Behind the Story: Graham Stecklein on “Big Noses, Little Impact”

By Graham Clark

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Stop me even if you haven’t heard it, actually. Because it’s an inappropriate joke, and I can hardly be said to have the right to tell it. But it speaks to bigger issues, so I’ll tell it anywhere.

A rabbi is sitting in a café in Germany just before WWII, reading the latest issue of Der Stürmer. He’s approached by a member of his congregation, who asks, “How can you read such anti-Semitic propaganda?”

The rabbi responds, “When I read the international news, all I see are stories of Jews getting persecuted. In those newspapers I am told that Jews are being killed, crushed, and exiled every day.”

“When I read this,” the rabbi says, smacking the Nazi news bulletin, “I see we run the banks, run the government…In fact, it says we control the whole world!”

It’s an example of gallows humor. It’s also more than that. It’s an echo of an astounding and relatively heinous period in the history of news media. During WWII, the journalism industry dealt in racist rhetoric and iconography on an expanse more modern than ever before. While stereotypes and caricatures like those of Der Stürmer had plenty of predecessors in newsprint, the mechanics of news production and consumption had evolved by WWII to reach a new plateau of power, and cranking out cartoonish generalizations based on racism and nationalism became an international effort.

In my time as a FASPE Fellow, examples of such two-dimensional stereotyping caught my eye over and over. Caricature is simply considered a lively art by many practitioners, but the dubious ethics of the form, its history of problematic consequences, cast it in a darker shadow than its modern-day role might suggest. Physical characteristics reflecting inner personality traits is an idea that makes up the bedrock of caricaturists’ method, but the same idea spawned eugenics and phrenology, half-baked scientific designs at best and the roots of race-riots at worst.

After seeing how caricatures shaped and reflected cultural, political identities during WWII with FASPE, I wanted to know more about where this art form ended up in modern society.

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