On Jealousy

Doesn’t matter if they deserve it: criticizing the work of a creative person who isn’t successful is mean. Not to mention pointless. If they’re not doing well, and their work sucks, the system is working.

Take on a cartoonist or writer who is raking in the cash, on the other hand, and his fans will accuse you of sour grapes. “You’re just jealous!” they’ll say.

Which is true, but also not true.

I’ll start with the not-true part.

I’ll focus on cartoonists because that’s my chosen profession, and I happen to think I’m good at it, and I sometimes issue broadsides against cartoons I think are such an insult to my profession that their shitsmeariness literally takes money out of my pocket merely by toiling in the same genre.

Lots of cartoonists make more money than I do. Yet you won’t find me tearing them a new critical asshole. Matt Groening makes more money than he can count. Is he perfect? Hell no. But as far as I can tell, he deserves every cent. Charles Schulz, Gary Larsen, Garry Trudeau, Bill Mauldin, James Thurber — all cartoonists who made or make bank. Schulz still makes tens of millions a year, and he’s dead. All got more awards than I could dream of. As far as I’m concerned, the system worked in these cases.

If my criticisms of other cartoonists were motivated by simple sour grapes, by the simple equation of he-has-more-good-stuff-than-I-do, I would attack the most successful, richest cartoonists the most. Or I’d draw a line at my level of income and fame, and grouse about everyone above it. Of course, this would delegitimize my complaints.

Some of the cartoonists whose work I criticize respond by saying that my work sucks. In other words, I don’t have standing to attack them. Which, if true, is silly: you don’t have to be a (rich) film director to have a (valid) opinion on a movie. Then they fall back on the sour-grapes argument: I’m jealous of their talent.

Indeed, I am jealous of other cartoonists’ talent. I wish I drew as well as Matt Bors, wrote as brilliantly as Ruben Bolling, had as much passion as Stephanie McMillan, as much control as Jen Sorensen, as much crossover appeal as Shannon Wheeler, as much consistency as Tom Tomorrow. None of whom, by the way, make more money or have earned more awards than I have. Which, for me, is evidence that the system is not working. They should make more money and win more awards — not than me, goddammit! — than the hacks whose crap I ridicule.

Am I jealous? Damn right, I’m jealous.

I’m jealous when people get stuff they don’t deserve.

Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is one of the worst published writers in an American newspaper, an insult to logical reasoning, and more damning of all, deadly wrong about major issues. His job is to prognosticate, yet he has no ability to see past his bushy porn-star mustache. He was, for example, in favor of invading Iraq because he thought the U.S. would do a good job there. He was wrong when a lot of other people were right. He was listened to. They weren’t. And the consequences were devastating. Friedman lives in a palace. Does he deserve it? Hell no. Do I deserve it? More than him, that’s for sure.

I recently applied to a minor cartooning contest called “Best of the West.” It’s for political cartoons that run in the Western United States. Since I do cartoons for The Los Angeles Times, I applied. When the results came out, I was disgusted. This is because (a) it turned out the judge for the contest is close friends with the first-prize winner. They’re co-hosting the editorial cartoonists’ annual convention in three months. Talk about conflict of interest. I was jealousgusted (new word! use it, spread it around) by (b) by no objective standard could the first- or second-prize winners of Best of the West be judged to have done better cartoons than me or, say, Jen Sorensen, who also applied. Jen’s worst-ever cartoon is better/smarter/more political than number one or number two’s best-ever cartoon. So is mine. It’s not even close. We wuz robbed. So were others, including third-place “winner” Matt Bors. No one with eyes would put number two — who the same week published an “editorial cartoon” that, if I were on a prize committee, would have by itself have disqualified him from consideration — above Matt Bors in an editorial cartooning contest.

I bring up “Best of the West” because it literally means nothing. Well, maybe 0.02% of nothing. No prize money. No acclaim. The only reason I applied was that it’s been years since I won any prize whatsoever, and in a tough environment even 0.02% acclaim might be worth having. So just to be clear: I’m jealous. Not of Matt Bors, who got screwed as much as I did, well, slightly less, but still. I’m jealous of numbers one and two, who hold jobs, with full benefits, while I don’t. And I’m angry at the judge, because he knew — or should have known — that he made a shitty decision, and one devoid of basic ethics to boot.

Now several of my colleagues have taken me to task for talking about how certain hack cartoonists have staff jobs, with medical benefits, while I don’t. This, they tell me, makes me look petty.

Well, shit.

If the homeless veteran on the street outside the Starbucks where I am writing this sees me typing this on my shiny $3000 laptop, a $2.40 coffee cooling at my side, $650 glasses perched on my nose, is he jealous? Well, he should be. I don’t blame him if he comes in here and beats me to death. The gap between what I have and what he doesn’t have is so huge that he would literally have to be stupid and crazy not to hate me. I don’t deserve what I have, not compared to him. I don’t deserve to be the beneficiary of that gap.

Now let’s take a detour down Theoretical Lane: Imagine that — and that this is somehow provable — that by objective standards, he has led a better life than me. That he has worked harder, made better choices, been nicer, more creative, etc. Let’s further imagine that he and I both know this fact. Does he have a right to be jealous? Damn right he does.  Would it be petty for him to express this fact? To tell passersby: “Hey, look at that (relatively) rich asshole in there. I spent my life saving children, creating great art and giving generously to the poor. All he’s done is draw pictures and whine about the president.”? Of course it wouldn’t. He’d have every right. Not only that, he’d be wrong not to make such a point. Because it would make a Very Important Argument: that the System does NOT work. If the system, which governs everything, doesn’t work, then everything is suspect. Clearly this calls for radical and immediate reassessment. It’s like capital punishment: a faulty tax audit is an injustice, but putting an innocent man to death represents such a grotesque and immense gap between the way things should be and the way they actually are that you have to stop executing people entirely.

I’m not comparing my loss in “Best of the West” (or, for that matter, the Pulitzer Prize) to the case of Todd Willingham, the innocent man poisoned to death by the state of Texas under Governor Rick Perry (who then tried to cover it up). What I am arguing, in certain cases, is that to reflexively accuse a critic of petty jealousy/sour grapes is to automatically assume that injustice either (a) doesn’t exist or (b) shouldn’t be complained about — in other words, to assume the role of the oppressor.

When I write about bad cartoons, I mention the Pulitzers and six-figure salaries of their creators first, in order to show my hand (a key component of integrity in arguing): I’m annoyed at said bad cartoon not because it is bad per se (there are millions of bad cartoons by, say, high school newspaper cartoonists that don’t deserve mention); and second, to make the case that the system is disproportionately rewarding those who don’t deserve it at the expense of those who do. This is important, because there are people like Lisa Klem Wilson, my former boss at a newspaper syndicate that has since gone out of business called United Media, who believe, as she said at a morning meeting, that “we live in a meritocracy. The best stuff rises to the top.” I remember thinking and saying: “What world do you live in?” When you look at, say, the list of Pulitzer Prize winners and compare them to some of the high-profile creators who lost those same years, it’s hard to see where people like Lisa are coming from. But they’ll never change their minds unless those of us who see things differently point these things out.

I am envious of anybody who has more than I do. Who, besides a monk, doesn’t want a nicer house? A bigger bank account? A good job? But I’m not angry about it, except in the generalized rage I feel about inequality in general, which informs my politics. No one deserves more anything than anyone else. To believe otherwise is to accept and enable evil.

Matt Bors won a major cartooning award, the Herblock Award, two years ago. $15,000! They cover the taxes! Tom Tomorrow won this year. I was envious, but I wasn’t jealous. They’re both great cartoonists. They deserved it. Jealousy is directed at the undeserving. As long as they have nice things that other people deserve more — a lot more — I’ll be jealous.

9 thoughts on “On Jealousy

  1. @ted

    “No one deserves more anything than anyone else. To believe otherwise is to accept and enable evil.”…”As long as they have nice things that other people deserve more — a lot more — I’ll be jealous.”

    Congratulations, I think you’ve broken your own record for descending into incoherence.

  2. I am reminded of Mr. Howell’s line in an episode of Gilligan’s Island in which a fake Mr. Howell has, highly unlikely though it would seem, washed ashore.

    The real Mr. Howell (whom we know is the real Howell) is finally asked, if he had to choose between his wife and his money, which would he keep?

    “My money, of course!” comes his immediate reply.

    But the real laugh comes from Lovey’s response: “Oh, Thurston! It really is you!”

    The reason we don’t find Friedman endearing like Howell? Because Friedman isn’t honest with himself about has base and soulless he is. Anyone who writes the Gamalielese stuff he cranks out simply must be lying to himself. Or have a brain tumor the size of a honeydew melon inside his head.

  3. To further explicate:

    Mr Rall is annoyed because cookie-cutter cartoonists without talent (and Mr Friedman, also without talent) earn much more than he does.

    When I finished my degree in math, I had a single job offer: sales on straight commission with a draw against future commissions. A classmate and I were both hired. After I arrived, I was asked, ‘What do you know about weapons-grade lasers?’ I said, ‘The basic physics and math.’ ‘You must resign immediately, or you’ll just be fired!’ said the manager interviewing me to decide to which sales position I’d be assigned.

    My schoolmate, Guy, had answered, ‘My degree says, “Organic Chemistry”, but that was just a cover. I worked on a Top Secret project and my real degree is in weapons-grade lasers.’

    So they sent Guy to the military base, and his team came back with a multimillion dollar contract. Then the team members fought over how the commission should be divided. Neither Guy nor any other member of the team knew anything about weapons-grade lasers, but some of them knew how to separate the fools in the government from their money, which was what we were all hired to do. I was fired, Guy got a 100% raise in pay.

    Three years later, I was (again) working as a salesman on commission (and I wasn’t getting any commissions, so I was living on the draw). Guy showed up. ‘What do you know about particle beam weapons?’ my boss asked him. ‘There were no jobs in particle beam weapons when I graduated, so I took a job working with lasers, about which I know nothing. My degree says “Organic Chemistry” but that was just the cover for my Top Secret degree in particle beam weapons.’

    Again, Guy was hired. His first job, he’d only earned twice my salary (and I knew more about lasers than he really did); his second job, he earned ten times my salary, even though he knew absolutely nothing about particle beam weapons.

    The world no longer values TRVTH. It only values those who conform the best. Those and only those are rewarded in this meritocracy as the most meretricious.

    So Mr Rall must either switch to cartoons like those of the Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Ramirez, or he must resign himself to a meager income.

    (Personally, I hope Mr Rall resigns himself. We have more than enough people who tow the government line as Michael Ramirez does.)

  4. Mr Rall, you’ve been told how professionals work, but you haven’t listened.

    You should have gotten yourself ’embedded’. You wouldn’t even have to draw and caption your cartoons, the US Information Officer would have given you Pulitzer Prize winning cartoons (since they supervise the Pulitzer Prize judges), and all without your having to do anything but stay in 5-star hotels (not necessarily in Central Asia–many of the top New York Times MENA reporters obviously stay in a nice hotel on Long Island–that’s far enough east for their ‘reporting’).

    But NO. You actually went, saw for yourself, and draw your own cartoons, which are automatically excluded from consideration for prizes (how you got on the short list way back when escapes me, but that kind of lapse can’t ever happen again).

    TRVTH is not only unwanted, it’s hated, and if you’re going to tell the TRVTH, you’re not going to earn much money or ever win any prizes.

    Haven’t you figured out that osculating a certain part of the decision makers’ anatomy is the only way to get ahead in the US??? (And that’s the definition of ‘meritocracy’–the one who osculates that part of the decision makers’ anatomy the best is the most meretricious.)

  5. Oopsy.

    For “Maybe if they didn’t get parades, we’d have fewer awards” that last word should be “wars”

    and “probably be a lot happy” should be “happier.”

    Sorry about the typos; I’m trying to get a lot of things done today. I’ve got to set aside a couple hours this afternoon to count all my blessings, for instance.

  6. Ted,

    You’re complaining. Shut up.

    The two preceding sentences are not my opinion. They are what we’ve all been conditioned to consider the “right” way to think and behave. (Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about this.) Why have we been so conditioned? Because the current economic system cannot function without the majority being complicit in its own rape. (Just keep quiet while they take you into the woods, when you get home, take a shower as hot as you can stand it and pretend nothing happened.)

    But Ted, you’re objecting. You are withdrawing your consent to being fucked over. Everyone has one of two choices:

    1. Realize that they’ve been reamed for years, too, and join the complaining.
    2. Continue to deny that they’ve been screwed over and dismiss you as a whiny crank. (The old “think of England” defense.)

    Although I agree with pretty much everything you wrote in your column, I disagree with the comment about the veteran. Please, please, please, can we stop with this adoration of the veteran crap? It’s just as bad as the asshats who think the police are heroes. Sure, some veterans (and some cops) are, with absolutely no sarcasm intended, the best and the brightest. They are literally the highest achievements of our society. And some of them are simply criminal sociopaths in uniforms. Being a veteran is no more an achievement than working in a TV studio for 20 years is an achievement. Why do we praise a vet who may have been “only following orders”? Maybe if they didn’t get parades, we’d have fewer awards. Maybe if claiming veteran status didn’t get you preferential job treatment (ever notice no one ever asks on a job application if you’re a single mom trying to raise a kid), we could wake up a little more to how militaristic our whole economy is.

    As for Tom Friedman, who lives in a palace. Yes. But for clarification, it should be pointed out that his wife is the one with the money (or “was” the one with the money as the company went bankrupt, according to wikipedia). In either case, Friedman has the same permanent “prosperity gospel” affliction as many others. He does not understand the real-world modalities of hardship. He only believes in “good” luck. The good luck that people enjoy SOMETIMES when they try and try and try. And when you hit “bad” luck (like being one of the 99 out of a hundred who did NOT get the job, five, ten, fifteen, fifty times), you’re supposed to shut your goddamn mouth about it and keep singing.

    Even when you’re being evicted. Even when you’re in line at the soup kitchen. Even when you’re coughing uncontrollably. Even when the cops are calling you over and giving you a hard time for the crime of being broke and minding your own business. None of that exists in Friedman’s world because he is surrounded by the people who keep telling all of us to not complain.

    Ted, I say keep bitching all you can. Because the alternative is that you just quietly dry up and drop dead without creating a fuss. And that’s exactly what the system wants. All the complainers and the whiners and the insisters to suddenly go mute.

    No one likes a sour-faced negro working in the fields. If you just worked a little harder and were a little less uppity, you’d probably be a lot happy. Like that fellow over there. The one with all the scars on his back. You never hear him complain, do you? Just all those beautiful spirituals he sings. He’s got such a beautiful voice, doesn’t he? isn’t it wonderful that the White Jesus gave him that gift to share with everyone? He doesn’t ask for money to sing, does he? No. Of course not. So shut up Ted. Stop your whining. Just be grateful that you’re allowed to share your gift.

  7. I don’t usually agree with much of what ExK says, but I was also surprised at this post. I have a lot of the same feelings, but I realized a long time ago that many people don’t get what they “deserve”, and that if everyone did, I’d would’ve had to answer for every mistake I had ever made, and I’ve made a few lu-lu’s that I somehow got a pass on…. The simple fact is that life is full chances and opportunities, and that nothing is really sure except death and taxes. What if Bill Gates had never met Steve Jobs?, and more in this vein…..Ted, I like your work and this blog, but I think you may have painted your way a bit into this particular corner. Remember that recent cartoon you drew, and then quickly withdrew it from this blog? I think it had the same ability to draw in a super-negative response like the Tilman cartoon and the ‘widows’ cartoons which enraged people – Yes, they made good strong points about some bullshit that was going on, but they also made you look heartless to a large group of people who follow the “heroes of the week” portion of Americans. But aside from that, a lot of what happens to us in life is largely chance, like not being born a poor person in Afghanistan, etc. Plus, once you get painted in a bad light, it can be really tough to recover from it. Look at people like Zimmerman – what if he really did find himself being beat to death and tried to save himself? I doesn’t matter now – once the media picks you up and throws you under the bus, and millions villify you, even the truth can’t save you…

  8. Ugh. This is so depressing to read. This is really sad. Everything that people criticize liberals for is right here in black and white. Most notably the notion that liberals know what’s best for everyone. Behold these quotes:

    “But as far as I can tell, he deserves every cent.”
    “Friedman lives in a palace. Does he deserve it? Hell no. Do I deserve it? More than him, that’s for sure.”
    “I don’t deserve what I have, not compared to him. I don’t deserve to be the beneficiary of that gap.”

    In just those three quotes: “Deserve, deserve, deserve, deserve, deserve.” Yes, that’s right — five times. The rest of the piece is just more of the same.

    I wonder if Ted is so bitter at this point that he can’t even self-reflect to any level of understanding just how pathetic this commentary is. Does it really need to be said that you don’t deserve anything? Talk about fucking entitlement. Deserve? What makes you think you deserve anything? Stop writing that shit as a liberal. You give us a bad rep … no, a terrible reputation.

    Notice that none of these other cartoonists on either side ever ramble on about what they or their competitors deserve. Hell, I’ve never even heard Matt Taibbi claim Friedman didn’t deserve his position. Taibbi makes fun of Friedman relentlessly, but I don’t recall him ever saying he (Taibbi) deserves the prime spot on the NYTimes op-ed page and Friedman doesn’t. The fact is, whether he’s right or wrong, Friedman is prolific. He writes op-eds, books, does speaking tours, and so on. He creates value for the NYTimes and others, he has a large audience that does like his work, hence he has succeeded. If he wasn’t successful, he’d be gone. Do you actually think the NYTimes is publishing Friedman at a loss, just to spite people or because the editor likes him? Hats off to Taibbi for not whining.

    There’s this little thing you may have heard of: The free market. I don’t think I need to really go into much detail here, but especially when it comes to things like comics — the free market works. Ted’s boss, Lisa Klem Wilson, was EXACTLY RIGHT in her comments that the best stuff rises. The reason for Ted’s astonishment at this sentiment, and response of “what world do you live in” would have been met with this: The free market. That’s the world Lisa Klem Wilson lives in. The world Ted increasingly lives in is one where arbitrary rules about who deserves what determines outcomes. I assume Ted would put himself on the “We Decide Who Deserves” panel. A new bureaucracy is born, worse than any in history: The Deserve Bureaucracy.

    Ted has every opportunity to succeed as his colleagues on either side, to adopt some of their approaches and strategies — but he chooses to complain that he deserves it instead. As Clint Eastwood said to Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven” right before he blows his head off with a double-barrel shotgun, when Hackman whines “I don’t deserve this”. The response: “Deserve has got nothing to do with it.”

    I mean it: This is a sad commentary.

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