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.