IN MY OPINION: Nast-y goings on New Jersey [PB:IMO]

Anti-Irish cartoon by Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast, one of the great American political cartoonists, who fearlessly exposed the corruption of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall in New York City the 1870s, not to mention creating Uncle Sam, the elephant and the donkey to symbolise the Republican and Democratic Parties and the modern look of Santa Claus, has been nominated to the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Seems reasonable, he was a remarkable and influential man.

There’s a snag, though. Some Irish-Americans, including the New Jersey chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and a state assemblyman with the remarkably Irish name of Wayne DeAngelo, have taken exception to the anti-Irish sentiments of some of his cartoons, which depicted Irish-Americans according to the violent, drunken, ape-like stereotype (see above for an example) that any student of cartooning about Ireland is (tediously) familiar with.

Personally, I think they should wind their necks in. All sorts of great artists of the past espoused attitudes we wouldn’t be comfortable with today, and we don’t, or shouldn’t, ignore that, but we also shouldn’t let it overwhelm what we think of them and their work as a whole. Hergé, for one, was a great deal more than the crude colonialist racism of Tintin in the Congo or the anti-semitic stereotypes in The Shooting Star. John Tenniel drew some horrendously anti-Irish cartoons for Punch, but that doesn’t invalidate his other work, including his brilliant illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

I also think it does nobody any favours to keep taking offence at hundred-year-old stereotypes as if they’re still current. Self-pity is never a good look, especially when it’s over an argument you won ages ago. Much better to use them, as John A. Walsh does in Go Home Paddy, to confront problematic modern attitudes among people who really ought to know better.