The enduring popularity of the cartoonist Michael Leunig is something Iâ€™ve been baffled by since childhood. His cartoons were stuck on my grandmotherâ€™s fridge, and I recall looking at the wobbly drawings of a man with a duck on his head with confusion and, as I got older, irritation.
Why is this manâ€™s inward-looking sentimentalism so beloved? What does he want? Is he really exhorting us all to shut ourselves off from society and start new lives in a magical elf land, where everyone wears placid smiles and dances around in funny hats?
Leunig is copping flak for publishing another anti-vaccination cartoon. This time, he compares the Victorian governmentâ€™s No Jab, No Play policy to fascism. Leaving aside the legitimate debates about whether punishing anti-vaxxers is the best way to get children inoculated, his use of â€œfascistâ€ to describe health policy he disagrees with is utterly in keeping with the style heâ€™s developed over the past 40 years.
Leunigâ€™s fans love his trademark â€œwhimsyâ€. Heâ€™s popular because he taps into a vein of exhaustion with aspects of the world: technology, bureaucracy, the absurdity of politics, â€œthe demands of modern existenceâ€.
While this observation is facile in itself â€“ yes, life is complicated and exhausting â€“ itâ€™s his solution to it that gets me. Whenever thereâ€™s something unhappy, or evil, or messy out there, Leunig plops the teapot on his head and retreats into his fantasy land. In fact, thatâ€™s how he got his start in life. As he told Andrew Denton in 2006:
[I]t was drawing a cartoon about the Vietnam War … I was trying to draw about this very difficult subject and I got engrossed and tangled in it and the deadline was ticking away and, anyway, I just then drew a duck. I drew a duck. It appeared. You see, I was stuck. I couldnâ€™t go on. I didnâ€™t know where to go forward. The duck appeared in my mind or came off the end of my pen and then I put a fella sitting on the duck and then I drew a teapot on his head. It was an act of defiance. I was being absurd, you see, because I couldnâ€™t untangle this terrible Vietnam tragedy and I drew this thing …
Overwhelmed by the world, his stubborn, ignorant sentimentality leads him to retreat again and again into nostalgic fantasies; he is his own weary gentleman seeing profound truths about life in a cloud from a far-flung hilltop. In April he gave a keynote address on spirituality, in which he said:
Our spirituality is innate, idiosyncratic and natural, and it would be futile for me to try to examine the matter too closely or elaborately in this limited discussion. I am not equipped to do so anyway.
This is pure, uncut Leunig: banal, quasi-spiritual nonsense intended to appeal to our sense of dissatisfaction. Thereâ€™s a very good reason Leunigâ€™s cartoons are usually pinned up in places where people are desperately unhappy: doctorsâ€™ waiting rooms, Centrelink offices, at the RTA.
This apolitical thread runs through all his work, infusing it with smarmy middle-class ennui that considers the hard work of engaging with actual philosophy or politics â€“ the thoughts and practices that humans develop to understand and improve the world â€“ to be too hard or unpleasant.
Until, that is, something punctures his duck-o-sphere, and he canâ€™t resist poking his head out of Curly Flat to offer an opinion on current affairs. He tries to have it both ways, as Michael Gordon (perhaps inadvertently) noted in 2010:
â€œSome cartoonists have been extraordinarily successful at taking pot shots at societyâ€™s mores while leading a merry dance like a medieval Kingâ€™s fool. Michael Leunig is a classic example of this sort of artist. He claims to be non-political but all of his work is about the inhabitants of the City of Mankind. Even the holy fool occasionally finds himself out of the zone of sanctuary ….â€
Leunigâ€™s infantile posture that puts his (and his audienceâ€™s) need to be pacified above the needs of others in the community, from which he absents himself. His work is like a sponge, soaking up emotional distress instead of examining why it exists or how it could be used as the impetus for positive change.
Except when it doesnâ€™t: his occasional forays into explicit political cartooning demonstrate that he does feel a responsibility to comment on issues he considers important, like vaccination fascism.
His subgenre of anti-vax cartoons tap into a long-standing disdain for contemporary motherhood, which can be seen in his controversial cartoon Thoughts of a Baby Lying in a Childcare Centre. In a dig at mums who put their kids in care, the cartoonist puts words in the mouth of an unhappy bub: â€œCall her a cruel, ignorant, selfish bitch if you like but I will defend her. She is my mother and I think the WORLD of herâ€.
Again, Iâ€™m almost sympathetic: people really donâ€™t have enough time for family, community and leisure. But does he identify the forces responsible and get stuck into them? Is the mother also a person who struggles and might need the occasional mystical hilltop retreat? Nope, itâ€™s her selfishness thatâ€™s to blame.
Leunigâ€™s anti-vax stance is built on these two tendencies: his perception of the world (especially the political world) as inherently coercive and hostile to an imagined and innate human innocence; and his view that the traditional mother-child bond, which he never bothers to explain, is a divine interface that must be upheld at all costs. As he wrote in another recent anti-vax cartoon:
Some mothers do â€˜ave â€˜em.
They have maternal instincts
That contradict what science thinks.
They stand up to the state:
A motherâ€™s love may be as great
As any new vaccine
That man has ever seen
Nuts to the actual mums of the world, who think pro-family policies like free childcare, parental leave, financial and employer support are what they need to practice motherhood effectively. Leunig, the man who has spent years encouraging people to plant themselves in the garden, knows better â€“ and heâ€™ll tell you so (even as he pleads his unworthiness to do so).
From this position we can see why Leunigâ€™s apparent concern for childrenâ€™s health stirs him to oppose vaccinations, which have been proven time and time again to be a great way of promoting childrenâ€™s health. The child heâ€™s protecting here is not in the first instance an actual, living child â€“ but his own mystical inner child, which he constantly reminds us is of the utmost preciousness.
To him, the government mandating vaccinations is just another intrusion of the dirty, messy, cruel modern world heâ€™s spent his life avoiding. In his interview with Andrew Denton in 2006 he demonstrates this view, saying he homeschools his own children to protect them from having to â€œsubmit and be controlled … and be confused out of [their heads] by all these mad things they teach themâ€.
To acknowledge that vaccination works wonders would be to concede that Big Government, Big Pharma, and various other Big Mean Nasties are part of a nuanced world that is actually worth being a part of.
Thatâ€™s unlikely to happen any time soon. Leunigâ€™s cartoons encourage us to go on a permanent mental vacation. If thatâ€™s what he needs to do to get out of bed in the morning, then fine, but if he wants to claim this exemption, he canâ€™t expect anything more than mockery and derision when he comes down off the lonely mountain to give us a lecture.