Thursday, August 03, 2006

Where is Herblock when we need him?

"Save the Holy Places"

In the Library of Congress. (Hat tip to Land of Enchantment who posted the 1948 image as a comment on Daily Kos.).

The cartoons of Herbert L. Block -- better known to several generations of Americans as “Herblock” -- provided liberal commentary to the nation from the depths of the Great Depression to the Millenium. We lost a giant not long after 9/11 when Herblock passed away on October 9, 2001.

The Library of Congress website (speaking of great national resources) has a couple of Herblock online exhibits. One is a 2000 retrospective -- "Herblock's History" -- that surveys his career and, in addition to cartoons, has additional background information and photos. And when I say that Herblock is in the Library of Congress, that’s literally true in the sense that his entire personal archive was donated to the nation, in the form of a gift to the Library of Congress. Another online exhibit celebrates this gift. Scroll down and you’ll find the “sacred places” cartoon, with accompanying historical notes.

Herblock’s work looks old-fashioned to the modern eye. It’s not lyrical or beautiful in a conventional sense, and his graphic technique is a pretty blunt-edged sword. But you knew where he stood, and he was one of the giants of his field. Herblock was a tough-minded liberal who was one of the first national voices to stand up against Joe McCarthy and coined the term “McCarthyism.” From the “Herblock’s History” notes:
In this climate of fear and suspicion, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which Herb Block had opposed since its inception in the 1930s, became active. And in 1950, a young senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, seeking political gain, began a well-publicized campaign using smear tactics, bullying and innuendo to identify and purge communists and "fellow travelers" in government. Herb Block recognized the danger to civil liberties posed by such activities and warned of them in his work. He coined the phrase "McCarthyism" in his cartoon for March 29, 1950, naming the era just weeks after Senator McCarthy's spectacular pronouncement that he had in his hand a list of communists in the State Department. His accusations became headline news, vaulting him into the national political spotlight. For four years McCarthy attacked communism, while in his cartoons Herb Block relentlessly attacked his heavy-handed tactics.
Herblock also was an early critic of the Vietnam war.

On a personal note, one of my most treasured possessions is an autographed copy of one of his books that he sent me. This was because, many years ago, I was the editor of a current events filmstrip program for school kids based on editorial cartoons. (Hard to imagine schools today even trying to do such a thing…)

I had to negotiate fees for our use of the cartoons, and we had a very limited budget. The syndication firm that handled his cartoons was asking way more than we could pay, but we really wanted to use his cartoons. They put me in touch with the cartoonist. He wondered what we wanted to use them for. When I explained that the program was designed to stimulate classroom discussion and help students develop their powers of critical thinking, he got really excited about it and arranged for us to pay just a nominal fee. That was Herblock.

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