On my cartoons you can see I go by my last name, Ariail. If you read the letters to the editor in the papers that carry my work you’d find I go by a few other names as well. But that’s how it should be. Editorial pages and editorial cartoons are forums for expressing opinions and different ideas that on occasion clash with those of the reader. Editorials and cartoons can inform the reader on issues of the day and hopefully, provoke thought and discussion. That’s their primary role.
Because they are expressed visually, cartoons tend to evoke stronger, more visceral reactions than the written word. Good cartoons can tickle your funny bone or grab you by the lapels and slap you around. One day they can champion the underdog and on another eviscerate a lying politician or puncture the inflated ego of an over-stuffed fat cat. Editorial cartoons should, to use the words of H.L. Mencken, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Cartoons can be funny, persuasive, infuriating, clever, abrasive, hard-hitting and sometimes misunderstood. In writing, we know words can convey different and occasionally unintended meanings. When it comes to symbols, the medium of cartooning, it’s the same only the results can be exponentially more explosive.
Case in point: a recent cartoon I drew on the very public schism within the Episcopal Church. The cartoon asks the question, “Now that the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina has seceded from the national church, how will we be able to tell which is which?” The answer is proffered visually comparing the familiar shield of the Episcopal Church to one modified to look like another well-known symbol, the Confederate battle flag.
A reader expressed disgust that I would portray the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina as “racist.” I did not. That’s not at all what the cartoon implies and given the context of the news on the schism, to infer that it conveys a racist message doesn’t make sense.
The national Episcopal Church has in the last few years become increasingly liberal in its ordination of gay clergy and embrace of gay marriage. The conservative churches of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina (some 50 congregations in Charleston and throughout the Lowcountry) have decided to leave on these and other issues concerning the direction of the Church, but nothing involving a racist motive.
My use of the Confederate battle flag here is to make the point that, once again, we are witnessing (maybe not so ironically) South Carolinians engaged in a battle to secede from a national federation. I know there are some who view the flag as a sinister symbol of racism and there are others who uphold it as emblematic of their Southern heritage, but first and foremost it’s a battle flag that represents the secessionist states of the Confederacy.
As an Episcopalian and a member of Grace Church in Camden (though that last bit of news may come as a surprise to our rector) I have no intention of defaming the church or her congregation. That’s not what I do in cartoons. But as I said, cartoons and the symbols used in them can have different meanings to different people. As symbols go, the Confederate battle flag is the visual equivalent of nitroglycerine. Combine it with the volatile topic of religion, whether it be Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic or Gamecock Football, and you’ve got the makings of a metaphorical nuclear device.
As a writer and cartoonist, I try to choose my words and symbols with great care lest they blow up in my face. After 29 years in this dangerous practice, I still have all of my fingers and most of my faculties. As a cartoonist, I will continue to handle these explosive tools of the trade carefully and thoughtfully to create offerings that leave readers laughing or crying or cursing out loud over their intended meanings. However, I must ask readers to consider the context in which these cartoons are offered before rushing out to cancel their subscriptions and remember that, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a battle flag is just a battle flag.
(Robert Ariail is the editorial cartoonist for the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, SC. His work is syndicated to more than 600 newspapers nationwide including the Chronicle-Independent. Robert and his family live in Camden.)