Updated: Nov 13, 2021

This week we learn that there is no room in the editorial pages of the paper whose motto is “Independent. Always.” for independent thought.

No matter what you think of Leunig’s cartoons, and after 40 plus years of published work no one is going to love everything he draws, but everyone can dive into his archive and find something that speaks to them.

What is clear is that his style and voice was truly unique and forced you to look at the world anew. But more than unique, he was an independent thinker that put the neurosis of the times on display. That is what should have earned him respect - and certainly why someone who finds plenty to disagree with in his cartoons (myself) will sing his praises.

Almost every year there seems to be a new controversy around one of his cartoons.

Back in 2019, the big controversy was a cartoon with this poem:

Mummy was busy on Instagram

When beautiful bubby fell out of the pram

And lay on the path unseen and alone

Wishing that he was loved like a phone.

If you thought this was an important commentary about how our phones have taken over our lives and relationships, even ones as important as the mother-child bond - you would be wrong, as was Leunig, who defended his cartoon in precisely these terms.

But in an age of 2D relationships through screens and reductive thinking, many mothers felt personally mocked by the cartoon and took to Twitter to call it out as misogyny.

An example of the hate it received came from the typically elegant (read that tongue-in-cheek) Clementine Ford, who tweeted “Hey Leunig, you f**king gronk,” and then went on to say that he never had to deal with screaming children whilst working so he had no right to judge mothers.

In May 2021 Leunig was surrounded by controversy again as another cartoon angered the Twitter feminists, this time by likening the government to an abusive partner. The limerick alongside the cartoon read:

Coercive Control:

Isn’t much fun

But isn’t this how

the country is run?

the carrot, the stick,

the jail, the fine;

Isn’t this how

we’re all kept in line?

And yet you are warned

that coercive control

Is a terrible crime

to the heart and the soul.

So do as they say

and not as they do

Or something coercive

will happen to you.

Admittedly, this was a sensitive topic to traverse when both Victoria and Queensland were holding enquiries into the criminalisation of coercive control (which refers to a pattern of controlling behaviours in an abusive relationship).

But again instead of seeing the big message of hypocrisy, his critics called him an old white man, a misogynist, and assumed the worst intentions, as this Tweet illustrates nicely (or rather meanly):

“Is he having a sly dig at abusive government? Or at people who believe coercive control is abuse?

It's Leunig, so my money's on the latter.

Which makes his "Isn't this how we're all kept in line" defense horrifying.

Gotta keep the missus in line, amirite boys?


So, Leunig was already in the bad books of many of those that peruse the Fairfax papers looking for outrage when he submitted a series of cartoons that were apparently beyond the pale.

The most recognisable is the illusion to Tiananmen Square which didn’t get published but was widely circulated on social media as it hit a chord for many that objected to the vaccine mandates.

All of this outrage follows a similar theme, of a lack of appreciation of illusion and the non-literal. Earlier this year the editorial cartoonist for the Australian, Johannes Leak, had a finding against him for a cartoon depicting Joe Biden’s pandering to identity politics as being racist rather than satirising racism, but in doing so they had to view this cartoon as entirely without the intended satire.

In many ways the fate of Leunig is the fate of all artists that play with illusion at a time and in a culture that no longer has the faculties to grasp or appreciate the non-literal.

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds by Michael Knowles is an insightful look at how words shape reality and, equally, how reality shapes words, particularly for someone whose first book contained zero words.

It isn’t the usual “political correctness has gone mad and those campus lefties are to blame” type narrative. It traces PC further back than the campus wars of the 1990s and instead places the beginning of the movement with Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. It also surprises (for a book written by a talking head for The Daily Wire, a popular conservative media brand in America) that it puts a large proportion of the blame for political correctness on those on the right side of the political aisle.

He demolishes an argument I have made, that we should just fight back against taboos in general, rather than adopting the politically correct ones in the place of stodgy killjoys of the past.

Knowles’ chapter on the war on Christmas in America tells exactly this story. At first, the argument was that Christmas shouldn’t be a holiday because it would lead people to be insufficiently pious. Today the war on Christmas is waged in the name of inclusivity - how times change.

Knowles argues that there is no such thing as a society without taboos and by being taboo neutral we are creating the vacuum for the politically correct to foist their rules on people.

This struck a chord as there is an inherent conflict between the political arguments on right and private conduct.

It is fairly typical for conservatives to hold different views about what the law should be and what the culture should be. For instance, when asked about laws that curtail free speech they take an absolutist perspective and argue the law should permit that thing to be said, but privately argue that it ought not to be said.

Most starkly this came up when I wrote two different pieces about pornography - one focusing on the law and the other focusing on the culture. In the former, I argued for the law permitting it and in the latter (which you have to subscribe to Mathilde Magazine to read) I argued that a culture that encourages the proliferation and consumption of cheap sex substitutes at the expense of the real thing is not a good one.

Two views that some would say conflict with each other but, in defence of my arguments in both of these pieces, I don’t think there is a conflict in holding certain ideals about what the law should be, and equally important ideal as to sex should be. And most importantly, that these domains should be separated.

Both the militant secularists and the traditionalists get this wrong. The reason for the separation of church and state (as first explained by John Locke) is not solely to prevent the influence of religion in the state but also to prevent the influence of the state within religion.

To re-interpret Locke, the government can’t keep a too rigid moral order (either of the religious or secular variety) without violating someone’s freedom of conscience.

Secularism at its best is a doctrine that means that culture must come from the bottom up not the top down.

Holding this separation is for everyone’s benefit and as such should be fought for against those that would have it be otherwise, whether it be the politically correct cramming down their ideals as hate speech laws or an old moral order reasserting itself with a vengeance.

There is another kind of conflict which those who oppose the speech controllers face.

This was best explained by an artist friend who vacillates between wanting to just paint beautiful things or creating art that mocks the absurdity of the PC mob. As an aside, someone should try hoaxing the Australia Council for the Arts and see how bad art can be and still get funding if it ticks the right identity boxes.

On one hand, people don’t want to spend time on wokeness when you could be putting something of value into the world - shall we call it (and excuse the language) the “fuck them” approach. This strategy (to the extent it is a strategy) is just to ignore them and get on with living. The Young Heretics podcast by Spencer Klavan comes to mind as an example here.

On the other hand, there is the “fight them” approach where you take them on either directly or through satire like Andrew Doyle does on Twitter.

But no matter which tacit or disposition one takes to the PC mob, both have the same problem.

Anti-woke is always how they refer to themselves. They are always in opposition. They want to cancel-cancel-culture or anti-the gender-agender.

Never for something.

The PC mob has a grander proposition than those that oppose them. That is why they win.

To win the culture war people need a vision, or in the the words of Knowles:

“If we are to master our political future, we must not merely demand the right to speak; more importantly, we must have something to say.”