Should controversial art exhibit cost Slidell teacher his job?

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No, this is not the cartoon that stirred controversy in a Slidell school. credit: Donkey Hote

No, this is not the cartoon that stirred controversy in a Slidell school. credit: Donkeyhotey

Hurricane Isaac interrupted an appeals hearing over the firing of a man named Robert Duncan, a teacher at Boyet Junior High in Slidell. Duncan was fired for his decision to hang controversial student artwork in a school hallway.

One piece was a photograph of President Obama with what looked like a bullet hole in his temple. In February, a Boyet parent noticed the black mark on Obama’s temple and forwarded a copy of the photograph to media outlets. Needless to say, controversy ensued.

The student artist claimed the mark on Obama’s temple occurred accidentally and that trying to fix the blotch only made things worse. According to the student, she repeatedly requested that Duncan not post the photo in the hallway with the other pieces. Her account was contradicted by numerous teachers who said the mark appeared several days after the photograph went up on the wall.

A cartoon that attracted almost as much attention depicted presidential candidate Mitt Romney standing next to a tree with a picture of Obama tacked on it. The picture was labeled “Obama Season.” Next to Romney, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were grinning mischievously. This is a somewhat subtler product, perhaps—maybe not much.

But did the decision to hang these works constitute a firing offense?

Let’s consign the photograph with the alleged bullet hole to the realm of issues that will be forever unresolved. If the black mark is accidental, then the photograph is a photograph, good bad or otherwise. But why then did the artist beseech Duncan not to hang it and, more to the point, why did he override the artist’s sensibilities and hang it anyway?

So what about “Obama Season”?

As you might expect of a junior high cartoon, it’s a mess, not remotely comparable to a masterpiece by former Times-Picayune great Mike Lukovich, for example.

Still, the intent of the piece is clear enough: “Obama Season” parallels “Rabbit Season,” a common plot device in many Warner Bros. cartoons in which Elmer Fudd fails to bag Bugs Bunny. (Of course, Elmer would pronounce it “Wabbit Season.”)

Charitably interpreted, the Rabbit Season/ Obama Season parallel is the basic “joke” of the cartoon. And I assume that Daffy was substituted for Elmer in order to soften the hunting reference, given that Elmer usually carries a rifle.

It’s a clumsy tableau, especially since Bugs and Daffy are grinning evilly, while Mitt Romney stands next to them smiling. (Perhaps he approves of the height of the tree.) The political point seems to be that it’s campaign season, and Romney is out to bag Obama’s job. Judging by the picture tacked on the tree, the artist believes Obama is in an uncomfortable spot. Clearly Romney is being depicted as a man on the hunt and Obama is portrayed as prey.

That’s the most charitable interpretation I can manage, and even then the cartoon is highly objectionable. It certainly should not have been publicly displayed in a school.

Now, I’m as anti-censorship and pro-free speech as they come. And I’d always encourage students to express themselves—especially about politics. Nonetheless, this cartoon demonstrated bad taste whether or not it was hung in an exhibit with a photograph showing the president with a bullet hole in his head.

Surprisingly though, there’s been precious little debate about this obvious point: “Obama Season” comes uncomfortably close being a joke about assassination.

The cartoon was drawn only a year after U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head by a lunatic. It should have given any social studies teacher pause, especially one with decades of classroom experience. The week before Duncan posted the cartoon in the hallway, there were national news stories about Arizona cops using a picture of Obama’s face for target practice. (And these stories were eerily echoed a month later when St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s deputies used pictures of a local investigative journalist in similar fashion.)  Granted, the student’s “Obama Season” cartoon isn’t tantamount to a bullet-riddled target; but it’s implications are obviously in the same ballpark—or, if you prefer, firing range.

Junior high school students should be expected, even encouraged, to make mistakes. Mistakes can serve as uniquely teachable moments. And this was one of them. Unfortunately, it appears that Duncan didn’t provide guidance to his students. He didn’t instruct them about the public boundaries of appropriate political discourse, and the troubling implications of a cartoon that depicts a “hunted” President. Instead, the pictures were prominently displayed for the entire school to see, and only became controversial when a parent objected.

Does such a lapse constitute a fire-able offense? I’d say so.

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