Monday, October 13, 2008

Raising Hell

In a 1957 speech, the political cartoonist Herbert Lawrence Block, better known as simply Herblock, said that the first responsibility of the press was to ''use its freedom to protect the rights and liberties of all individuals'' by speaking out “and, if the occasion arises, raise bloody hell.'' Herblock raised “bloody hell” for more than half a century in the name not of false journalistic “balance” but instead in the name of the American ideal of individual freedom faced with institutionalized oppression. Born October 13, 1909, Herblock gave birth to the term "McCarthyism" with his March 29, 1950 cartoon (above) showing a Republican elephant crying out “You mean I’m supposed to stand on that!” as Republican politicians push the embodiment of the party to stand upon the tower of tar buckets that Senator Joseph McCarthy had employed to smear the names of innocent people in his Red scare reign of terror. Herblock’s clear eye and incisive pen aided him in seeing past the distracting show to the real wrongs underneath. Later, his "Mr. Atom" character concisely depicted the insanity of nuclear war lost in the nationalist hysteria of the Cold War. Few other artists in twentieth century America ripped the mask from as thoroughly or humorously as Herblock.

Herblock loved to draw McCarthy and another famous Red baiter, Richard Nixon, with heavy beards. Both men allegedly shaved twice a day to elude Herblock’s caricature, but nothing could erase the “moral 5 o'clock shadow” on their souls. In the midst of the Watergate scandal, Herblock drew Nixon trying to splice together not only the audio tapes that incriminated him but his very own political life (above, from May 24, 1974). “I am not a crook!” Nixon lied. Herblock faced attacks that he enjoyed Nixon’s fall, with the long history of Herblock’s cartoons of Nixon stretching back to the 1950s serving as evidence. “Do I seem to dwell on dark hours?” Herblock mused years later. “ The departure of a disgraced president and vice president promised a brighter time for the United States.” When the country’s faith in the honesty of government reached its darkest hour, Herblock could still imagine a brighter future on the horizon.

As a kid obsessed with history, I loved paging through books of Herblock’s work from the local library. The cartoons served as shorthand for people and moments that deserved to live on as more than dry pages in drily written text books. A cartoon such as Herblock’s “Fire!” (above, from June 17, 1949), in which a hysterical figure races to extinguish the torch of the Statue of Liberty and all it represents, applies as much to the American situation today as it did nearly sixty years ago. Benjamin Franklin may have said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” but Herblock put those words into images in endless variations for his entire career from 1929 through August 2001. Herblock died just a month after the September 11th attacks and never had a chance to put his thoughts on those events into words and pictures. Seven years later, America still waits for a political cartoonist to pick up the torch once carried by Herblock and ensure that it is never extinguished.


Anonymous said...

Herblock was great, it's really sad. We'll all miss Herblock.

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