It happened today - January 15, 2016
As I mentioned on Nov. 7 in this space, both the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey owe their existence to brilliant cartoonist Thomas Nast. In 1874 he seems to have invented the Republican elephant out of thin (or thick) air, whereas the donkey he first drew on Jan. 15, 1870 has a pedigree going back to adversaries calling Andrew Jackson a jackass back in 1828. Jack-son Jack-ass, get it? Not every political insult is clever.
Jackson thumbed his nose at them, or hoofed his muzzle, defiantly adopting the beast as a symbol of his headstrong determination. Which was not entirely inappropriate. But it was Nast turning it into a cartoon symbol that made it forever theirs. As I also wrote on Nov. 7, it wouldn’t be my first choice for my party. But better that than, as in Canada, nothing.
I also mentioned that I find 19th-century cartoons so strikingly, immediately incomprehensibly un-clever that it’s amazing the format survived long enough to become brilliant. It is now brilliant; I dream of teaching a comparative politics course using only political cartoons from various countries on the theory that (a) that if you get the cartoons you get the political culture and (b) therefore the spectacular unfunniness of, say, Soviet cartoons is an unanswerable indictment of their dictatorship. I even did use a Doonesbury book in a U.S. history course to the apparent bafflement of the students. But while I don’t agree with his politics, I think Doonesbury’s wit carries him far beyond his partisanship in ways that are as profound as they are funny, and not by coincidence.
Now back to Nast’s original donkey. It appeared, like much of his best work, in Harper’s Weekly and depicts (get ready now) a donkey labeled “Copperhead Papers” kicking a dead lion labeled “Hon. E.M. Stanton”, with an eagle and the U.S. Capitol in the background. And if you laugh at that, you laugh at anything.
Obviously it’s partly that the subject matter, unflattering Southern newspaper commentary on the death of Lincoln’s former Secretary of War, is no longer exactly topical. But the moment you need labels on two things in your cartoon it seems to me it’s didactic rather than illuminating. (The original elephant cartoon is worse; the donkey is actually labeled “N.Y. Herald” and is wearing a lion skin labeled “Caesarism” while “Democratic Party” is on a fox’s collar and… well, you can find it online.)
I realize nineteenth century novels also have a style we find a bit florid, or turgid, today. But it’s not just a case of you had to be there. I really think the modern cartoon, which would not get past an editor if anyone still had those if it bore a single label saying “This is meant to be that,” is vastly better than the unwieldy messes that cracked up 19th century audiences.
I do like the elephant and donkey, though. And I still wish someone would find animals for our parties. In November I didn’t have firm ideas and suggested putting a few classic Canadian animals in a hat and having a draw. But no one took me up on it and I’ve been thinking since.
How about a pony for the Liberals, an ostrich for the Tories and a crow for the NDP? Hey, it beats a donkey. Especially if it doesn’t have a long dull label pinned to it.