It would have been easier if there’d been a scandal. Or, if not a scandal, at least a gaffe, a faux pas, a moment of impropriety. But cartoonist Michael Leunig has steadfastly failed to gratify his critics with such a cheap opportunity for censure. Instead, the resentful smearing of Australia’s much-loved cartoonist has relied on a more sustained and underhand means of character assassination. Denied the satisfaction of a coup de grâce, Leunig’s detractors have had to be content with slowly bludgeoning his reputation to a pulp.
Leunig is one of the more unlikely victims of the cancel-culture wars. His standing as a man of the Left is beyond question. In 2002, when Prime Minister John Howard was saying no to boat people, Leunig was saying yes. In 2012, when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was saying no to gay marriage, Leunig was saying yes. He resolutely opposed the invasion of Iraq, and he has repeatedly condemned Australian acquiescence in the face of American power, Israel’s treatment of its Arab neighbours, and the threat posed to human decency and freedom by the ubiquitous ills of cruelty and avarice.
Since being axed from The Age‘s Monday editorial page last month for attempting to publish the cartoon reproduced atop this page, Leunig has been the target of an outpouring of hate. The immediate cause of his blacklisting is that now-infamous cartoon of a man staring down the barrel of a tank — an explicit reference to the anonymous figure who stood in the path of the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The gun on Leunig’s tank takes the form of a giant syringe, and the work is the product of the raging debate about the morality of enforced COVID-19 vaccinations and soon, most likely, compulsory booster shots. Like all cartoonists worth their salt, Leunig invokes the past in the hope of illuminating the present.
During the last few days, Leunig’s fall from grace became a subject of international media attention when it was noted by The New York Times. In the morality stakes, of course, Leunig enjoys an inestimable advantage over that record-keeper of repute. Unlike the Times, Leunig was never a cheerleader for a war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet the Times‘ Besha Rodell still saw fit to describe this distinguished doodler as
a mouthpiece for angry conspiracy-minded individualists who might compare themselves to victims of a massacre simply for being asked to do a small thing to protect the vulnerable in their own communities.
The trigger for that clumsy invective was the Tank Man cartoon.
The Times‘ judgement is problematic for several reasons. In the first instance, it falsely assumes that a cartoonist’s intent is always strictly literal, and ignores the fact that hyperbole is one of the oldest tricks of their trade. But even if Leunig had been driven by literalism, it would still be disingenuous to claim that the work likens Australians opposed to mandatory COVID-19 vaccination “to victims of a massacre”. For that to be true, Leunig would have had to depict corpses. It is possible, indeed likely, that Tank Man was murdered during the crushing of the Tiananmen uprising. But during that moment in front of the muzzle, Tank Man was not — at least, not yet — a victim of the mass killing that ensued, and it was purely as a protester defying unchecked state power that he secured himself symbolic immortality. It is not as a dead man, but as a very much alive one, that Tank Man still inflames the imaginations of people of principle.
The Leunig debate has exposed a fundamental fissure that is now widening on the Left. The worldview to which Leunig subscribes is imbued with a social democratic ethos: it opposes war, injustice, poverty and environmental destruction. By contrast, his progressive critics adhere to a much more circumscribed idea of what the Left’s primary purpose should be. In this narrow orthodoxy, longstanding concerns have taken a back seat – if they are mentioned at all. This new Left is perpetually vigilant. It keeps watch for any trace of ideological deviance and transgression, and is intent on ensuring that no insult is inflicted upon anyone who falls into one of the categories of officially sanctioned victimhood. Its predominant preoccupations are not death and suffering, but identity and gender. After all, what is the slaughter of thousands of Arabs, compared to the right to neutral pronouns?
The most risible, feculent muck so far produced during the current fracas over Leunig’s work was authored by University of Tasmania lecturer Robbie Moore, a man whose professional enthusiasms include nineteenth century English literature and computer games. Moore’s Meanjin essay, which recycles tweets he posted back in 2019, begins by employing the old cliché of the radical’s ideological migration: senescence has ensured Leunig has become a conservative in his dotage. He has, like the figure of the vagabond he is fond of depicting, undergone a “journey” — except that Leunig’s journey has been “from anti-war and anti-corporate provocateur to a critic of ‘wokeism’ and cancel culture”. But Moore then argues against his own conversion theory by stating that Leunig has been right-wing all along! Leunig “hasn’t radically transformed himself politically — if anything, his schtick has been the same for decades”.
It would be nice to read a review of Leunig’s work that, for a change, does not refer to it as “whimsical”. Regrettably, Moore disobliges. Among other animadversions is Moore’s insistence that Leunig’s “whimsical individualism” was “never very progressive in the first place”. He avers that Leunig’s cartoons are “part of the stock imagery of Australian whimsy and alienation”. Such an assessment may well be true, but it has obscured broader and deeper understandings. Leunig’s work contains an under-acknowledged capacity for brutal sarcasm and biting humour. In fact, if Leunig is unique, it is probably due to this combination. His figures are often naive, both in the way they are depicted and in the way they act. Coupling these credulous little creatures with such themes as violence, poverty, degradation and stupidity creates a jarringly incongruent effect.
The recurrent leitmotif of Moore’s polemic is that Leunig is a representative of what Moore calls the “wellness mindset”. Among the tools arrayed to prosecute this case is that universal crowd-pleaser, guilt by association. Presumably, Leunig’s appearance on celebrity chef and advocate of ratbag therapies Pete Evans’s podcast was too good an opportunity for Moore — who mentions Evans eight times by name — to resist. Moore insists that readers who discern in Leunig evidence of a rebel soul have got him all wrong. Repeating an allusion he has employed at least three times on Twitter, Moore writes that “while Leunig believes he’s Puck, the holy fool, he’s actually Oberon, the king of the forest”. What is the evidence for this claim? That Leunig is “a rich, white, heterosexual cis man, and a cultural behemoth”.
Unable to find a smoking gun, Moore instead settles for smoke without fire. Begrudgingly, he acknowledges the potency of Leunig’s pacifist output. But he tempers his praise by assuring his readers that Leunig’s anti-Iraq War works “retreat into quietism and resignation”. While quietism and resignation are indeed to be found in abundance in Leunig’s oeuvre, Moore offers paltry justification for his assertion that Leunig’s Iraq cartoons – which form a mere portion of his total output – “retreat into” those themes. Indeed, one senses that the only reason he made the claim is because he thought it sounded good.
While Leunig falls short of Moore’s expectations of what anti-war agitation should look like, Moore offers no alternative. Listing several works, including one depicting a “man who places his hope in a bee to rejuvenate life in a world of Hellfire missiles”, Moore then writes that “these cartoons displace the crisis of war and refocus attention on the crisis of the self”. The implication here is a ludicrous one: in physical destruction, Leunig has found only a metaphor for the West’s spiritual decline, as if the dead and maimed were conveniently on standby to symbolise the tumult and torment of the middle-class soul. Such piffle barely seems worth repudiating. But in order to dispel it entirely, one need only consider the dozens of “conventional” anti-war cartoons produced by Leunig, but ignored by Moore, that depict the War on Terror as nothing other than an exercise in licentious bloodshed. In one, in which Leunig riffs on Martin Niemöller’s famous epigram, Leunig writes: “Then they came for even more Palestinians and I did not speak out because if I did, doors would close to me”. It is difficult to see how such caustic trenchancy could be deemed “quietist” or “resigned”. If anything, those two traits are Leunig’s precise targets.
In another passage, Moore compares Leunig’s post-2001 work to the “anti-war grotesqueries of George Grosz”, the 20th century German artist whose paintings and sketches were slandered as “degenerate” by the Nazis. The ambivalence of Moore’s statement is deeply troubling. What exactly is the coupling “anti-war grotesqueries” intended to signify? Is it that Grosz’s “grotesque” subject matter also happens to be “anti-war”, as in the sketch at right? One presumes this was the meaning Moore was reaching for. But by failing to elaborate, he has allowed a second potential reading in which Grosz’s subject matter is “grotesque” because it is “anti-war” – an interpretation that would have been wholeheartedly endorsed by Joseph Goebbels. While the content of Grosz’s paintings is frequently grotesque, his objectives were anything but. A committed critic of bellicose German nationalism, Grosz avoided being sent to a concentration camp by emigrating to America days before Hitler’s cabinet was sworn in.
According to an increasingly prevalent school of thought, the 20th century’s most sanguinary dictatorships ought to be off-limits as sources of metaphor. The argument seems to be that it is disrespectful to the victims of those regimes to reduce them to rhetorical devices. (Admittedly, it did become tiresome to hear Democrats repeatedly compare Trump to Hitler.) But is this not tantamount to telling us we should no longer learn from history? What so offended The Times‘ Besha Rodell was her inference that Leunig genuinely believes Australians opposed to compulsory COVID-19 vaccination are no different from Tiananmen protesters destined to be squashed by the Beijing regime’s tanks. Leaving aside that this is, as I have already argued, a contentious interpretation, Rodell seems to have overlooked a crucial point: the freedom to invoke the spectre of dictatorship is one of the ways in which democracy safeguards itself against latent authoritarianism. While we should certainly be judicious in our use of such analogies, we still need to be able to liken the draconian tendencies of our own leaders to those of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot without being accused of seeking to diminish the crimes of those monsters.
Furthermore, how far would the likes of Rodell have us go to purge language of potentially offence? Should we cease to refer to uprisings being “crushed” because doing so is triggering for industrial crush victims? To take Rodell’s argument to its natural conclusion, we have no right to compare anyone to Hitler unless they have pursued genocide and prompted the deaths of some 70 million people.
Moore’s sanctimonious assault is hardly the first time an unheralded academic has sought to make a name for himself by slaughtering a sacred cow. Despite what he would have us believe, his tone is not that of the intrepid subversive daring to speak truth to power. Rather, it is that of the missionary telling the natives they have been worshipping false idols. It is a tone familiar to anyone who has listened at length to, say, Richard Dawkins, and sounds suspiciously like what Moore would no doubt call “mansplaining”. The fact that Moore is, to quote him, a “straight white dude” is not of the slightest interest to his readers, but, if a recent Twitter exchange with one of them is anything to go by, it seems to be something of a stigma for him. Does he belong to that growing legion of woke warriors who resent their own ethnicity and heterosexuality?
If there is an irony in Leunig’s banishment, it is the extent to which he foreshadowed it. Moore is right about one thing: the image of the lone and dejected wanderer is central to Leunig’s vision of the world. Themes of ostracism, isolation, alienation and marginalisation have haunted his imagination for decades. (Bizarrely, Moore regards these as hallmarks of privilege.) Two cartoons come to mind. In the first, a solitary figure kneels in prayer in front of what appears to be a cardboard box; a loudmouthed cynic declares the box to be hollow and dismantles it with a deep breath, but in the final image the humble supplicant has stuck the box back together. The second cartoon shows a jester playing a woodwind instrument for young onlookers. His performance becomes increasingly virtuosic, but it prompts only mockery. Finally, the jester manages to draw applause – when he inadvertently self-immolates.
In retrospect, these two sequences of sketches appear almost prophetic, presaging Leunig’s own fate and his transformation, in the Left collective mind, from cherished commentator to closet nutjob. We are living in times when intellectual individualism seem suspect and elitist to the benighted and servile. In the modern, enlightened West, there is no need for a Stasi. The body politic is quite happy to act as its own Thought Police. In the kingdom of the thick, the thinking man is crushed.
What distinguishes vilification from persecution? Unlike, say, Arendt or Shostakovich or Remarque or Orwell, Leunig has never had to hastily pack a suitcase nor keep an ear out for the creak on the stairs. But there is now a small army assembled against him, pressing for his removal from public life. Will “being sent to the Leunig bin” become the fate of future voices of conscience unable to placate this hungry wolf pack?
If Leunig can take solace from the current tide of loathing that is lapping against his doorstep, it is because he has again proved the enormous power lurking within the inkpot. “The pen is mightier than the sword / And mightier than the literary award”, he once wrote. In Leunig’s case, it is not the written word but the humble sketch that has led to his vilification. Apparently, the art of nose-thumbing can still provoke rancour – even if all it requires is drawing figures with bulbous noses.
To say that Leunig is unique is not to say that he is entirely without precursors. The Nobel Prize-winning poet Nelly Sachs, whose works were among those consigned to the Nazi biblio-pyres, demonstrated a similar fascination with the human being’s dual impulses for playfulness and barbarism. Even though Sachs avoided the death camps, the Holocaust figured prominently in her work. In one Leunig-esque poem, she wrote:
World, the little children were thrown like butterflies,
wings beating, into the flames
Of course, we’ve evolved since then, haven’t we? Liberal democracy has developed much more refined means of torturing its heretics. Why burn Leunig’s work when it can be denounced by the supercilious and self-righteous influencers who now find themselves in positions of academic power? And who needs Der Stürmer or Völkischer Beobachter when we’ve got Meanjin and The New York Times?