PORTLAND, OR—A political cartoon in Monday's Daily Oregonian was more boring and confusing than the issue it attempted to address, area resident Craig Lawler reported Tuesday.
"I get the donkeys and elephants," said Lawler, a high-school biology teacher. "But the rest of the cartoon is just a confusing jumble of ambiguous symbols and weird objects. I thought it was about unemployment at first, which would have been boring enough, but then I noticed the word 'ethanol' over there on the jug, so I realized it's actually about commerce. I think."
After several minutes of careful inspection, Lawler identified the in- and outboxes on the elephant's desk as symbols of the nation's record-high monthly trade deficit.
"I finally figured out what subject we're even dealing with," Lawler said. "Now I just have to figure out what's being said and how it's funny or insightful—or, ideally, both."
According to Lawler, the cartoon also contains an object that is "either some sort of chart showing the movement of the Dow, or just a broken window pane."
The cartoon was penned by James Ploeser and syndicated in 47 newspapers and magazines nationwide.
"I like to have a little fun with my panels, but I also like to make a point," Ploeser said. "They call it an editorial cartoon for a reason. The fact that those inboxes and outboxes were made of steel evokes the steel-tariff controversy from last fall, of course. And did you notice the word 'lies' in the outbox? And the bags of grain in the inbox? It's all there, if you look."
Lawler, who reads the editorial cartoons along with the rest of the paper each morning, said he is fairly well-versed in current events.
"I think I'm even a bit above average, in terms of knowing what's happening in the world," Lawler said. "I keep up on all the economic news and foreign affairs. So, if I didn't get that those dolls in the outbox represented outsourced workers, I'm really not sure what percentage of the population would."
Lawler said the cartoon is part of a larger trend.
"Political cartoons run in nearly every newspaper, so they must be an important part of American discourse—but damned if I can figure out what most of them are trying to say," Lawler said. "Take this Sunday's cartoon. It had two penguins applying for a marriage license. They were knee-deep in water labeled 'public opinion.' But the clerk at the desk was an eagle wearing a judge's robe and a sash that said 'mayor.' So the clerk marrying the penguins was… a mayor? Or a Supreme Court justice?"
His voice rising in frustration, Lawler continued: "Then, off to the side, there was another penguin holding a bouquet of flowers labeled 'constitution' in one hand and a piece of cake labeled 'polls' in the other. But this was all happening on a television! And, in the foreground, there was a hand labeled 'Iowa' holding a remote control, and the caption said 'Nothing's on.' What's going on here? I am so full of rage right now."
Patting her husband's arm, Lawler's wife Janice said she shares his frustration.
"Just last week on Time magazine online, there was a U.S. map with each state colored differently," she said. "Some of them were red, some were blue, but some were orange and some were purple. It said "voting alert" across the top. I stared at it for 10 minutes and never figured it out. I'm still thinking about it."
Dr. Edward Hunt, who teaches a class on political art-history at Boston College, defended the cartoon.
"The best editorial cartoons are worth a thousand words," Hunt said. "The Teapot Dome scandal? Watergate? Reaganomics? These aren't necessarily visual ideas, but the cartoonists broke the issues down into highly poignant pictorials. The cartoonists of today follow in that tradition. It's not the cartoonist's fault if some idiot schoolteacher in Oregon can't understand what a donkey riding on a tractor labeled '527' means."