I'm puzzled by this latest turn in Steve Benson's career.
Generally, I enjoy the images Benson draws for the Arizona Republic. He has a talented pen. He may even become a cartoonist of stature if and when he matures.
To do that, however, Benson must stop his slavish imitations of the work of Jeffrey MacNelly of the Chicago Tribune Syndicate.
In saying this, I'm not revealing something that's a secret. Benson is well-known among other cartoonists as a MacNelly clone.
Several years back, David Shaw, the press critic of the Los Angeles Times, did a study of the nation's editorial cartoonists.
He pointed out the similarity between the themes and sketch lines of MacNelly and Benson. Shaw wrote then that other cartoonists refer to the Arizona Republic's man as "MacBenson."
I don't think Benson any longer limits his efforts to copying MacNelly's style. I notice that he also appears to adopt the styles of Don Wright of Miami and Mike Peters of Dayton, Ohio.
This creates a problem. Since the styles of all three of his mentors differ, a near-manic style switch can be seen in Benson cartoons from day to day.
I find other things about his work troubling.
He shows no compassion for society's underdog but an almost doctrinaire disdain for Jews, blacks and poor people. Incidentally, these are all people far outside Benson's narrow life experience.
I often suspect Benson of attacking targets specifically for the purpose of getting a reaction rather than making a point in which he truly believes.
Editors generally agree certain subjects are flash points. A cartoonist must approach with caution because they are sure to bring return fire.
Cartoons critical of Israel always draw heated reactions. So do those about abortion, black activism, gun control, the death penalty and all religious issues. If you keep that list on your desk for two weeks, you'll discover that Benson most likely did a cartoon on all of those subjects within that time frame.
It's a rare cartoonist who will hold Pope John Paul II or Martin Luther King Jr. up to ridicule. Benson does this regularly, seemingly without blinking an eye.
Benson is not sophisticated. Nor is he dumb. He is clearly conversant with the flash points. I assume he hits them deliberately to try to draw attention to himself.
Benson seems to love this attention. Why else would he be so willing to participate on radio talk shows that pay no money or to speak before small groups where the only compensation comes in the form of adoration from the audience?
It's always exciting for a newspaper to have a cartoonist who operates like a mindless attack dog.
But if God gave Republic publisher Pat Murphy the brains He gave to the average goose, Murphy should be uneasy every time Benson goes to the drawing board.
Benson's attacks, unrestrained by Murphy, leave the cartoonist and the newspaper, open to charges of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and bigotry against blacks--not to speak of a prejudice against the elderly.
That's just for starters. Murphy can insist Benson's thinking doesn't reflect that of the newspaper. But who will believe him?
With Benson's drawing every day, you have the state's largest newspaper sending a visual message that it holds clear prejudices against nearly three quarters of its readers.
Now we come to the latest grandstand play.
The Republic would have us believe that Benson has now become a martyr to freedom of the press. This is farcical.
The Republic launched an all-out deification of Benson this past weekend. I find this latest ploy impossible to take seriously. On Saturday, the Republic ran a Benson story on page one telling us how he'd been attacked by many of the church leaders in the state.
It informed us that Benson had been relieved in April of his duties as a member of the Tempe West Stake High Council. The Republic didn't tell us this was an unpaid job and didn't bother to explain the wait of almost a month to put the story in the paper.
The cause of Benson's ouster was a cartoon which depicted Evan Mecham as an avenging angel holding "The Book of Moron."
Clearly, if you are Mormon, you found this to be a blasphemous piece of work. It was Benson's attempt to outdo Salman Rushdie.
Surely, Benson knew this even before he sat down to create the drawing. After all, he's not only a practicing Mormon but the grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!
The Republic revealed that a letter voicing disapproval of the cartoon and signed by a dozen leading clergy members had been sent to the Mormons.
These churchmen of all denominations saw the cartoon as an insensitive affront to Mormons.
But, these same thoughts also must have gone through the minds of Murphy and Bill Cheshire, the editorial page editor, who had to approve the cartoon before it was printed.
A thought occurs. Did Murphy and Cheshire actually think Benson could get away with this kind of thing because he was a Mormon and therefore above reproach?
On Sunday, both Murphy and Cheshire defended Benson in their columns. You might have thought they were discussing Joan of Arc. Murphy and Cheshire were, of course, leaping to their own defense as well as Benson's. Murphy is never so self-important as when he is able to dash into a phone booth, puff up and then wrap himself in the First Amendment.
While in this unnatural state, Murphy wrote the following paragraph. It matches anything written by James Fenimore Cooper in his final stages.
"I know Steve Benson," Murphy wrote. "I find not only comfort but pride and strength in someone so willing to sacrifice so much, to endure such pain to expose political folly and demagoguery, even when those who barely measure up to his own standards are inflicting the pain in the name of religious certitude."
Is it any wonder the rest of the Arizona Republic is so badly written?
Is there any recognition here that Benson is nothing more than overambitious and self-serving? Cheshire, the man Murphy imported from Sun Myung Moon's paper in Washington, D.C., also chipped in with a column defending Benson and struck a blow for himself, too. He complained that Mecham has started to attack him for being an ex-Moonie. Cheshire, who was all too happy to cash the Moonie paychecks, now insists he's really an Episcopalian.
So what, one asks.
You can readily see that all this excitement surrounding the supposed heroism of Steve Benson will lead us downhill at a dizzying pace.