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Cancelling Cartoonists

On January 7, 2015, the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo found themselves facing a form of cancel culture before it became fashionable in the Twaddle sphere. It was of the most severe, lethal sort. Twelve people were butchered, and the fanatic’s credo asserted. The assailants Chérif and Saïd Kouachi had been offended by the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. To add insult to grave injury, figures of various shades of political colour not exactly disposed to free expression were suddenly claiming they stood with the slain, declaring themselves in solidarity to be “Je suis Charlie”.

Despite the support, the usual cast of apologists made an appearance, citing matters of violated cultural and religious sensibility. They did the same when it came to justifying the calls by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to murder Salman Rushdie for having authored The Satanic Verses. Behind many an apologia for such instances of censorship is a witch-burning, stoning, amputating goon salivating with delight.

The commissars of cancel culture have also gone for cartoons and animations of late, though the reasoning has varied. The cartoonist’s history is filled with grotesque caricature: the blackface Bugs Bunny from 1953 who pretends to be a slave; the same character who ends up, in 1944, on a Pacific island filled with unsympathetically depicted Japanese figures. (That’s war propaganda for you.) In 1968, the studio pulled a series of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons in what came to be known as the “Censored Eleven” for reasons of offensiveness.

In recent times, the creepy skunk Pepé Le Pew, accused of supposedly contributing to “rape culture”, has been given the excision treatment. Dr Suess, the pen name for Theodor Geisel, has received his share of retrospective punishment, with the foundation bearing his name withdrawing six books. Call it, suggests Philip Nel of Kansas State University, a “product recall”. “They’re not being banned. They’re not being cancelled. It’s just a decision to no longer sell them.”

The grounds for generously applying an eraser to political cartoon satire is taking matters towards more treacherous ground. The satirist serves to poke fun and mock the staid, the orthodox, the petty. The intention of such work confronts the peddled narrative rather than marching in step with it.

This month, Australia has made its own modest contribution to cartoon cancel culture by taking aim (the word is appropriate) at one of its favourite scrawling sons. Michael Leunig, a declared “national treasure”, was gently let down by the editor of The Age after sketching a cartoon seen to be a bit on the nose of vaccination policy, notably in Victoria. The paper chose not to run the work, featuring a tank equipped with a needle as a gun barrel pointing at the equivalent of the “Tank Man” figure made famous during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. As matters transpired, this proved to be one cartoon too many.


Image from


Was Leunig’s effort a bit much? Was it in keeping with Charlie Hebdo’s description of itself as the irresponsible newspaper (journal irresponsible) offering humour at times stupid and nasty (bête et méchant)? This was certainly so for the paper’s editor, Gay Alcorn, who told Leunig that his thinking was not “in line with public sentiment”, which is always a worrying rationale to cite in any context of satire. “I have pulled multiple cartoons by Leunig, almost entirely on the grounds that they expressed anti-vaccination sentiment.” She insisted that cartoonists could challenge readers “but I had a concern with cartoons perceived as anti-vaccination.”

Leunig thought this a bit rich, an instance of “wokeism and humourlessness” run wild. “The Tiananmen Square image is often used in cartoons around the world as a Charlie Chaplin-like metaphor for overwhelming force meeting the innocent powerless individual. In my view, it is a fair enough issue to raise in the most locked-down city in the world.”

His cartoons on the subject of mandatory vaccination have previously riled audiences. When the Victorian government introduced a policy of not permitting unvaccinated children to attend childcare or kindergarten, Leunig took to his pen. At the time, his efforts worried Jo Alabaster, a science communicator and advocate who claimed it sent “the community a message of fear and mistrust, based on ideas that simply aren’t truthful. Science gives us the knowledge that vaccines are the safest and most effective way we can protect our children against vaccine preventable diseases.”

The reaction to Leunig’s axing did not lack that fundamentalist delight from those who feel that some things are beyond debate. Then there was his age, his gender, his skin colour, and, the resort of those with no argument, a perceived lack of talent. “76-year-old white male cartoonist axed after being shit at his job for the past 20 years,” one social media vulture tweeted with glee, demonstrating a deep understanding of the issues. The less than mature outlet Junkee suggested that Leunig should have simply stuck to drawing ducks.

All this had the effect of not engaging the contentions that vaccination policies do pose. There will be those unable to take them for genuine medical reasons. There will be those left out in the digital divide given the mandatory use of vaccination passports for travel and for admission to workplaces or venues. Protests numbering in the thousands against vaccine mandates and health passports have taken place in Italy, France and Greece. A good number of those protesters can hardly be dismissed as inhabitants of the lunatic, conspiratorial fringe.

The unvaccinated have become the convenient whipping boys and girls of public health politics, just as those who marched against lockdown rules were deemed irresponsible “covidiots” with nothing particularly valuable to say. Such dilemmas are the sort that deserve a satirist’s depiction.

In 2013, in response to another flutter of rage, Leunig rued that, “Making jokes is about the most wrong and stupid thing a bemused, middle-aged, white heterosexual Anglo-Saxon sort of Celt Australian male can do these days.” Humour, he suggested, had to be taken off the menu. The Age has gone one step further in taking him off its editorial page altogether. At least they did not shoot him.


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  1. Grumpy Geezer

    The free-speechers on either side of the left/right divide have on thing in common – they champion free speech until it offends them or may offend someone on whose behalf they are offended.

    Rubbery principles.

    Was it a crap cartoon? I reckon so; so turn the page and move on.

    I try not to be offensive but sometimes it just slips in. Too bad.

  2. king1394

    What about my right to be offended, and then be forced to think. I have been offended by Leunig many times and I hope to be offended by him and other cartoonists again. I remember the way many disrespectful cartoons stimulated us in the past. Fraser catching Whitlam with his pants down in the 70s, for example, verging on obscenity. There is far too much protection from unpalatable ideas in cancelling Leunig.

  3. Michael Taylor

    Not the Bugs Bunny Show! That’s below the belt.

    The Bugs Bunny Show rates up there with Basil Brush and Fawlty Towers as one of the best three shows ever.

  4. New England Cocky

    Hmmmmm …. I thought it was a clever cartoon, comparing the bravest man in 29th century PRC with an idiot anti-vaxxer sentiment. Leunig is certainly the brave man/ character in the cartoon but obviously the unelected political hacks of the Victorian Liarbral Party were offended that their usually effective bullying of ”Dan the Man” Andrews and Victorian Labor during COVID was seen by Australian voters as unthinking bull manure at best and simply downright lies in fact.

    Is there any truth in the rumour that the leader of the Victorian Liarbrals is facing a spill motion because he is an invisible and ineffective politician?

  5. RomeoCharlie29

    NEC, I think that is the point of the objections to the cartoon, or mine at least that is equating an anti-vaxxer to the bravest man in the world. Anti-vaxxers, in my opinion, are stupid, ignorant and selfish seemingly believing their individual rights trump ( sorry) the community’s wellbeing. Anything that supports such a view should have no place. This is not censorship it is just not giving some sort of equivalence to a benighted view. I exclude from the above, those who have real medical reasons for being unable to receive the jab. I am ageing with T2 diabetes, not life threatening, but I do not want an unvaccinated person involved in any activity in which I am involved.

    King 1394 the pants cartoon to which you refer was Fraser caught with his pants down when he called an election thinking he would face Hayden and instead got Hawke. And got beaten.

  6. Harry Lime

    One of the best cartoons I’ve ever seen was a cartoon by Leunig titled “Introspection” many moons ago,and it could be hardly more pertinent now.Are we not victims of groupthink?We’d still be clumping each other on the bonce if it wasn’t for creative souls across the millenia.Art and artists are a vital counter to would be fascists and authoritarians such as the egregious shithead posing as a prime minister.It is no surprise that arseholes like him despise the humanities, because they are likely to lampoon him.

  7. Time for critical thinking

    “All this had the effect of not engaging the contentions that vaccination policies do pose. There will be those unable to take them for genuine medical reasons. There will be those left out in the digital divide given the mandatory use of vaccination passports for travel and for admission to workplaces or venues. Protests numbering in the thousands against vaccine mandates and health passports have taken place in Italy, France and Greece. A good number of those protesters can hardly be dismissed as inhabitants of the lunatic, conspiratorial fringe.”

    Really weak points. Those that have genuine medical reason and can’t be vaccinated are exempt, in fact Dr. Kampmark it is those very people who need everybody who possibly can to be vaccinated, the couple I personally know are disgusted by the selfishness of the anti vaccine campaigners. Those few that don’t have digital media can get a physical certificate. There is literally no valid reason not to be vaccinated if you do not fit into the genuine medical exempt category.
    Nice argumentum ad populum! Possibly not categorized as lunatic, conspiratorial fringe (but possibly). I would definitely categorize them as either the severely misinformed or the I don’t wanna get the vaccine you can’t make me, immature and selfish!…..yes every single one of them!

  8. wam

    Both of the cartoons were colourless, tasteless, demeaning and definitely not bugs bunnyesque and common decency indicates they shouldn’t have been published.
    The one deliberate in its aim to offend and the other carelessly inappropriate.
    As for the unvaccinated they will be uninsurable for the vaccines don’t prevent transmission.

  9. Joe Carli

    A Life of Solitude.

    “No man is an island”, so the poet led,
    Tho’ I ponder on that presumed refrain,
    As I quietly lay awake in bed,
    The small hours of the night ticking away overhead.
    And I shall presume he included women,
    Tho’ such things usually go unsaid.

    But for a while back there, when gravely ill,
    (And I will speak for others more stricken still).
    An island I certainly a sea of pain,
    Tho’ thoughts and comforting words,
    Of close friends were given time and again,
    But the pain…’twas MY pain..would always remain.

    And for some; the pain of loneliness?
    Or the loveless, wed in vain..?
    The empty house, the unfeeling spouse?
    Can comforting wisdom fill the void?
    Or see televised braces of laughing faces,
    Without a seeming care in the world?

    When all sometimes needed is one reassuring word,
    That is given so many times of late,
    In banal, flippant gestures heard;
    “LOVE the cut of that coat”, or “LOVE that orange cake!”
    So perhaps we always an island remain,
    Surrounded by ocean of the equally vain,

    Crowding in suburban estates about,
    To assuage a niggling, subconscious doubt;
    That in the safety of a multitude,
    Under one roof shelter from the rain,
    We live out a life of dumb solitude..
    Secure amid plenty of one mistaken refrain.

  10. Steve Davis

    Leunig and Binoy were possibly taken in by Western propaganda.

    A good account of the events at Tiananmen Square is given here;

    The Tiananmen Square massacre: the one sided story

    Here’s an excerpt;
    Yet this obviously phoney account of events went around a waiting world relying on NYT prestige to define what was supposed to have happened at Tiananmen.

    The New York Times’ own correspondent at Tiananmen, Nicholas Kristof, felt obliged to refute the story, item by item, in his paper the very next day. But it was not properly published and to this day the NYT stands by its June 12 version.

    Only much later did we get the excellent essay by the Washington Times correspondent, Jay Matthews, present at Tiananmen events and published in the Columbia Journalism Review of 2010 under the heading: The Myth of Tiananmen, and the Price of a Passive Press.

    The New York Times continues its anti-China vendetta. It repeatedly plays up the popular Tankman photo, despite the fact that the man who took the iconic photo of an anonymous shopper halting a row tanks, AP photographer, Jeff Widener, insists the Tiananmen tanks were leaving, not headed for, Tiananmen Square and it was on the day after Tiananmen events anyway, June 5.

  11. leefe

    Oh dear.
    Someone decided not to publish a cartoon. Like, that’s never happened before, has it? Leunig has been silenced … except that the bloody carton is being seen everywhere anyway. Some cancellation.

    Cancel culture has always existed. Look at how the powerful have silenced minorities and victims of their behaviour. The people complaining about it now are just pissed off that they are now being targeted, or at risk of being targeted.

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