Johnny Hart Slams Islam. Or Not.

One truth I hold pretty dear is the notion that as somone gains expertise in a particular domain, he (or she) begins to be able to draw confident conclusions from increasingly subtle data. At its extreme, this gives you phenomena like Sherlock Holmes, who despite being a fictional character rings true to me in those scenes where he astounds Watson by examining a few indistinct marks on the ground and from them reconstructing an accurate description of past events.

Now, on some level I think everybody would like to believe he (or she) is Holmes, rather than Watson. And that’s a dangerous desire, because another aspect of the Holmes stories that rings true to me is the way Watson repeatedly tries to mimic Holmes’ deductive leaps, only to arrive at conclusions that are completely, ludicrously wrong. It’s not enough to want to be like Holmes. Holmes got to be as good as he was only by combining a lot of native intelligence and energy with many years of diligent effort aimed at honing his talent. It required a brutal self-analysis, the holding of himself to an impossibly high standard of perfection as he sought to identify and eliminate the sources of error that drive all of us to conclusions that are comfortable rather than correct.

I’m aware that I’m closer to Watson than Holmes in a lot of ways. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to shift myself further along in the Holmesian direction. I think that’s why I’m so fascinated by ambiguity, by stories that can’t seem to decide if they mean one thing or some other very different thing, and that challenge me to figure out which one it is.

All of which leads me to Johnny Hart, the creator of the B.C. comic strip. He’s gotten himself into some hot water lately over his November 10 strip. According to an article in the Washington Post, the Council on American-Islamic Relations is up in arms because they say the strip amounts to an anti-Islamic slur: Cartoon raises a stink.

Hart denies the charge.

Asked about the outhouse strip this week, Hart denied that it was about Islam at all. He said that interpretation stunned him.

“My goodness. That’s incredible. That’s unbelievable!”

He said it was just a “silly” bathroom joke, wrapped around the cliche “Is it just me, or . . . ?” According to Hart, the joke was about the ambiguous authorship of a bad smell. The SLAM, Hart said, was simply there to show that the caveman had walked into the outhouse. The crescent moons were there to indicate it was nighttime, and because outhouses have crescent moons.

“This comic was in no way intended to be a message against Islam — subliminal or otherwise,” he said. “It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people’s beliefs. If you should have any further silly notions about malicious intent from this quarter, you can save yourself a phone call.”

So, there are at least two possibilities here: Hart really intended no slur against Islam, at least consciously, when he created the strip. Or he did intend the slur, and he’s lying now. Which explanation is correct?

The Post article’s authors actually went to considerable effort trying to answer that question, soliciting the opinions of an expert in semiotics (the study of signs and symbols), along with 6 cartoonists who are admirers of Hart’s work. All but one of them, after looking carefully at the strip, concluded that the Islamic-slur interpretation was the only one that made sense. The lone holdout was Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, who said, “We cartoonists are simple folk. We don’t write on that cryptic a level. Leave Johnny alone.”

I’m inclined to say that the slur was, on some level, intentional. But am I being Holmes or Watson when I say that? I honestly don’t know.

18 Responses to “Johnny Hart Slams Islam. Or Not.”

  1. Adam Says:

    That’s a strange one, isn’t it? Hart’s also been in trouble in the past for a strip where the candles of a menorah are put out one by one, until the menorah morphs into a cross.

  2. a_stupid_box Says:

    Yes, I’m back to posting on here now. Hope nobody missed my strange combination of extremeist left/extremeist right opinions too much. Having withdrawn to do a bit of learning and introspection (as well as write a book or two) I’m back with tooth and claw sharpened to a razor’s edge.

    I, personally, like the B.C. comics… not that I’ve read them for the past year or two. Hart tends to tout a generally liberal message in most of his comics that have a political implication, so I was initially surprised at this interpretation of his comic.

    However, as Adam pointed out, he *did* get in trouble for a rather questionable comic when it came to a religious implication (though I choose to think that the menorah/cross comic was meant to show that the two religions can co-exist peacefully).

    Obviously Hart is aware of religious messages. I may be speaking from a bit of a biased standpoint here, but based on what I think the menorah/cross strip meant I don’t think this is an intentional insult. Keep in mind that if it were it would probably be either a lot more obvious or a lot more obscure. After all, media is generally conveyed at a fifth-grade level, to assure understanding by a wide audience.

    I’ve personally noticed a LOT of people up in arms lately about Islamic slander. Perhaps this is merely a result of that? My friend has a tattoo of a cresent moon with a bloody dagger piercing it. She’s had it for about 8 years now. Only recently have people been asking if she is trying to make some type of statement, which she isn’t — it’s just cool-looking.

    Should Hart have looked over his comic a bit better before sending it off? Probably, though when you write something of a comparable complexity and humor level to “why did the chicken cross the road” the last thing you’re expecting is the ASPCA to get all torqued off.

    But that’s just this Watson’s two cents. BTW, John, nice to see some swag that I won’t be buying :D If ymatt isn’t going to do that “Mission Accomplice” pic I’ll take a whack at it.

  3. Geoff Matthews Says:

    Let’s say this is a ‘slam’ on Islam. Is it appropriate? Do the radical elements of Islam (and the support they receive in various passages of the Koran) warrant a little criticism?

    I agree that the strip isn’t ‘funny’ (note the quotes) if the connection to Islam isn’t there. But isn’t this the type of ‘wit’ that good political cartoonists use time and again?

  4. mmr Says:

    In my Watsion way I lean towards the side of a “subtle” slam at Islam. I honestly can’t see where the joke is without it…and it doesn’t end up being much of a joke.

    I come to this conclusion based on my knowledge of Hart’s background as an evangelical, the previous strip with the torah turning into a cross, and his not-so-subtle slams at evolution in his strip.

    I’m afraid I don’t buy his, and “a stupid box”‘s, interpreration of the menorah/cross strip. I used to attend an evangelical church and they honestly believe they’ve supplanted judaism. For the most part they say the jews used to be the chosen ones, now they are. I’ve seen this in many, many places. Some honestly believe co-existence is possible and try for mutual respect – but there’s still that arrogance of being “the chosen ones”.

    GM wrote: “Let’s say this is a ‘slam’ on Islam. Is it appropriate?” Yes and No. It might be if it were a statement on the radical forms of Islam but it paints the entire religion with a broad brush.

    Let’s say there was a slam on christianity, with a cross on that outhose door instead of a crescent moon. There are radical elements in any religion (the religious right, crusades, our current president, etc.) and it stinks on the fringes of Christianity also. Would that be appropriate? Would people stand for it? The editorial pages would have been screaming by now for blood and that strip would have been cancelled.

  5. a_stupid_box Says:

    What you’re failing to take into account is the fact that, on outhouses, there actually _are_ cresent moons. As there are in the night sky.

    As those who know me understand, I’m up for subtle digs and sarcasm as much as anyone — and I have a finely tuned radar when it comes to that type of thing — but this just isn’t making a blip on that screen.

    Again, though, as I’ve said I may be biased. I rather enjoy Hart’s work. I believe that had he meant an actual insult he’d be much more clever (as this lacks much humor even from a political standpoint).

  6. mmr Says:

    A Stupid Box wrote: “What you’re failing to take into account is the fact that, on outhouses, there actually _are_ cresent moons. As there are in the night sky.”

    Fair enough, and I knew that when I wrote my comment. But I still think, in a Watsonian wishing I were Holmsian, sort of way, that it is a dig. Of course, I could be totally off, then again, maybe not.

  7. mmr Says:

    I should also mention that I’m an atheist, and that may also be biasing my opinion.

    For what it’s worth.

  8. Press Man Says:

    For what it’s worth, if Mr. Hart meant to do it, using an outhouse as a metaphor for any religion should rightfully make people upset. If he meant it as such, and anecdotal evidence suggests that he has exercised poor judgement with his religious commentary in the past, then it’s clear that the money we (as taxpayers) are spending on Iraq, Afghanistan and public diplomacy around the Islamic world is being completely wasted. If our racism and insensitivity to Muslims is as engrained as a comic like this would suggest, then we’ll never see an end to the intolerance and violence.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  9. a_stupid_box Says:

    I’m agnostic (athiest searching for a reason not to be — true Watsonian) so I don’t think any religious leaning is causing my possibly biased opinion. If anything, I agree with Nietzsche in that Christiandom is one of the most socially acidic forces ever.

    Even so, I recognse a simple misinterpretation. For example, last night I was teasing a Scottish friend of mine, saying he was Irish. He was pointing out the differences, and I said, “They’re all the same — a bunch of drunks” just as an Oneida (American Indian) individual walked by. For those that don’t know, alcoholism tends to be a big problem among American Indians.

    Needless to say that was a tense little situation. Thankfully I knew the guy, and my explanation of what I’d said wasn’t disbelieved.

    My point may be convoluted, but I think that it’s aparent if you look hard enough. These two situations may not be entirely dissimilar.

  10. a_stupid_box Says:

    Also, it’s a_stupid_box. Note the lowercase letters and underscores. They aren’t accidental.

  11. Dave Mathews Says:

    Have you ever been somewhere like a basement or kitchen and there is a smell you think is odd but you want a second opinion and you say to your friend “Is it just me or does something stink in here?” I have said this many times and I have heard others say it as well.

    But if you said it while you were in the bathroom doing a #2 it is especially funny! Ha ha! Now it is a double-entendre.

    This is what I saw in this strip when I read it last week. The 5 cartoonists who say it makes no sense as a bathroom joke are freaking retarded imbeciles unable to understand a double-entendre and eager to slam Johnny Hart, a notorious Christian whom they all hate. Breathed it particular is a well know Christian hater.

    If you have read BC before, he uses outhouses because it takes place in the distant past.

    There is no slur here and those who think there is are humorless shrews looking to slam an innocent party with their hate talk.

  12. Rube Says:

    What, and Dave Brown’s 3rd Reich-propaganda piece wins awards? What a warped world media types live in…

  13. jon Says:

    This is absurd.

    I even heard the frame of the comic strip forms an “I” thus making it clear Johhny is refering to Islam.

    Seriously, this is ridiculous.

    Lets just say for sake of argument that Johhny Hart was intentionally slamming (excuse the pun) Islam, so what?

    We constantly slam Christianity and Catholicism as well as other religions, why is Islam all of a sudden untouchable?

    We have a public outcry by CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) against this religous slur, when the majority of Muslims around the world were cheering when our Trade Towers fell. Granted the CAIR may have denounced the attacks, but what were the majority of Muslims doing? Cheering. So they can rejoice at our death and destruction (that they caused) but we cant barely imply a slur in a comic strip??

    What planet am i on?

  14. John Callender Says:

    Well, it’s clearly not Earth that you’re on. Since I live on Earth, and I’m pretty sure that on Earth, a majority of Muslims were not cheering at the fall of the towers on 9/11.

  15. jon Says:

    Is that so?

    Now I realize the media makes things up, but do you really think it fabricated or staged the countless images of crowded Middle Eastern (and by the way, the countries in the Middle East are, um, Muslim) streets full of people with anti-American signs cheering. There no way you can deny that obvious fact.

  16. John Callender Says:

    I didn’t deny that. I denied that “the majority of muslims around the world” (your words) were cheering the fall of the towers on 9/11.

    That’s a ridiculous assertion. It has no basis in reality. So I said so.

    If you want to have a grown-up conversation that is grounded in reality, great, we can do that. If you want to spew bullshit, you’re welcome to do that, too. But in the latter case, people are sometimes going to call you on it.

    That’s what happened here.

  17. Jon Says:

    Indeed, I said the majority of Muslims were cheering. And in case you didn’t take Geography class, the majority of Muslims on Earth live in the Middle East.

    So when Middle Easterners are cheering, you can safely say theyre Muslims.

    Dude, anti-Americanism is an obvious fact in the Middle East.

    And when you are un-educated, you will be called on that.

    And Im afraid:

    “That’s what happened here.”

  18. John Callender Says:

    You’re wrong in at least three different ways:

    1) The majority of Muslims live outside of the Middle East, primarily in Indonesia and South Asia, but with some non-Middle Eastern African countries contributing as well. Thirty seconds with Google will confirm this pretty handily.

    2) Even if you restrict your analysis to the Middle East, it’s stupid to assert that “a majority of Muslims were cheering” the WTC attacks. The number of people cheering those events, relative to the entire Muslim population, was tiny.

    3) I never asserted that anti-Americanism doesn’t exist in the Middle East. It clearly does. That doesn’t make your other stupid comments any less stupid, though.

    Go away. Or stick around, and actually contribute something other than blather. Or just keep blathering (though in that case, you shouldn’t expect anyone to pay much attention). Your choice.

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