Northern Light

Doug Marlette (1949-2007)

A tribute

The Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist and writer Doug Marlette died in a car accident Tuesday morning. He was on his way from his father’s funeral in Charlotte, N.C., when the truck in which he was a passenger hit a water spot and hydroplaned, struck a roadside sign and hit a tree. Marlette was 57. The driver, John Davenport, 33 and theater director at Oxford High School, Mississippi, survived the accident. The two were travelling to the high school to sit in on rehearsals of Marlette’s musical ”Kudzu: A Southern Musical”, based on a famous strip of the same name.
I never met Doug Marlette, but I admired him a lot and my thoughts go out to his family, friends and colleagues. He was an inspiring voice at the time of the cartoon crisis back in 2006. Marlette spoke on the basis of his own experience in 2002, when he received thousands of angry mails and threats from Muslims after having drawn a cartoon showing an Arab looking man driving a Ryder rental truck like the one used by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, carrying a nuclear warhead, and a caption reading ”What Would Mohammed Drive?”.
According to Marlette the cartoon was a takeoff on a controversy among some Protestants over the morality of driving gas-guzzling SUVs, ”What Would Jesus Drive?”
The Council on American-Islamic Relation (CAIR) demanded an apology, and initiated a mail-campaign against Marlette and the paper. So did the secretary general of the World Muslim League, who also insisted on guarantees from the Tallahassee Democrat, where Marlette worked at the time, not to publish such material again. Ironically, the cartoon was later removed from the book ”Killed cartoons”, a collection of controversial cartoons rejected by editors.
Doug Marlette refused to apologize.
”To a cartoonist working in the current geo-political atmosphere, it is a natural step to ask, ”What would Mohammed drive?”” a defiant Marlette told
”And I am sorry to report, that the image in post-9/11 America that leaps to mind is the Ryder truck given to us by terrorist Timothy McVeigh, carrying a nuclear warhed and driven, alas, not by an Irish-Catholic or a Jewish Hasadim or a Southern Baptist, but, yes, by an Islamic Militant.”
Tallahassee Democrat executive editor John Winn Miller refrained from issuing an apology because the cartoon wasn’t published in the printed paper, just on the website. He explained in an editorial:
”Unbeknowst to me, we had an automatic system that placed all of Doug’s political cartoons on our website. When that happened with the bomb cartoon, we were flooded with thousands of e-mails and phone calls demanding an apology. We did not publish the cartoon, and we won’t because I don’t think it is particularly funny. And I, frankly, am uneasy about making fun of religious icons in the Democrat. We have run cartoons making fun of priests because of their actions in the abuse scandal – but not because of their religion. There were some cartoons that we did not run because we thought they crossed the line of good taste. Different editors draw that line in different places.”
Hm, hm, doesn’t sound very convincing to me. What would the editor have done, had he not received all those e-mails? I guess, he would have published the cartoon, and that leaves us with a dangerous line of reasoning: If you scream loud enough about how offended you are, if you intimidate enough, then we’ll do as you please.
Though the executive editor decided to pull Marlette’s cartoon he defended his right to ridicule, saying Marlette had som fair base for satire.
”While the vast majority of Muslims are a peaceful people and preach a peaceful religion, there are some who have subverted the messsage of the prophet Muhammed for their own violent purposes,” said Miller.
Marlette responded indirectly a couple of years later when he attacked newspaper managers for being too focused on the bottom line.
”…the managers are pursuing the central mandate of their business model: to constantly expand readership. Their position is: ”How can we expand readership if we make people mad? Anything that makes people think risks offending them and losing readership.” That the editorial cartoonists’ very reason for being is to provoke helps explain why they are the first to go…We cartoonist represent the untidy, untamable forces that corporate suits have always waged war on. We represent instinct, and we work in the most powerful, primitive and unsettling of vocabularies: images.”
Marlette left the Tallahassee Democrat last year, and joined the Tulsa World, a small family owned newspaper.
Naturally, the Mohammed cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and the death threats against the Danish cartoonists caught the attention of Doug Marlette, and in an interview in December 2005, i.e. six weeks before hell broke loose in the Middle East, he said to our reporter:
”True Muslims ought to rise up and condemn this kind of outrageous threats. If a religion sanctions the killing of artists it does not deserve its name.”
He saw the publication of the Danish Mohammed cartoons and the ensuing debate as a sign of hope for cartooning and free speech.
”It’s a healthy sign that you have challenged the ban on depiction of the prophet, and it’s a sign of deep respect for Islam. In doing so, you are treating that religion as a mature and grown up faith able to cope with disrespect. But if this message of freedom cannot survive the next generation due to misplaced consideration or special treatment, or because journalistic institutions in the long run can’t withstand the pressure and the attacks, then the future looks bleak for all of us, especially for minorities. Minorities like the Muslims should be very eager to protect freedom of expression, because history teach us that when freedom of speech is done away with minorities are the first to suffer.”
In 2004 Marlette wrote a piece for the Nieman Reports, ”Freedom of Speech and the Editorial Cartoon, in which he said:
”…what does the obsolescence of the editorial cartoonist have to do with the health of the democracy? Cartoons are the acid test of the First Amendment. They push the boundaries of free speech by the very qualities that have endangered them: Cartoons are hard to defend. They strain reason and logic. They can’t say on the other hand. For as long as cartoons exist, Americans can be assured that we still have the right and the privilege to express controversial opinions and offend powerful interests…When we don’t exercise our freedom of expression in troublesome ways, we atrophy our best impulses. The First Amendment, the miracle of our system, is not just a passive shield of protection. In order to maintain our true, nationally defining diversity of ideas, it obligates journalists to be bold, writers to be fullthroated and uninhibited, and those blunt instruments of the free press, cartoonists like me, we must use it, swaggering and unapologetic.”