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Humor helps us look at hidden truths

Hustler Magazine v Falwell is a landmark 1988 United States Supreme Court Case, and as far as the publishing industry is concerned, one of the most important rulings reaffirming freedom of the press. The Court held 8-0 that a parody of televangelist Jerry Falwell in Hustler magazine, depicting him of first having sex with his mother while drunk in an outhouse, was satire of a public figure, and constitutionally protected. The Court also made clear that satire cannot be defined. If it is intended as humor, clearly labeled as humor, then there is no protection for any public figure, and a public figure is any person who has drawn enough attention to himself to be featured in a publication.

Satire can be expressed in fake advertisements, like Hustler did, or in prose, videos, and especially cartoons, where it made its first historic impact centuries back in Europe. Court jesters were always able to say things at royal court that would cost other people their heads, and anonymously drawn cartoons of important people doing awful things was the next evolutionary step. These cartoons were circulated in flyers or nailed up on posts in public notice areas, and humor was quickly proven to be one of the most devastatingly effective ways of boiling down complicated political issues to easily understood, scathing rebukes of people, policy, or both.

Cartoons still retain this power, and with the advent of the internet, they reach a vast audience heretofore unattainable in human history.

Ricardo Cate of Santo Domingo Pueblo is called “the most prominent Native American cartoonist working today.” Although he lacks artistic skill, the contents of his crudely drawn cartoons are powerful—they make people think, as well as laugh. This would appear to be the sole purpose of a good cartoon, and considering any cartoon just by itself, this is the case, but when taken as a whole, Cate’s cartoons address any issue only from a Native perspective, or only from a perspective that makes Non-Natives look bad or foolish. Many cartoonists struggle to find humor in perspectives that challenge their internalized agenda, they leave such cartoons, sadly, to cartoonists who have the same problem, but express an equal but diametric bias.

A truly meaningful cartoonist, who will leave behind a body of work from which people far in the future can glean an understanding of the world he lived in, allows the criticism gate to swing both ways. In Indian Country, cartoons which call out the tribe are rare, and to the extent they happen, are ignored and unappreciated. On this editorial page you will find such a cartoon, as it flips the generally accepted tribal narrative on its head, and presents a core issue of Native activism, namely “land back,” from an entirely fresh perspective.

By looking deeply into the abyss, and seeing ourselves, we can better understand which specific aspects of our agenda are sincere, and valid, and which are biased rhetoric. A people so thin-skinned they cannot process criticism from within, let alone without, are a people the grinding gears of history will turn to forgotten dust. Every vital culture requires a core element of deep thinkers, and deep thinkers are not created, honored, and maintained by a society that refuses to look at itself in a mirror, especially a mirror that does not flatter, a society that aggressively dismisses independent, original perspectives as only threatening and misguided.

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