BY JOSEPH KAZAZIAN
Freedom of speech and press is a guaranteed fundamental right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. It is a vital tool for social commentary, often used to lampoon and critique people, places and things in the public sphere. Often, I rely on it as a tool to point out the idiosyncrasies in my own community; drawing from the likes of the great Hagop Baronian: a masterful Armenian satirist from the Ottoman days, who filled my adolescence with the value of poking fun at backwards conventions with caricatures.
In the United States, we have a rich tradition of satire. It is deeply protected, and accompanied with a body of case law from the Supreme Court. It is effective, welcomed, and needed for a healthy democracy. It is doctrine that will stand the test of time in order to protect robust participation in democracy. Satire is most effective when it has some sort of social value.
Earlier this week, the Glendale News Press (which is owned by the Los Angeles Times) published a cartoon on their Facebook page depicting what would at first seem innocuous to the casual eye that was scrolling through a news feed. It showed, presumably a couple, walking their dog on Artsakh Street, while lamenting that several establishments had closed down. In it, the caption read “I miss the old Maryland Ave.” I’ve lampooned the Glendale News Press many times publicly and privately. After all, there’s really only two types of issues they cover; Armenian crime, and the closures of business, because Armenians. (This is tongue in cheek. Please don’t cartoon me.)
Harmless, right? Well, this resident of Glendale knows the tinge behind such commentary. Glendale is home to a certain segment of people who are not exactly fond of the Armenian Community. Artsakh Street wasn’t without controversy in our town, and a clear whitewash by certain segments of Glendalians has been steady.
The cartoonist, Bert Ring, is keenly aware of the issues that face Glendale. In this era of greater access to media and information, when social sensitivities are at the forefront, even satirists should have a modicum of understanding in spurring social commentary which is of high value.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ring has taken it, several times, in another direction. I have to admit, some of his work is quite good, but even taking a cursory scroll through Glendale News Press’s Facebook page of his cartoons, one can see the divisive nature of the posts, particularly targeting Armenians. Some depict our city officials. Others depict, for instance, a balding man who is smoking and blaming “homeless people” for a brush fire that occurred where the 2 and 134 freeways converge. In it, it shows the bald man dumping his cigarette ash on the floor. In order to understand this, it was pointed to by several commenters on Nextdoor, a popular social media neighborhood watch application, as a potential cause of the fire… that some people in the community smoke, and dump their ashes on the floor. It doesn’t take a logical leap to understand who the post is referring to…
To me, it is clear that Mr. Ring understands the value of the issues facing the community. He clearly knows the issues. I certainly do not believe in limiting his ability to point out the flaws in the neighborhood. Nor do I condone any limits on a cartoonist’s ability to send searing messaging that spurs conversation. I mean, I wrote this in response, didn’t I?
In our American tradition, what remains is the quality of satire, and a taste that caters to all aspects of political and social life. The question then remains: what is the social value in using dog whistle phrases and images to trigger hatred against Armenians in Glendale?