Thomas Nast's racist cartoon depicting the Irish as ape-like

For decades, Victor Navasky has been at the forefront of political journalism.  For nearly 20 years he was the editor, and later publisher, of the proudly left-wing 'The Nation' magazine.  He also won a National Book Award in 1982 for chronicling the American national nightmare of McCarthyism and its aftermath in his book 'Naming Names.'

In other words, this is a guy who has loudly and proudly defended the strong against the weak.

Magazines such as 'The Nation' exist -- as they would be more than happy to point out -- to expose hatred, bigotry and exploitation in its many shapes and forms.

So it’s curious that Navasky, in his latest book, spends quite a bit of time lauding a famous artist whose anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry was quite clear.
 Navasky’s latest book is entitled 'The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power,' published by the prestigious Alfred A. Knopf publishing company.

Navasky devotes a section of the book to Thomas Nast, arguably the most influential cartoonist of the 19th century.

As Navasky points out, while drawing for Harper’s in the 1860s and 1870s, Nast was savage in his depiction of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine.  William Marcy “Boss” Tweed was a particularly favored target of Nast’s.  Nast is widely credited with helping to topple Tammany Hall and getting Tweed sent off to prison.

Nast -- who Navasky righty calls “the father of American political cartooning” -- is also credited with creating our current image of Santa Claus as well as the Republican and Democratic party mascots (the elephants and donkey respectively).

Navasky even reprints one of Nast’s more famous creations, from 1871, entitled “Who Stole the People’s Money?”  In it, various members of the Democratic machine point to the person next to them, until it is clear everyone is able to pass the blame on to the person next to them, ultimately leaving no one responsible for Tammany’s many, well-documented crimes.

Funny thing about “Who Stole the People’s Money?”  Whereas most of Tammany Hall types at least look like human beings, two clearly look like apes.

That is because they are clearly Irish immigrants.

Indeed, the only thing more clear than Tammany’s flexible definition of legality was Nast’s abundant disdain for the Irish and for Catholics.  In cartoon after cartoon, for decades, Nast depicted the Irish as apish thugs addicted to violence, alcohol and crime.  He depicted Catholics as a predatory clan out to snatch babies from the arms of saintly Protestant mothers. 

In one particularly unforgettable image (Nast was nothing if not wildly imaginative) he turned bishop’s hats into the jaws of hungry alligators, looking to devour Protestant children.

There is no mention of this at all in Navasky’s book.  For a writer who chronicles controversies over potentially racist, sexist and anti-Semitic images, it would seem important to at least mention Nast’s hateful depictions of Irish Catholics.

A century and a half before Muslims revolted against supposedly hateful images of the Prophet Muhammad, police had to stand guard outside of Nast’s home because Irish Americans were so fed up with his bigoted drawings.

Navasky does chronicle the controversial British cartoonist Raymond Jackson, better known as “Jak.”

In 1982, after IRA bombs killed eight people in London, The Evening Standard ran a Jak drawing featuring “The Irish,” as “The Ultimate in Psychopathic Horror.”

Critics noted the cartoon “does not take into account Irish political complexities” and “homogenizes the Irish as a race of psychopathic monsters,” to which Navasky offers the curious response: “But isn’t that what cartoons, by definition, do and don’t do?”

Actually, no.  Not necessarily. 

Either way Navasky -- like many folks whose lives have supposedly been dedicated to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable -- tends to be a bit selective when it comes to the folks to which he chooses to give comfort.

If people want to attack nativism and bigotry today, they must also understand the many shapes and forms these sins have taken in the past.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at