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Reading a partisan cartoon: the parable of a dog’s ears and teeth

[ by Charles Cameron — on the difficulties that may be posed when “reading” graphics ]


The question I want to ask in this post is: how much can you safely read into a political cartoon?

Here is the particular cartoon I have in mind:

It was published in The Guardian (UK) yesterday, and as you may be able to see, it portrays Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as a puppet-master, with British politicians Tony Blair and William Hague as his puppets, and was published to illustrate the cartoonist’s view of British reaction to the Gaza situation.

How much can we read into it?


If you are used to seeing cartoons such as these —

showing Khamenei pulling Ahmadinejad‘s strings and Petraeus as a puppet of GW Bush, when you come across the Netanyahu cartoon in the Guardian, you may well view it as another in a long series of political cartoons suggesting that someone is running someone else’s show behind the scenes. It’s the old idea of the eminence grise, in other words, expressed in cartoon form.


If, on the other hand, you’ve been exposed way too often to cartoons like these —

the one portraying Churchill, FDR and Stalin as Jewish puppets, taken from a 1942 issue of the Nazi paper, Fliegende Blätter, or the one depicting McCain and Obama as Israeli puppets, taken from a 2008 issue of the Saudi paper, Al-Watan… you may well see the same cartoon in a very different — and distinctly antisemitic — light.


The last two graphics, at least, are extremely offensive, and I would like to offer another graphic here — one which also uses our “puppet master” theme — as a visual equivalent of offering a glass of water to cleanse the palate:

I’ll be addressing this My Fair Lady poster from a very different angle, in a later post in my “form is insight” series — this one on “dolls within dolls”, the “world stage which we have dotted with stages of our own devising” and “turtles all the way down”…


Having hopefully reduced the emotional freight which some of the cartoons above must surely have carried with them, I would now like to offer you some background which seems relevant to me. Characteristically, perhaps, it comes from a very different field of knowledge.

EC Zeeman‘s April 1976 article Catastrophe Theory in the Scientific American was my introduction to the mathematician Rene Thom’s remarkable body of work, an introduction which sailed mostly over my head — but one of Zeeman’s points, which he illustrated with the graphic below, made perfect sense to me.

The annotation to this illustration read in part:

If an angry dog is made more fearful, its mood follow* the trajectory ‘A’ on the control surface. The corresponding path on the behaviour surface moves to the left on the top sheet until it reaches the fold curve; the top sheet then vanishes, and the path must jump abruptly to the bottom sheet. Thus the dog abandons its attack and suddenly flees. Similarly, a frightened dog that is angered followes the trajectory ‘B’. The dog remains on the bottom sheet until that sheet disappears, then as it jumps to the top sheet it stops cowering and suddenly attacks.

My translation:

A dog that reaches the point where its ears are fully pinned back, indicating full-on fear, and its teeth are also fully bared, indicating full on rage, will behave differently depending on whether its fear level or its rage level was the first to be raised to “full”.

Just as a dog’s reaction to a full on mix of rage and fear may depend on which stimulus came first, so — I am suggesting — our own reaction to the cartoon in question — inherently antisemitic, or merely critical of a particular Israeli operation — may depend on our previous exposure to cartoons, politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or antisemitism.


We now have several levels of ease or difficulty in reading graphics. The Zeeman graphics are hard to read because they’re too small to be legible — but put them in the context of Zeeman’s article, and view them full size as originally published, and the only problem might be in following Zeeman’s text, itself a popularization and simplification of Rene Thom‘s work.

The Bart Simpson graphic is fairly straight forward, and regular viewers of the show would “read” it in line with hundreds of similar frames in which Bart writes repeated lines on a classroom chalkboard, from Season 1 episode 2’s “I will not waste chalk” to Season 23’s “There’s no proven link between raisins and boogers”.

And then there’s the disputed Netanyahu graphic… which can be “read” differently, depending on what previous “puppet master” associations the viewer beings to the task. Here, it seems to me, the task of interpretation can be viewed in one of two ways: (i) as an exploration of how it is likely to be read, which I’m suggesting will depend on previous association, and (ii) as an exploration of what “must have been” in the cartoonist’s heart.


Assessing the cartoon’s probable impact on segments of the public is one thing — knowing what the cartoonist intended, even though we tend to conflate the two, is quite another. Not for nothing does St Paul in I Corinthians 2.11 ask (in my own translation)

Who knows the qualities of a man but the spirit of that man within him?

14 Responses to “Reading a partisan cartoon: the parable of a dog’s ears and teeth”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Ah Charles – the first thing I thought of when I saw the “My Fair Lady” poster was the Petraeus affair, where the women are all in the steretypical roles for women in that kind of thing – subordinates, the femme fatale, the faithful wife – all on strings.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Yup, I can see that.   And now that you’ve pointed me to it, none of the other cartoons so much as have a single woman in them, puppet or puppeteer!

  3. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    One reason for that, Charles, is that women are not allowed to hold that kind of power. This is also the explanation for the cascade of strings in the “My Fair Lady” poster and the (reportedly; we really have very little direct information) childish behavior of the Petraeus women. You’ll notice that I refer to them by the name of a man and that readers probably had no problem with that.
    It’s also much more humiliating for a man to be put in the place of the woman – the puppet instead of the puppeteer, so that is why the political cartoons make their point. The puppets are being used. I’ll let you consider the multiple meanings of that word.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Ah, Cheryl, you’ve really got me thinking here:
    I’ve never had any personal admiration for “that kind of power” — there was just too much monasticism in my upbringing for me to find it admirable, and the one person I knew and loved who had a considerable impact on that kind of power, Trevor Huddleston, didn’t want it for himself, he wanted to get rid of the suffering it imposed on people he loved.  
    It wasn’t until I was past fifty that I began to see how my own interests — comparative religion, cultural anthropology, depth psychology, all of them concerned with the “interior life” — might have some application in “Real Life” as featured in such areas as geopolitics.  And the ways humans go about their various businesses has always seemed just a wee bit strange to me.
    I haven’t really thought about My Fair Lady since my mother took me to see it in the West End.  I must have been fifteen, perhaps sixteen at the time, and don’t remember much about it, except for the poster.  That grabbed me because I’m fascinated by the form “x within x” — I’d lived for a year (when I was nine) in a house with two mirrors that faced one another, and the stunning sight of “mirrors within mirrors” may be what started me off on that track. That and the God as playwright / Bernard Shaw as God motif.
    And the “Petraeus women” and Petraeus?  I dunno, hubris and nemesis are in there, “that kind of power” is clearly an aphrodisiac, Ares and Aphrodite.. Again, I’ve spent more time on “archetypes” than “stereotypes” — and they’re two very different discourses, obviously related, but I’d be hard put to connect them in a single, formal system.
    As for humiliation, that’s an honor-shame indicator, isn’t it? — and “humility” seems to me to encompass avoiding the honor-shame trap to the extent possible.  Lao Tsu:

    Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it


    The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain.

    I guess my first exposure to “scandal” would have been in the New Testament, where “skandalos” is the word often translated “stumbling block” eg in Galatians 5:11 — “the scandal of the cross” — which is just the sort of paradoxical, world-reversing detail I’d have loved, and still do.  And I’d have been, and remain, pretty dismissive of “scandal” in the “Petraeus” sense too, since monasticism also discourages gossip.
    All of which leaves me something of an eddy in the contemporary stream, with a number of significant blind spots. And as the saying goes, “old habits die hard”.

  5. Madhu Says:

    Sonia Gandhi is fairly regularly referred to as a puppetmaster within the Indian context (M. Singh is a poodle or her puppet, etc) but then the dynastic nature of Indian political life means that women can rise to the very top based on, well, dynastic connections. A not unfamiliar pattern in American political life.
    I’ll see if I can dig up a cartoon.

  6. Madhu Says:

    It’s funny the way the “Petraeus women” are being discussed. Why not talk about Paula Broadwell in the same way you might talk about David Petraeus, with the understanding that he has much more power but cronyism is cronyism.
    It’s been an enlightening experience seeing the way the issues are handled – sort of a rorschach almost…. 

  7. Madhu Says:

    Interesting, in researching for cartoons I see images portraying the first lady as a puppetmaster (I am not making a partisan point, just thinking about this interesting thread and its various permutations).
    Okay, I’ll stop haunting the comments section now 🙂 

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Madhu:
    I think that if the scandal continues and gets big enough, we may come to talk about Paula Broadwell “in the same way you might talk about David Petraeus” — vide Monica Lewinsky — but his name was already known, hers wasn’t.
    FWIW, I found one woman-as-puppet-master cartoon, featuring Maggie Thatcher — but it seems to me that it’s making a role-reversal point, so it’s 
    implicitly making the same gender-related point as the others, as well as its overt political one.  I wonder if that’s also true wrt Sonia Gandhi and Michelle Obama. 

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    I wanted to say, too, that the piece you linked to, How Mean Girls Explains the Petraeus Scandal, was fascinating, and the clip from Mean Girls itself even more so, though a bit hard for me to follow never having seen the film.
    Unbelievable — and all too believable. Maybe it’ll be on Netflix.

  10. Madhu Says:

    Yeah, I didn’t think much of that Mean Girls article. 
    So, cronyism is good as long as women work together? A women protecting women culture to compact the boys will be boys culture of the military?
    Sure, let’s put unqualified people into positions based on their ability to network, male or female both.
    I guess I shouldn’t have worked so hard as a physician. I should have just worried about connecting with the right people up top.
    By the way, I saw plenty of that in the big leagues of academic medicine, women forming connections like men forming connections. It was fine as long as they were qualified, but when they weren’t and just using cronyism to get favors? Count me out.
    How about a world where men and women are judged on their own merits and not on connections or hiding each other’s secrets? Plus, plenty of men are being mean girls in this scenario to judge by the leaked emails.
    She wasn’t qualified to be a biographer and he wasn’t as qualified as his celebrity press painted.
    But I don’t think any one of us is going to agree on this point. 

  11. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Charles –
    I’m coming up for a bit of air after working on some more numerical stuff. It should appear as tomorrow’s Special of the Day on Nuclear Diner.
    I see what you mean about “that kind of power.” But it’s real, and women are largely excluded from it. I also like what you have to say about humility. Again, not necessarily sought after in the quarters that think they’re running the world.
    I almost used the word “archetype” and then decided that “stereotype” was more what I intended, although I think both are in the Petraeus story and, in places, almost interchangeable.
    I also enjoyed Ernie Kovacs’s habit of leaning on the tv monitor in the studio, giving us a picture of Ernie leaning on the monitor with Ernie leaning on the monitor with Ernie…

  12. larrydunbar Says:

    Charles I think you out did yourself on this post. It really is a great one, and I applaud you in your effort, but….

    Actually no buts. I have been trying to find mathematical principles that I can see in three dimensions, and I thank you for introducing me to Zeeman.

    I will say that I believe that trajectory A and B to be potential directions for force in the creation (distribution) of energy and that the tipping point falls somewhere between the first Act and the second.

    In other words, both fear and rage start at the same points, but which way they will actually tip in the volume of life, attack or retreat, depends on what they further experience (Observe). I imagine that the tipping point also depends on if you are just going through the process or have a strategy.

    A friend of mine (with what I assume was strategy) was able to stop a mother bear in full rage from attacking by remaining fearless (she thankfully retreated). So a movement in time is also dependent on an outside force as well as that which is inside us. While the mother bear saw a potential direction she wanted to travel (rage), she also saw a place (fearlessness) that my friend was at that she judged as a place she did not want to go.

  13. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Larry:

    I imagine that the tipping point also depends on if you are just going through the process or have a strategy.

    I think that’s a very important point, and while I won’t address it directly, it triggers me to write another post that I’ve been mulling for a while, dealing with the presence of two very distinct kinds of drivers in the contexts of games and life…

  14. Charles Cameron Says:

    Neat math!
    For an interesting current use of the same catastrophe image I quoted above from an article published in 1976, see this piece from yesterday’s Forbes by Anthony Kosner:

    Whether this is a fair account of Microsoft’s situation or not I don’t know, but I suspect the pattern depicted in the graphic itself — the catstrophe — is at least as interesting as the pattern termed “death spiral” in the piece by Charlie Demerjian that Kosner quotes:

    In the end, the death spiral for Microsoft is in full effect, and management is expending a lot of effort to speed it up. Anyone who dares point out that the entire system is collapsing, or worse yet suggests an alternative, gets Sinofsky’d. Or was it Guggenheimer’d? In any case, Microsoft is unwilling to change, and that is very clear.

    In my terms, “death spiral” and the various René Thom “catastrophes” would both qualify as “forms” which provoke “insight”. The question is, how many such forms does an analyst have mental access to, which forms better fit a given circumstance, and what other forms might illuminate the same circumstance from other angles?

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