms. Jones in the worst way possible, causing a stir all on its own. They later apologized and said they would edit the comic in question – although they never apologized to Ms. Jones herself – but the damage had been done. Some might whine that in this day and age anything can be construed as racist. The painfully obvious response is this: if it looks racist, echoes racist tropes and attracts Nazis who defend it, then it’s probably racist regardless of intention.
This being 2017, of course there were Nazis involved. As soon as it found itself in hot water, Frank Magazine found itself an unlikely ally in a Twitter account calling itself “Alt-Right Nova Scotia”. Although Frank repudiated their odious advances and the editor-in-chief later said that he found their appearance on the scene “disturbing," once again the magazine should have known better. It’s well known that alt-right figures, who take both power and sick pleasure from latching onto conflict, were already embroiled in defending Cornwallis’ imperialist legacy. The incidents involved were both public and well-known. Frank Magazine, if it had been following any local news at all, should have already been aware that these vile fringes had latched on to Cornwallis as a flashpoint.
True, Frank did repudiate their unwelcome supporters, and they did mention in their response that they wanted nothing to do with the alt-right. As it turns out, that was the strongest part of an otherwise pathetic apology. Notably, if the document had been sooner and stronger, there would have been little room for “Alt-Right Nova Scotia” and its confederates to wade in. The delayed and sad-sack apology instead emboldened these elements and worsened the situation. Frank Magazine notably did say sorry to their own readers for publishing a cartoon that “some could perceive” as having been racist. They made a point, however, of refusing to apologize to Ms. Jones. Between the readership (who didn’t really complain at all) and the actual person attacked by it, they chose to apologize to the party which didn’t actually need an apology – the readership. They also took the opportunity to state that they knew the particular style they were using was one with a long racist backstory that had absolutely nothing to do with what they were doing. They then stated that they apparently didn’t think what they did would be construed in a fashion that they knew other similar material was already being construed in and had been construed in for decades. They also argued that all characters in the cartoon had exaggerated features. Not every exaggeration is race-baiting material. Even the moderately self-conscious should know which ones are.
Where does this leave us? Ultimately, Frank Magazine just should have known better. They should have known that it’s possible to carry out a legitimate activity – caricaturing public figures – without racialized tropes, and to do so undermines its legitimacy. They should have known well enough to issue a fair and honest apology to their target, which would have done everyone involved far more good than the ambiguous mess they promulgated instead. Heck, maybe they should have just tried to vary the routine and branch out from getting mad about people questioning vile civic statuary. If they had to do it, they had every opportunity to try and make a cogent argument instead of just doubling down on personal attacks of the kind which any cartoonist above the level of Ben Garrison can do without. Unfortunately, they chose wrongly at every possible turn and made a mess of it. When it came down to it, they preferred to feel sorry for themselves when they could have taken the braver path. Whatever happens next – a boycott is reportedly in the works – is on their heads alone.