SYNDICATED COLUMN: Liberal Democrats and the Depersonalization of Evil

The email was from someone who generally supports me. And it was generally supportive: “I’m glad you still have a platform.”

Me too! But the generally nice email contained a qualifier.

“I do find a lot of your opinions repugnant.”

Whoa. Repugnant? Such a strong word. The Holocaust was repugnant. What did I write or draw that was so disgusting?

“[Your] most repugnant stuff is portraying powerful people as unmitigated evil,” my otherwise supportive correspondent elaborated. “Everyone is human, and some of them are even nice humans, which is actually a greater hazard since there’s no question that some of what they do is evil. But someone has to navigate these insane political terrains and actually lead/serve, even if they wind up being completely alien from who they started to be.”

I shan’t identify the letter writer. Partly, this is because I like him/her. (Generally supportive, you know.) Mainly, though, I suspect that many people — particularly liberal Democrats — feel the same way as she/he does about my cartoons and writing. If people are turned off, I want to know why. I appreciate feedback. Seeing such criticism spelled out forces me to take a step back, reconsider whether I’m being unfair or wrongheaded — in this case to the “powerful people” whom I portray as “unmitigated evil” — and either change my act…or double down.

This “I support you, but” writer is right about my work. Especially in my cartoons, I often portray powerful politicians and business executives as bad people. I drew George W. Bush, first as a deranged dictator complete with Augusto Pinochet-like epaulettes, sash and silly tyrant hat out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and then, after 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror, as a hideous monster drooling coke snot over his fangs.

I’m so subtle.

I’ve been graphically kinder to Barack Obama — though some disagree — but in content I’ve been as mean to him as to Bush. I undermine his image as calm and reasonable with cartoons that show the cold-blooded automaton rubbing his hands with glee as he presides over one assassination-by-drone after another, and surrounds himself with luxury (golfing, hanging out at his multimillion-dollar summer vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard) while ordinary Americans lose their jobs and their homes. Obama, in Rallworld, is a murderous bastard who doesn’t care about you. As were Bush and Clinton.

The titans of capitalism come under heavy fire too. If you’re the CEO of a major company, pretty much the only feedback I’m going to give you is that you’re a greedy employee-firing price-gouging turd who exports American jobs to foreign hellholes because you don’t care about anyone else.

Guilty as charged: I do depict the rich and powerful as pure evil.

I don’t care about your intent. I don’t buy “gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet” justifications. If you have a hand in starting and/or continuing a war, an optional war of aggression, you’re a mass murderer. If you order killer robot planes to blow up people who haven’t been convicted of a crime in any court, and those killer robot planes blow up those people and other people who just happen to be nearby when the missile hits, you’re an evil person who did an evil thing, and it doesn’t matter one little bit that you have a winning smile, that you say you’re trying to keep America safe and strong, that you’re fighting “them” “there” so we don’t have to do it here, that you’re funny at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner, that you look adorable alongside your two beautiful daughters, or that you’re the first black president.

Save the qualifiers. You’re evil and I’ll draw you evil.

“We are condemned to be free,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre — free to choose between good and evil or, as in much of his literary work, between less evil and more evil. As such, he elaborated, we are defined by our worst act: a man who acts cruelly is, by definition a cruel man.

Sartre’s existentialism works for me better than any other codified system of philosophical or religious belief. I agree with him on most ethical issues. Killing thousands of people is evil, so people who order thousands of people killed are evil. Osama bin Laden is morally indistinguishable from Barack Obama.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be defined by the worst things we’ve ever done. Yet we are. As you read this, well over two million Americans are behind bars because they stand accused or convicted of a crime. Many of those inmates — probably most of them — have donated to charity, helped a stranger in need or donated blood. Very few people who have done bad things have mostly done bad things. Nearly 200,000 are military veterans, yet their service didn’t mitigate their fate. Their judges didn’t care because, as Sartre said, we are all defined by our worst act.

The lower your status in society, the more harshly you will be treated by the justice system. The darker your skin, the longer your prison sentence. The poorer you are, the higher the fine. The fewer resources you have to get through life — like, if you suffer from mental illness — the more brutality you will experience at the hands and fists of police and prison guards.

This, I believe, is the exact opposite of how it ought to be.

I’m with Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben: with great power comes great responsibility. (The corollary, which also serves as a handy definition of what it means to belong to the political left, is that with little power comes little responsibility.) If you’re privileged — rich and/or white and/or male and/or blessed with resources — you should be judged more harshly.

Which brings us back to my portrayals of the rich and powerful.

It is not actually true that “someone has to navigate these insane political terrains and actually lead/serve,” i.e., join and work inside and for the system — at least not as the point of the spear.

No one has to “actually lead/serve.”
True, opting out of the system entirely — refusing to pay taxes, for example — is so hard and carries such harsh penalties that it isn’t reasonable to expect of the average citizen. But it not asking much to suggest that we boycott the really horrible crimes the system commits. After all, most Americans do opt out.

Most Americans do not enlist in the armed forces. Yay, non-servicemembers! Most Americans do not harbor political ambitions. Good for you! Few Americans are corporate executives or in a position to ever become one. Your hands are relativelt clean!

Most Americans are, therefore, not evil.

By their nature, the biggest evils are those carried out on a grand scale: genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass poisoning by pollution, destroying the environment, huge frauds, systematic theft, racism, gender discrimination and so on. The only people capable of executing these humongous evils are those who possess wealth and/or power. If we don’t/can’t/shouldn’t call out the rich and powerful people who commit these terrible crimes because, hey, someone has to lead/serve, we are effectively saying that no one is responsible. That these crimes are authorless.

Depersonalization of crimes, absolving everyone of responsibility, is a historical whitewash and an insult to the victims. If there’s no criminal, did a crime occur? Logic says no. The fact that no one has ever been charged with a crime in connection with torturing Muslim detainees at Guantánamo concentration camp signals to the world that the torture either never really happened, that we can’t be sure whether it happened, or that if it did it doesn’t matter.

What about mercy? Don’t people, even powerful people, deserve a pass when they make mistakes? As I say above, more is expected of the rich and powerful. The ethical bar is higher. But yes, mercy is an important societal value, one that should be extended to the rich and powerful — when appropriate.

To me, you’re more deserving of soft treatment if you’ve learned from your mistakes. One of the reasons that I despise Hillary Clinton is that she has never met a war she didn’t like: Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and then Syria and Libya under her direct watch. She supported them all. None were morally or legally justifiable. With the possible exception of Bosnia, they spread misery and chaos, and hurt American interests. She’s stupid and mean. If anyone deserves a pass for warmongering, it isn’t her.

Like the former community organizer Barack Obama, former children’s rights advocate Hillary Clinton has become “completely alien from who they started to be”: a member of the board of the hideously anti-worker megacorporation Wal-Mart, a corrupted politico who sells influence to the highest bidder, an assassin.

She’s repugnant. I’m merely calling her out.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net and SkewedNews.net, is the author of “Snowden,” about the NSA whistleblower. His new book “Bernie” about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, is now available for pre-order. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

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10 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Liberal Democrats and the Depersonalization of Evil

  1. Being nice to evil people is not a virtue. The problem with most liberals is that they would prefer their idea of a “polite” society over an honest and just society. Fortunately, Ted is not one of them.

    Indeed, the elite should be expected to *act elite.* There might be nothing I despise more than abuse of power. It is a betrayal of the trust of the governed.

    Mercy is the denial of justice. It is only ever asked for and given to the guilty. In contradistinction, sparing an innocent, deserving person isn’t mercy. It is justice.

  2. Hey, Ted – I expect a cartoon to be a caricature. It doesn’t do any good to try to make an important point by being wishy-washy, exaggeration gets the point across much more readily. (and fun!)

    Also, righties tend to be authoritarians, and authoritarians hate to be made fun of. So that’s a win in its own right.

    I find your editorials to be less exaggerationalish (if that’s not a real word, it should be), even if they are usually rabidly one-sided. That’s still a good thing, making your point in no uncertain terms. And of course, that’s what an editorial is *for* – to express opinions over and above mere facts.

    I find your factual reporting (e.g books on Afghanistan) to be much more balanced – as they should be, you’re telling the truth rather than proselytizing. .

    All-in-all, I think your work is effective and relevant. Keep it up!

    CH

  3. Perspective.

    In our society the perspective of, for, and by the rich has become the de facto standard (i.e. most TV shows portray the rich, even though there are increasingly exceptions). This is why shows like West Wing frequently make me cringe: they show the self-image of politicians and bureaucrats as reality, as people who are just like you, trying to do good faced with difficult circumstances, the sort of people you’d like to have a beer with…

    So I think a good case – artistically and politically – can be made that the perspective of – well, everyone else really – should be explored openly. The super-rich and their lackeys in the halls of power certainly come across exactly like the caricatures Ted has been creating. This is how these people would look like if their characters were actually in line with the effects they have on the rest of society. If and when Ted and others like him become a dominant force in society and get millions of readers, then it could be argued that they have some responsibility to let other perspectives shine through. Until then all is fair in love and war.

    Of course the horrible truth is that (most of) the rich and powerful are nothing like Austin Power supervillain caricatures, but still end up creating quite comparable results. I had a long conversation once at Occupy Washington with a black gentleman (an occupier, not a visitor) who was convinced that the current crop of CEOs is crooked and things will improve if we can get decent CEOs in instead. As a European, the emphasis on the individual rather than the systemic level never ceases to astound me.

    • Thanks, Andrea.

      I met with Occupiers in Iowa City, and caused great discomfort among them in pointing out that Obama was the great savior of Wall Street, and was heavily financed by big money. This is a matter of great consternation for those who believe that the solution to all problems lies with elections.

      Or as I have come to describe elections: Counting Sheep

      Americans don’t know who they are, and so are always looking toward some authority for comfort and validation. It’s no wonder Ted would be criticized for calling attention to the clay feet of the otherwise worshiped.

      • good on you 😉

        Whenever people disparage Occupy, especially to state that nothing came of it, my first reply is that especially in the U.S. what used to be called “class consciousness” somehow got unlearned along the way and the discussion in and around Occupy really jumpstarted relearning it an a current form.

        (One of the other points was the inclusion of people with declared serious mental illnesses, which may have made the movement less effective in the short term but really was a big step towards practicing how to live together outside of pre-screened, segregated groups.)

        I think you do have a point with the need for external validation… this was one of my biggest disconnects when moving to Canada, to have the image of the North American with a house, backyard, and personal lawnmower standing tall and critical of government side by side with the small, buckling, yes-sayer who does what they are told and don’t really have any control of their lives beyond the walls of their house (owned by some bank or another). It was especially weird since I’m strongly behind some of the government edicts such as “stop smoking” and “recycle garbage in complex ways”, so isn’t all bad, I just wasn’t used to people doing what they are told…

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    • Andrea – Ted often portrays Occupy as a failure. I disagree – even though they were underrepresented and misunderstood in the media, they did change our discussion. Today “1%er” is a common term.

      I never expected them to change the world, but they did nudge it a ways in the right direction.

  4. I sympathize with the letter writer. For a long time, I also accepted standard liberal orthodoxy without question, and part of that was being “nice.” I am probably still too conflict-averse, but I am grateful for writers and artists such as yourself who I used to dismiss as “unserious” or “extreme.” It took a while, but I came to realize that only in a society filled with propaganda would those who speak, write, or draw the truth be seen as extremists. Thank you for your good work.

    • The way I see it the unserious people are the political commentators afraid of rocking the boat by taking a strong stand on anything. That’s supposed to be their profession. And what’s extreme is their apparent belief that truth can be divined apparently by the average of whatever beliefs of whatever people of whatever time period. To them middle ground is sacred ground.

      Evil people deserve far worse than mean words. And we shall know them by their actions.

  5. You’re not repugnant, Ted.

    I spoke of thoughts of bringing an enema and a food grinder to the family Christmas diner the year before last so I could share my diner with the Christian warriors present by taking a rectal feeding in solidarity with US torture victims.

    I didn’t actually do it but only talked about how it would be proper to do so.

    That’s my sense of humor.

    That’s repugnant.

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