In the 70’s and 80’s, Doonesbury was in every liberal habitat. Women’s Studies professors and social workers always seemed to have a few strips taped to their office doors, and the characters became part of everyday conversation. Trudeau inherited the mantle of righteousness from the folksingers, and became the chief exponent of the idea that conservatives were essentially stupid and had evil motives. He demanded, and got, a larger block in the comic section and marketed a long succession of reprints of earlier strips in paperback. Doonesbury expressed what people were thinking and to a lesser extent, shaped it. Liberals may complain that they are unfairly characterized and oversimplified, but the ongoing popularity of this comic betrays them. They bought the books, they put the cartoons on their doors, they made Mike part of their culture.
Well, it was a cartoon, after all, and Trudeau’s main defense against criticism has always been “Hey. It’s a political cartoon. It’s not supposed to be fair. The characters are two-dimensional because they are, in fact, rendered in 2D. That’s the point.” In theory, a fair argument. Why expect nuance from a stereotypical stoner named “Zonker?”
The problem with the theory is that over time, the strip was nuanced, and some characters were three-dimensional. Trudeau was not a mere hatchet man, but had a gift for irony and self-mockery as well. Political correctness was gently skewered even as it first arrived on the scene. “It’s a baby woman!” squeals Joanie Caucus’s kindergarten class at the birth of a girl. Minority representation was sent up in a college football huddle: “I’m the only Pole.” “I’m the only freak!” The earlier characters in particular had inconsistencies of exactly the same sort that everyday people do.
Trudeau was also willing to smack Democratic politicians around a bit. Carter was lampooned for running a presidency of symbolism over substance, and Clinton was portrayed as a waffle. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Conservatives had none of the endearing inconsistencies. Phred the Viet Cong, was more sympathetic than the American soldier BD. Roland Headley reported an entire series “In search of Reagan’s brain,” and Trudeau’s hatred for the Bush family was embarrassing to read, even when I was a liberal. * Bomb-throwing Newt Gingrich to Dan Quayle as feather, conservatives are always stupid, malevolent, or both. The people of the left might have their foibles, but the people of the right were unrelenting evil.
Except, of course, when presented with the more sophisticated world of Trudeau, which would cause them to become perplexed and dimly apprehend the possibility of liberal ideas. Just like on TV. When the artist was really ticked, he would footnote the comic, e.g. to show how Limbaugh was too inaccurate. Conveniently, cartoonists don’t have to answer criticism.
An early secondary theme, that the young were wiser than the middle-aged, became increasingly difficult for Gary Trudeau to maintain as he aged. His elevated version of the TV-sitcom smartass kid played very well to Boomers, who have always longed to imbue their personal conflicts with larger cultural meaning.
So the “it’s because it’s a cartoon” excuse is a little weak – partly because of Trudeau’s own cleverness and early talent. It was never his intention for this to be “just” a political cartoon. He wanted to persuade and to influence. Over the years, the strip has become increasingly bitter and didactic. As I seldom read a newspaper anymore, I don’t see it much, but my eye still goes automatically to Doonesbury. It is occasionally amusing, but mostly just ignorant these days, drawing inspiration from the same lost world of its glory days. Uncle Duke was as brilliant a character as has ever appeared in the funny papers. Amazing how much Trudeau got wrong in retrospect.
Conservatives wonder how the liberal interpretation of history is maintained in the face of the facts. The massacres by the VC and the Khmer Rouge; the fall of communism and the translation of the Venona Cables; the growth in the economy in close parallel to conservative predicitions; the behavior of nations seeming closer to the older interpretations of men and evil than to the newer, more hopeful foreign policies.
The myths are sustained by condescending humor, and Ivy-League liberals do it best.
*Gary Trudeau’s unreasoning viciousness toward the Bushes may be an attempt to distance himself from some portion of his own Yalie/preppy background. In a delicious irony in the midst of his attacks of Bush 41’s manhood, Trudeau appeared in a clothing catalogue modeling a manly flight jacket. Yo, Gary. George actually was a fighter pilot.