Tag Archives: cartooning

Jihadi Art Critics Circle

Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip "Doonesbury," gave an acceptance speech for a Polk journalism award at which he criticized the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for creating work that was insensitive to Islam, crossed the line, and thus brought a "world of pain" upon France.

Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip “Doonesbury,” gave an acceptance speech for a Polk journalism award at which he criticized the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for creating work that was insensitive to Islam, crossed the line, and thus brought a “world of pain” upon France.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Joy of Hopelessness

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Desire, the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti taught, causes suffering.

I managed to make it half a century, and thus likely through more than halfway to death (which Arthur Schopenhauer teaches us, is the goal of life), not only by failing to internalize the belief that optimism breeds disappointment, but by passionately refusing to believe it. Without desire, I fervently believed, there is no motivation and thus no accomplishment.

Without ambition, how does one succeed in one’s work or find the love of one’s life? I know people who don’t want anything. They’re called potheads.

But I’ve changed my mind. The stoners may be on to something.

Give up hope — and you might find happiness. I did!

As I’ve read and heard often occurs with spiritual journeys, I arrived at my epiphany as the result of an unexpected accident.

Like other cartoonists, I apply for the Pulitzer Prize, America’s most prestigious journalism award, every January.

I hate it. Yet I do it.

I hate it because it’s a lot of work, the odds are long, and the choice of the winner is usually — to be diplomatic — baffling. Out of the 20-ish times I’ve entered, spending a full day or two each year printing out and pasting up cartoons and clips into a binder (and in the computer age, formatting and uploading them), not to mention 20-ish $50 application fees, all I have to show for my efforts is one finalistship. Back in 1996.

To datestamp this story: the letter was typed. As in: on a typewriter.

Like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football, I apply for the Big P under the old New York Lotto dictum that you have to be in it to win it. What if the year I don’t enter is the year that I would have won?

Contest Judge #1 to other Judges: So that’s all the entries in the cartooning category.

Judge #2: Wait a minute. Where’s Ted Rall?

Judge #1: He didn’t apply.

Judge #2: WTF?

Judge #3: I specifically came here to give Ted Rall his long-overdue award!

Judge #1: Me too. I doublechecked. Tragically for journalism, he did not enter.

Judge #4: Can we call him?

Judge #1: That would be against the solemn Rules. We must choose from the other entries.

Judges #2-#4 commit suicide in interesting ways.

The deadline used to be January 30th, so I thought it still was, but they changed it a few years ago to the 25th God knows why. I blew the deadline.

As though carried off by a drone labeled “Short-Sighted Defense Policy,” a metaphorical weight bigger than a crosshatched albatross labeled “National Debt” lifted from my shoulders.

I didn’t enter. So I would not, could not, win.

Which meant I couldn’t be passed up in favor of someone else. To be precise, I couldn’t lose to someone I didn’t think was as good as me.

What a relief!

I really really really don’t mind losing to someone good. When someone good has won, I have been happy for the winner. I did not grit my teeth. I congratulated them, and meant it, and resolved to do better next year.

The problem is, the winner of the Pulitzer is usually very not good. Not as good as me. Not pretty good. Not even as good as average.

Losing to someone whose work I don’t respect hurts because it means either (a) the sucky winner is better than me, so therefore I suck even more, or (b) the Pulitzers are judged by dolts, so I must be an idiot to submit to the process, much less care about the results. I strongly suspect (b), though (a) could be true.

From late January, when I realized that I couldn’t enter, to early April, when they announced the results, I felt lighter on my feet. When my colleagues called to handicap the prize, my usual toxic mix of ambition, dread and fear of disappointment was replaced by the carelessness of knowing that I had no dog in the race and that whatever happened wouldn’t be a reflection upon me. So what if someone bad won? The judges never saw my stuff. So I wouldn’t have to spend weeks and months wondering how it was possible that anyone could look at the cartoons by the terrible winner next to mine and choose him instead of me.

I should confess that other cartoonists, no doubt smarter than me, arrived at this wisdom when they were younger. One, 10 years my junior, casually remarked that she gave herself a mini Pulitzer Prize every year by not entering: $50 a year adds up. Not to mention the time she saved compiling entries.

Last year’s winner turned out to be someone whose cartoons couldn’t possibly be any different than mine. Ditto for the finalists. Given who they chose, the judges weren’t interested in the genre of cartooning I do, so I would never have stood a chance.

Not entering was the right move. Or non-move.

This year, however, I remembered the deadline. To enter or not to enter? I entered.

Now I wish I hadn’t.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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Special to The Los Angeles Times: Political Cartooning is Almost Worth Dying For

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Originally published by The Los Angeles Times:

An event like yesterday’s slaughter of at least 10 staff members, including four political cartoonists, and two policemen, at the office of Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, elicits so many responses that it’s hard to sort them out.

If you have a personal connection, that comes first.

I do.

I met a group of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, including one of the victims, a few years ago at the annual cartoon Festival in Angoulême, France, the biggest gathering of cartoonists and their fans in the world. They had sought me out, partly as fans of my work – for whatever reason, my stuff seems to travel well overseas – and because I was an American cartoonist who speaks French. We did what cartoonists do: we got drunk, complained about our editors, exchanged trade secrets including pay rates.

If I lived in France, that’s where I’d want to work.

My French counterparts struck me as more self-confident and cockier than the average cartoonist. Unlike at the older, venerable Le Canard Enchainée, cartoons are the centerpiece of Charlie Hebdo, not prose. The paper has suffered financial troubles over the years, yet somehow the French continued to keep it afloat because they love comics.

Here’s how much France values graphic satire:

  • More full-time staff political cartoonists were killed in Paris yesterday than are employed at newspapers in the states of California, Texas and New York combined.
  • More full-time staff cartoonists were killed in Paris yesterday than work at all American magazines and websites combined.

            The Charlie Hebdo artists knew they were working at a place that not only allows them to push the envelope, but encourages it. Hell, they didn’t even tone things down after their office got bombed.

They weren’t paid much, but they were having fun. The last time that I met print journalists as punk rock as those guys, they were at the old Spy magazine.

They would definitely want that attitude to outlive them.

Next comes the “there but for the grace of God” reaction.

Every political cartoonist receives threats. After 9/11 especially, people promised to blow me up with a bomb, slit the throats of every member of my family, rape me, and deprive me of a livelihood by organizing sketchy boycott campaigns. (That last one almost worked.)

The most chilling came from a New York police officer, a sergeant, who was so careless and/or unconcerned about getting in trouble that his caller ID popped up.

Who was I going to call to complain? The cops?

As far as I know, no editorial cartoonist has been murdered in response to the content of his or her work in the United States, but there’s a first time for everything. Political cartoonists have been killed and brutally beaten in other countries. Here in the United States, the murder of an outspoken radio talkshow host reminds us that political murder isn’t something that only takes place somewhere else.

Every political cartoonist takes a risk to exercise freedom expression.

We know that our work, strident and opinionated, makes a lot of people very angry, and that we live in a country where a lot of people have a lot of guns. Whether you work in a newspaper office guarded by a minimum wage security guard or, as is increasingly the norm, in your own home, you are always one pull of a trigger away from death when you hit “send” to fire off your cartoon to your syndicate, blog or publication.

Which brings me to my big-picture reaction to yesterday’s horror:

Cartoons are incredibly powerful.

Not to denigrate writing (especially since I do a lot of it myself), but cartoons elicit far more response from readers, both positive and negative, than prose. Websites that run cartoons, especially political cartoons, are consistently amazed at how much more traffic they generate than words. I have twice been fired by newspapers because my cartoons were too widely read — editors worried that they were overshadowing their other content.

Scholars and analysts of the form have tried to articulate exactly what it is about comics that make them so effective at drawing an emotional response, but I think it’s the fact that such a deceptively simple art form can pack such a wallop. Particularly in the political cartoon format, nothing more than workaday artistic chops and a few snide sentences can be enough to cause a reader to question his long-held political beliefs, national loyalties, even his faith in God.

That drives some people nuts.

Think of the rage behind the gunmen who invaded Charlie Hebdo’s office yesterday, and that of the men who ordered them to do so. It’s too early to say for sure, but it’s a fair guess that they were radical Islamists. I’d like to ask them: how weak is your faith, how lame a Muslim must you be, to allow yourself to be reduced to the murder of innocents, over ink on paper colorized in Photoshop? In a sense, they were victims of cartoon derangement syndrome, the same affliction that led to the burning of embassies over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the repeated outrage over The New Yorker’s insipid yet controversial covers, and that NYPD sergeant in Brooklyn who called me after he read my cartoon criticizing the invasion of Iraq.

Political cartooning in the United States gets no respect. I was thinking about that this morning when I heard NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley call Charlie Hebdo “gross” and “in poor taste.” (I should certainly hope so! If it’s in good taste, it ain’t funny.) It was a hell of a thing to say, not to mention not true, while the bodies of dead journalists were still warm. But these were cartoonists, and therefore unworthy of the same level of decorum that a similar event at, say, The Onion – which mainly runs words – would merit.

But no matter. Political cartooning may not pay well, or often at all, and media elites can ignore it all they want. (Hey book critics: graphic novels exist!) But it matters.

Almost enough to die for.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: The New Yorker is Bad for Cartooning

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When you tell people you’re a cartoonist, one of the first things they ask you is whether you’ve ever had a cartoon published in The New Yorker. I don’t blame them. Everyone “knows” that running in the same pages that showcase(d) Addams and Chast proves you’re one of the best.

The marketing hype behind New Yorker cartoonist and cartoon editor Bob Mankoff’s new memoir — featuring something I really am jealous about, a “60 Minutes” interview — further cements the magazine’s reputation as cartooning’s Olympus.

“For nearly 90 years, the place to go for sophisticated, often cutting-edge humor has been The New Yorker magazine,” says Morley Safer.

As is often the case, what everyone knows is not true.

Here’s a challenge I frequently give to New Yorker cartoon proponents. Choose any issue. Read through the cartoons. How many are really good? You’ll be surprised at how few you find. But don’t feel bad. Like the idea that the U.S. is a force for good in the world, and the assumption that SNL was ever funny, the “New Yorker­ ­cartoons are sophisticated and smart” meme has been around so long that no one questions it.

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From the psychiatrist’s couch to the sexless couple’s living room to the junior executive’s summons of his secretary via intercom, New Yorker cartoons are consistently bland, militantly middlebrow, and mind-numbingly repetitive decade after decade.

Which is fine.

What is not fine is not seeing fluff for the crap that it is.

The New Yorker is terrible for cartooning because it prints a lot of awful cartoons, and uses its reputation in order to elevate terrible work as the profession’s platinum standard.

They pay pretty well. Which prompts too many talented artists, who under a better economic and media model would produce interesting, intelligent, great cartoons (and did so, in the alternative weekly newspapers of the 1990s, for example), to pull their satiric punches and stifle their creativity. Of course, not every cartoonist follows the siren call to Mankoff’s office in the Condé Nast building. It is possible to make a living selling cartoons to other venues. I do. Still, the New Yorker casts a long shadow, silently asking a question one fears is heard by art directors everywhere: If you’re so smart and so funny and so talented, why aren’t you in The New Yorker?

Mankoff and his predecessors have created a bizarro meritocracy in reverse: bad is not merely good-enough, but the crème-de-la-crème. It’s like singling out the slowest runners in a race and awarding them prizes and endorsements. Some runners, devoted to excellence and the love of competition, will keep running as fast as they can. But fans will wonder why they don’t wise up.

What makes a cartoon good/funny? Originality, relevance, insight, audacity and random weirdness. (There are other factors, which I’ll remember after a minute after it’s too late.)

Originality in both substance and form, and in both writing and drawing, is the most important component of a great cartoon. It is rare to find. Cartooning is a highly incestuous art form; most practitioners slavishly copy or synthesize the work of their forebears. Editors and award committees (composed of editors) have short memories and no historical knowledge, which feeds lazy cartoonists’ temptation to present initially brilliant, but now hackneyed and recycled, ideas as their own. Other cartoonists’ punch lines, structural constructions, even their drawing styles, are routinely stolen wholesale; alas, media gatekeepers never have a clue. All too often, the plagiarists collect plaudits while the victims of their grand larceny of intellectual property die sad and alone.

Well, maybe not sad or alone. But annoyed over beer.

            Give The New Yorker its due: since it reacts to trends and news in politics and culture, the magazine’s funniest cartoons can be relevant. Sadly, their single-panel gags say less than Jerry Seinfeld’s jokes about nothing. At best, name-checking Lady Gaga or hat-tipping Instagram elicits a knowing ha ha, they read the same stuff I do (i.e. The New York Times).

Mankoff’s book takes its title from the line of perhaps his greatest hit: “How about never — is never good for you?” This is an “nth degree” concept. What happens if the back-and-forth busy people often experience when they’re trying to set a rendezvous achieves its ultimate, most extreme conclusion? It also showcases anxiety and insecurity among the aspirational bourgeoisie, the not-so-secret sauce of New Yorker humor, for nearly a century. But what does Mankoff’s cartoon say? What does it mean?

A cartoon doesn’t have to be political to matter. “The Far Side” wasn’t political, but most of Larsen’s work reveals something about human nature to which we hadn’t previously given much thought. To be funny, a cartoon must rise above it’s-funny-cuz-it’s-true tautology. Mankoff’s “never” toon does not. Nor does the magazine’s famous “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” piece, drawn by Peter Steiner in 1993 (though Matt Petronzio’s post-Snowden update does).

If you can credibly reply “so what?” to a cartoon, odds are it’s not worth your time.

A great cartoon is funny because it’s dangerous.

A 19th century relic of the degrading “shape ups” depicted in the film “The Bicycle Thief,” The New Yorker‘s submission policy is a system — intentional or not, no one knows — that filters out originality and rewards a schlocky “throw a lot of shit at the wall and see if anything sticks” approach to cartooning. Every Wednesday morning, Mankoff holds court, looking over submissions of cartoonists who must present themselves in person rather than, say, email or fax their work. Because submissions must be fully drawn and the odds of acceptance increase with the number of cartoons presented, New Yorker artists deploy dashed-off, sketchy drawing styles that haven’t changed much since the 1930s.

Editors at other publications work with professional cartoonists they trust to consistently deliver high-quality cartoons, and help them hone one or two rough sketches to a bright sheen. The results are almost always better than anything that runs in The New Yorker — yet “60 Minutes” doesn’t notice.

“How much do the cartoonists make? Editor [David] Remnick will only say: nobody’s becoming a millionaire,” Safer says in the “60 Minutes” piece.

Well, Mankoff did. But that’s another story for another time.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Psst. The Pulitzers are BS.

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The winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes in journalism will be announced in a couple of months. I will not be one of them; I forgot to enter this year.

You read that correctly. Anyone can enter. All you need is fifty bucks, some clips and a dream. And good credit (no checks accepted). Remember that the next time you hear someone touted as a “Pulitzer Prize nominee.”

I’ve won awards. I’ve judged them. I’ve heard behind-the-scenes stories of how the winners are chosen.

I’ve concluded that the gap between public perception — that these prizes are meaningful, that they reward the year’s best work — and sordid reality — the selection process makes no sense and is corrupt to boot — is huge.

If people knew the truth, they’d be shocked. So here’s the truth.

Judges brazenly allow their political biases and personal connections (or grudges) guide their supposed-to-be objective decision-making. Their taste runs boringly middlebrow. No shock there.

What does come as a surprise to most people is the system. The judging processes for other contests are flawed too, but I’m focusing on the Pulitzer because, as the most prestigious award in the field, it is the one that most Americans have heard of and to which journalists are most likely to apply. (My rule is, don’t apply to awards that are less famous than I am.)

Winning a Pulitzer is good for careers. It can score you a raise, land a book deal, protect you from a round of layoffs and, at bare minimum, earn you ohs of respect when you’re introduced at a party.

Who wins the Pulitzer matters to American society. It directly impacts the evolution of journalism. For example, my fellow editorial cartoonists mimic the drawing styles, structural approaches and even the politics of previous winners in hope of someday winning a Prize themselves. Each announcement of a winner sends a message. Most years, corporate journalism establishment wants safe and middle-of-the-road — and what wins the Big P is what editors and producers consider safe. Some years, innovation is rewarded. The Pulitzer signals that one kind of daring may be OK, while others are too outré to be taken seriously, much less employable.

Given the Pulitzer’s impact, you’d think that Columbia University’s journalism school would award it thoughtfully, creating a set of criteria and judging mechanisms designed to reward the highest-quality news photographers, playwrights, editorial writers and so on in the United States.

You’d think.

Most people believe that the Pulitzer for cartooning, for example, goes to the best cartoonist of the year. The truth is complicated, almost byzantine. Actually, it goes to the best portfolio of 20 cartoons drawn by a cartoonist the previous year. Which the cartoonist selects himself.

A typical political cartoonist draws about 200 cartoons a year. Which means that the committee that judges political cartoons never sees 90% of any artist’s work. (Or, for that matter, that of cartoonists who don’t enter.) After particularly egregious winners are announced, a common refrain of jurors called to explain themselves is: “Hey, he had a great portfolio.” This, by the way, is rarely true.

Anyway, it is for the best that the judges only look at a tiny slice of U.S. political cartooning, since most Pulitzer jurors are completely ignorant of the field.

Each prize category — biography, fiction, cartooning, whatever — is judged by a committee. Until recently, the cartooning committee was comprised completely of editors and editorial page editors, some of whom didn’t run cartoons in their newspapers.  Others worked in other fields, like photo editors. Some admitted to their fellow panelists they’d never seen an editorial cartoon. None had the obsessive, comprehensive knowledge of American political cartooning you’d want or expect. Most jurors were ignorant of entire genres of cartooning. (One year, not long ago, a juror insisted that entries by alternative weekly cartoonists —Tom Tomorrow, Ward Sutton, Ruben Bolling, me — be set aside, and not considered, because she didn’t think our genre, which she’d never seen before, were political cartoons at all.) Because they hadn’t read many cartoons, they had no way to tell if an entry was original or hackneyed.

The committee selects three finalists. These are sent to the main Pulitzer Prize committee, which chooses the winner among the three finalists. Well, they can — they can opt not to award a category prize at all (this happened in fiction a few years ago) or to ignore the category committee’s recommendations and pull the winner out of thin air (that happened the year I was a finalist and yes, I took it personally).

In recent years, the cartooning committee has included one or two actual people who actually knew something about cartooning — an academic and/or previous Pulitzer winner. But most committee jurors are still drawn out of the never-seen-that-before pool.

Columbia tells committee members to choose finalists everyone can agree with. Unless someone throws a hissy fit — which they almost never do —  the result is a trio of compromise finalists. These choices are negotiated between one or two people who know what they’re talking about, and two or three who don’t.

Lowest common denominator wins.

The winner is selected by the very establishment, very old, very staid Pulitzer Board. Though it is possible that the classical philosopher, the rural South Dakota newspaper publisher, and the New Yorker writer who sit on the board are voracious consumers of the 60 or so political cartoons produced daily by the nation’s graphic satirists, it is far more likely that the opposite is true, and that they will be casting ballots in an important election between candidates they know nothing about.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: How to Deal with a Media Pile-On

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Tips for Targets of Online Hatefests

Over the holiday weekend I found myself in a uncomfortable yet not entirely unfamiliar place. I was the target of the online equivalent of the Two Minute Hate in Orwell’s “1984.”

The subject: the way I draw President Obama. Which I’ve been doing since 2009. But this column is not about that. It’s about a few things I’ve learned about how online witch hunts and mob mentality have evolved in recent years.

Like other cartoonists I’ve taken heat before, notably over my “terror widows” and Pat Tillman cartoons from 2002 and 2004, respectively. During the grim years following 9/11, bloggers on the far right of America’s political fringe repeatedly issued furious rants calling for me to censored, imprisoned, tortured, raped and/or assassinated. Well, hey, it’s nice to be noticed.

Ten years later, the anatomy of the Internet pile-on has changed, and it reveals some interesting changes in American political culture. The knee-jerk nationalism of the Bush years has given way to a form of political correctness on steroids under Obama, with identity politics running amok. Influenced by social networks, the comments sections of political discussion websites have adopted like/dislike ratings systems that amplify groupthink. In contrast to the 2000s, when right-wing haters threatened lefties’ lives more than their livelihoods, conservative Obama Democrats are more likely to censor you than to threaten to kill your family.

To be sure, the basic characteristics of TwoMinuteHate.com remain the same. Internet mob rule still relies on the power of suggestion; when people follow a link that urges Click Here to See a Terrible Horrible Witch, they’re more likely than not to see, well, a horrible witch.

I call this the Comedy Club Effect. 99.99% of stand-up comics aren’t funny. Yet most people laugh at most of their (bad) jokes. People who spend $30 plus a two-drink minimum are preconditioned to have a good time. Having a good time at a comedy club requires laughing. So the audience laughs.

The mandatory drinks help.

After I was introduced as “America’s funniest cartoonist” at a talk in Chicago I apologized — in a straight-ahead, not even trying to joke way, for being late, explaining that I’d gotten stuck in traffic from O’Hare. Everyone laughed.

The corollary of the Comedy Club Effect is that when people are preconditioned to hate, they tend to hate well and often. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen experienced this when his “what if I were a bigot” musings (“people with conventional views must repress a gag reflex“) about New York Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s biracial family drew calls for his firing and unsubstantiated assertions that these were really Cohen’s thoughts. It was the exact 180-degree opposite of fair: If anything, white conservatives “with conventional views,” rather than progressives, should have been angry at Cohen for attributing bigotry that the conventional types hadn’t expressed.

Like other targets of media pile-ons, I find it hard to accept that angry people who are yelling at you are open to nothing you have to say. Explanations don’t help. Apologies don’t stop them. They just want to yell at you. Anything you say can and will be used, distorted and twisted against you in the court of Twitter.

If you’re smart, you’ll duck and cover, leaving your allies and fellow travelers to run interference for you and defend your cyberhonor. But your defenders won’t get far. Dissenting voices get shouted down too. Anything they say will be similarly twisted and they’ll be accused of being your toadies and shills. In the end, they’ll get ground down by endless demands to repeat themselves until they finally fade away, leaving the field to your attackers’ hundreds of comments, all of which will remain forever Google-able to your future might-have-been employers.

There’s no way you can win. All you can do is conserve your energy until the mob moves on to burn down someone else’s house.

As always, commenters have strong opinions about, for example, cartoons they haven’t actually seen.

My latest imbroglio brought me into contact with such relatively recent additions to the PC canon as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining.” According to the Urban Dictionary, whitespaining is “the paternalistic lecture given by whites toward a person of color defining what should and shouldn’t be considered racist, while obliviously exhibiting their own racism” and mansplaining is “the tendency of some men to mistakenly believe that they automatically know more about any given topic than does a woman and who, consequently, proceed to explain to her — correctly or not — things that she already knows.”

A more lucid definition is for the suffix “‘splaining,” which Geek Feminism calls “a form of condescension in which a member of a privileged group explains something to a member of a marginalized group — most particularly, explains about their marginalization — as if the privileged person knows more about it.”

As a white male, in other words, I can imagine how irritating it would be to hear a white guy like me tell someone who isn’t white or male about their experience as a disadvantaged minority. But I can’t know how they feel.

Obviously, this is true. The trouble is that, on sites like Daily Kos, where the majority views are pro-Obama and pro-Democratic Party no matter what they do, the cries of “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are used to stifle not condescension, but disagreement.

Speaking about the controversy over the way I draw Obama, the founder of Daily Kos refused to weigh in with his opinion over whether or not I am racist. “Don’t be that white guy telling African-Americans what is and isn’t racist,” sayeth Markos Moulitsas. 1300 comments or so later, someone finally asked: “If white guys have no right to voice an opinion about racism, I’m curious if minorities expect white guys to say anything at all about racism (except for racist statement, of course)? After all, if your opinions simply aren’t welcome, can you really expect people to engage in a debate?”

Daily Kos is one of many sites that have adopted Facebook-style like/dislike rating systems. Viewers may click “recommend (+)” or “hide (-)” on blog entries as well as individual comments. Items with more thumbs up add to a poster’s digital “mojo” on the site. Items with more thumbs down get hidden from view and subtract from mojo. Run out of mojo and you can’t post anymore. You are unpersoned, like in “1984.”

The link aggregator Reddit demonstrates the problem with this system. Post cute kittens and your ratings soar. Post anything controversial — say, something about Edward Snowden — and the hates will more than cancel out the likes. Reddit is a place where anything less than totally insipid goes to die. I assume they like it that way.

At Kos they call this “community moderation.” It sounds democratic. In practice, the Rec/Hide system is toxic, stifling and distracting, prompting long threads of comments by people complaining about one another’s hides and recs, and threatening to get even for them. (What were we talking about again?) There are secret Facebook pages for various gangs of Kossacks, who swoop into certain posts to rec or hide them into glory or oblivion, as the case may be.

It sounds silly. It’s what happens when people have too much time on their hands.

But this manipulation of online political discussion has a real-world effect: it crushes anything that disagrees with the hive mind — a collective mentality that becomes more lockstep because of it — and it kills anything new or interesting. Worst of all, casual browsers could be forgiven that nothing new or interesting or taking issue with this mainstream/generic view (in the case of Kos, unquestioning support for Obama and the DNC) exists.

I posted a blog defending myself and explaining why I draw Obama the way I do to Kos. It received many recommendations and attracted hundreds of comments. Unfortunately, you can’t find it anymore. It was “hide rated” by pro-Obama Kossacks.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the Internet was supposed to turn out like this.

(Ted Rall’s website is rall.com. Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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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.

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