To most reasonably intelligent readers, the incredibly sloppy writing and transparently inconsistent logic of Matthew Phelan’s critique of editorial cartooning render his opinions unworthy of serious attention. But this is the Internet, where most readers are neither reasonable nor intelligent. So some effort at restoring balance to the universe is called for.
First Phelan goes after Steve Sack, cartoonist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year. As I wrote at the time, “Sack has been around a long time, is a nice, unassuming guy who is personally popular among the older generation of “mainstream” editorial cartoonists, so his win has been largely greeted as long overdue, sort of a lifetime achievement award as these things often are, a recognition of the fact that unlike many other political cartoonists who slavishly copied the artistic style of deceased Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, Steve developed his own drawing style.”
What Phelan appears to be trying to say, and if he is I agree with him, is that Sack’s cartoons are bland. And that bland shouldn’t win the biggest prize in journalism. To be honest, I think the Pulitzer Committee embarrassed itself with their selection. If he’d won at the peak of his career, about 15 years ago, there would have been fewer WTFs. As it is…well.
Sadly, Phelan resorts to rhetorical devices that are stupid and sleazy.
For example, Phelan points to a Sack cartoon from the build-up to war against Iraq that supports Bush’s pro-war position by depicting Saddam as a liar about WMDs. Obviously, Sack was wrong to believe Bush. So were most of my colleagues. And look, I fucking hate that cartoon. Along with most mainstream cartoonists, Sack has blood on his hands because his cartoon helped contribute to the political shift from “let’s not invade” to “no, let’s.”
But it’s a cheap shot. Peruse the archives of any cartoonist or political commentator and you’ll find stuff that makes them look bad — stuff they wish they could take back. Expecting a humorist to bat 1.000 is asking way too much.
Still, I don’t have too much trouble with his conclusion: “That, in brief, is the problem with Steve Sack,” says Phelan: “Like an antique weathervane, Sack’s cartooning is quaint, inoffensive, and deeply American — and more-or-less an adequate indicator of which way the wind is blowing.” This is true, of course, of the work of 90% of American editorial cartoonists.
Then he turns on your humble narrator.
He begins by calling me “Ted ‘Theodore’ Rall.” Yes. Ted is usually short for Theodore. This made me flashback to George L. Ernst Elementary School, where my dimmer classmates would rhyme: “Red Ted lies dead in bed.” Then they’d stare at me, wondering why I was neither impressed nor offended. I assume Wonkette doesn’t have editors or paid staff; otherwise, who signed off on this?
At this point, I should apologize for burying the lede. But here, we’re getting to it now.
Phelan calls my cartoon showcasing quotes from former USAF drone operator Heather Linebaugh “a nasty, sanctimonious piece of business.” Well, OK. Opinions are like assholes, etc.
Here’s the thing, Mr. Phelan: cartoons can be bland, or they can be hard-hitting. Edgy work may make some people uncomfortable. It may even offend them. In other words, you can’t reasonably attack Sack for being too bland in the same essay in which you criticize me for being too not-bland. Well, you can, but then, someone will write something like this, pointing out that you have written something stupid.
When done right — and most cartoonists don’t even try to do it right anymore — political cartooning is a blood sport. It’s ball-grabbing, throat-crushing, bile-inducing. Like some Chinese guy said about revolution, it is not polite, it is not a dinner party. A good political cartoon — or a cartoon that has a chance of being considered good — takes no prisoners, pulls no punches, and is perfectly willing to be nasty and sanctimonious in the service of an important cause (e.g., trying to convince Americans to end the drone murders).
Damned fucking right I’m sanctimonious.