DMZ America Podcast #63: Student Loan Forgiveness, Quiet Quitting and Zelensky’s Big Lie

Joe Biden wants to forgive up to $20,000 per student loan borrower. Ted and Scott do a deep dive into who qualifies and why and why it’s weird, and Scott takes a stand against executive action rather than congressional debate in the situation. America’s favorite left-wing and right-wing political cartoonists discuss the phenomenon previously known as slacking, now known as “quiet quitting.” Finally, Ukrainian President Zelensky has been outed as a major liar to the Ukrainian people, some of whom are not pleased about it. In a democracy, or what passes for one, what if anything are the people entitled to know?

 

 

Trump’s Critics Are Even More Dangerous Than He Is

             Edward Luce of the Financial Times recently tweeted one of the most overheated sentences ever uttered in the world of politics: “I’ve covered extremism and violent ideologies around the world over my career. Have never come across a political force more nihilistic, dangerous & contemptible than today’s Republicans. Nothing close.” General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, added: “I agree.” These opinions, and the fact that they are quoted approvingly by Margaret Sullivan in her final column as a media writer for The Washington Post, indicate that Trump Derangement Syndrome is raging at a 106° fever pitch among Democratic elites.

            Luce’s remark is pure madness. No one will out-disdain me when it comes to the GOP but only a lunatic would argue they’re more “nihilistic, dangerous and contemptible” than the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan Hutu-led government of Théoneste Bagosora, Al Qaeda, ISIS or Saudi Arabia. It’s depressingly revealing to watch that someone who so clearly ought to and probably does know better like Sullivan, who earned praise for her courageous run as ombudsman at The New York Times, regurgitate such ahistorical nonsense and turn to a man like Hayden—who for years presided over the exquisitely illegal effort to collect and store every communication between every individual and organization on Earth—for his opinions on  democracy.

            (Disclosure: After some initially-promising email exchanges about the possibility that she and the Post might look into the Los Angeles Times’ decision to fire and smear me as a favor to the LAPD, Sullivan ghosted me.)

             There is nothing wrong with sounding the alarm about Donald Trump. But democratic institutions face a far bigger threat than the former and possibly future president: the argument, repeated incessantly across multiple platforms by boldfaced media and political personalities, that Trump is especially dangerous, that he lied/lies more than other politicians, that his politics are exceptionally extreme…that he is somehow unique.

            The standard argument that, as Post columnist Jennifer Rubin put it in her 2017 screed, that “[Trump] is Not a Normal President,” invites the American public to buy into three assumptions:

  • Other presidents and politicians tell fewer lies—a lot fewer—than Trump.
  • Nothing was fundamentally wrong with the United States or its political system before Trump came along.
  • Get rid of Trump and everything will be fine.

Certainly, Trump and his presidency were unusual in some respects. He’s the only man to have won the White House without having held political office or served in the military. He eschewed prepared speeches. His campaign ran on a shoestring budget without a national organization. He expressed the willingness to talk to enemies and adversaries without preconditions. He continued to hold campaign rallies during his presidency. But the media hype is a lie. In the ways that matter most in a presidency—policy and tone—Donald Trump was/is anything but anomalous.

      Yes, Trump refused to concede the 2020 election. George W. Bush refused to concede the 2000 election.

Trump’s goons resorted to violence to try to overturn an election. So did Bush’s.

Trump tried to steal an election. Bush succeeded.

Trump wallowed in racist dog whistles. So did Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Trump’s cabinet was full of underqualified nuts. So was Reagan’s and Bush’s.

      The first step is admitting that you have a problem. American democracy has big problems. But neither the media nor the political class nor the voters are willing to acknowledge them—so there’s no chance we’ll fix them.

      Not only are we in denial about the systematic flaws baked into our political system—two parties that conspire to keep smaller parties off the ballot, the inherently corrupting influence of capitalism on democracy, the electoral college and the revolving door between business, media and politics—we’re deluding ourselves into believing that Donald Trump is the problem.

      Trump isn’t the problem. He’s a symptom.

      The duopoly gave us Trump when the DNC kneecapped his strongest Democratic primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, in favor of Hillary Clinton. The cult of money convinced voters that his wealth qualified him for office. The electoral college gave him the White House even though he got fewer votes.

      Those who obsess over Trump are far more dangerous than he is. Trump is old and fat and, before long, will no longer be with us. The issues we’re ignoring while we’re distracted by Trump will afflict us for years to come.

      As will the idiots who won’t shut up about Trump.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.

DMZ America Podcast #62: Liz Cheney, Sarah Palin and the Midterms, Salman Rushdie and Personal Political Violence, Superhero Movies and the Cancellation of Bat Girl

Two of America’s top editorial cartoonists sit down to discuss the future of Republican firebrands Liz Cheney and Sarah Palin. Then they talk about the horrible knife attack on author Salman Rushdie and their own experiences with political violence aimed at them and other US political cartoonists. Finally the two get into how much they love/hate superhero movies, (can you guess which one holds which opinion?).

 

4 Lessons from Afghanistan

            One year ago, America lost yet another war. Afghanistan is right back where it was two decades ago, under control of the Taliban. The question is: what, if anything, have we learned?

            Make any mistake you like, but don’t make the same mistake twice—or four times. The U.S. committed the same errors of omission and commission in Vietnam, and then Iraq; our failure to draw intelligent conclusions from those conflicts and apply them going forward led us to squander thousands of more lives and billions of more dollars in Afghanistan. Here we go again: unless we learn from our decision to go to war against Afghanistan and then occupy it, we are doomed to our next debacle.

            Afghanistan Lesson #1: When politicians tell you that war is necessary and justified, always be skeptical.

            President George W. Bush told us that we had to invade Afghanistan in order to bring Osama bin Laden to justice for 9/11. Almost certainly false; the guy was probably in Pakistan. And if bin Laden was in Afghanistan, Bush could have instead accepted the Taliban’s repeated offers to extradite the accused terrorist. Bush argued the war was necessary to take out four training camps allegedly used by Al Qaeda. But Bill Clinton bombed six such camps using cruise missiles in 1998, no war required.

            Bush’s casus belli for Afghanistan made no more sense than his evidence-free weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the fictional Tonkin Gulf incident LBJ used to get us into Vietnam. It’s long overdue for American voters to download and install a sturdy BS detector about wars, particularly those on the other side of the planet.

            Lesson #2: Never install a puppet government.

            Of the countless mistakes the U.S. made in Vietnam, no single screwup led to more contempt for the United States than its sustained support for the deeply unpopular, brutal, autocratic president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Saddam Hussein looked positively brilliant in comparison to the exiled con man, Ahmed Chalabi, whom Bush tried to replace him with. Rather than allow Afghans at the post-invasion loya jirga council meeting to choose their own ruler, like the long-exiled king, the U.S. pulled strings behind the scenes by buying the votes of corrupt warlords in support of the dapper Hamid Karzai, who had little popular support. Three years later, even the establishment New Yorker conceded that “if American troops weren’t there, Karzai almost certainly wouldn’t be, either.”

            The U.S. propped up Karzai and his successor and close ally Ashraf Ghani for 17 more years.

            Lesson #3: Never try to exclude an entire political party or group from a nation’s political life.

            The Taliban’s base of power was the ethnic Pashtuns who comprised 40% of Afghanistan’s population. Yet the Taliban were not permitted to attend the loya jirga. They could not run in parliamentary elections under the U.S.-backed puppet government. Marginalized and “alienated from the central government, which they believe[d was] unfairly influenced by non-Pashtun leaders and interests,” in the words of a prescient 2009 Carnegie Endowment white paper, they had two options: stand down and shut up, or resort to guerilla warfare.

            The U.S. messed up the same way in Vietnam and Iraq. In U.S.-backed South Vietnam, communists and their nationalist allies were excluded from electoral politics. Iraq’s Sunnis, 32% of the nation, lost their leader when Saddam was overthrown by U.S. forces, got fired from the military and other jobs by Bush’s idiotic deBaathification policy and humiliated by America’s new darlings, Shia politicians and their factions—sparking a bloody civil war and leading to U.S. defeat.

            Lesson #4: Never be a sore loser.

            European powers that offered financial assistance and training to their former colonies after independence in places like Africa continued to enjoy influence within those countries. Examples include the UK’s relationship with India and France’s role in Mali, Senegal, the Central African Republic and even Algeria, which cast off the French yoke after an eight-year-long struggle famously characterized by torture and terrorism.

            The United States should try something similar when it loses its wars of aggression: lick its wounds, acknowledge its mistakes and offer to help clean up the messes it makes when it withdraws from a country strewn with mines and cluster bombs.

            It took 20 years before the U.S. reengaged with Vietnam after the fall of Saigon—two decades of squandered rapprochement and lost international trade. This occurred despite the precedent of World War II, in which U.S. occupation authorities worked to insinuate themselves with their defeated enemies Germany and Japan almost on day one, two relationships that paid off for all concerned.
            Its nose bloodied by its debacle in Iraq, the U.S. has allowed Iran to become the dominant outside power inside the country.

            And now the U.S. is doing the same thing in Afghanistan as in Iraq—nothing. Afghans are gaunt and hungry because of drought and the U.S. decision to cut off aid and frozen Afghan government funds. The economy is collapsing. The enormous U.S. embassy in Kabul is closed, making it impossible for Afghans to contact the U.S. government.

            All that investment of money and time, and who will get the more than $1 trillion in untapped natural resources, including copper, lithium, and rare-earth elements? China, most likely. If the U.S. could get over itself, it might salvage some influence over the new Taliban government in Kabul and open new markets. Let girls go to school and women work, President Biden could tell them, and we’ll release some funds. Arrest and hand over figures like the recently droned Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living in Kabul, and we’ll restore aid. Carry out more reforms and we’ll establish diplomatic ties.

Picking up your toys and going back to your house after losing a fight might feel good. But it’s immature and counterproductive in a world in which success depends on having friends and collaborators.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

DMZ America Podcast #61: Trump Under Fire. More Truth From Inside Russia. Does Democrats’ Good Week Matter?

Former President Donald Trump’s Florida home raided by the FBI as he prepares to be deposed by the New York attorney general’s office. Will Trump be able to survive, or even thrive, as a result of overreach that feeds into his supporters’ sense of eternal grievance? Cartoonists Ted Rall and Scott Stantis discuss the political ramifications. Ted downloads about his second week in Russia and how it bore zero resemblance to the picture of doom and gloom depicted by Western news media. Democrats got stuff done, finally. Does it matter? If so, how much?

 

In Actual Russia, No Sign of Sanctions

             It’s time to get real. It’s been time to get real. Russia has won its war against Ukraine.

            This outcome comes as no surprise. Anyone with access to a map could see that the chances of Ukraine prevailing against Russia were slim to none.

            The only way Ukraine could have emerged victorious—which would, according to the Ukrainians themselves, mean pushing it out of Crimea and deposing the separatist pro-Russian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk—would have been if the United States and its Western allies had been willing to launch nuclear weapons, which would have led to global annihilation. Once the decision was made not to start World War III, Ukraine’s defeat became inevitable. This, everyone sane knows, is for the best.

            Determinative to this conclusion was an unusual pair of motivations. Normally, when a war is fought on one country’s territory, the invaded country fights harder than the invading forces. Paradoxically, despite suffering damaged infrastructure, the invaded state enjoys the homefield advantages of complete knowledge of the battlefield and much shorter supply lines. Aside from sporadic cross-border missile strikes, this war has been fought entirely on Ukrainian territory.

This conflict is different because Russia has to win; it cannot walk away. Ukraine has a 1,200-mile border with Russia, it wants to join an anti-Russia military alliance and its government was openly hostile to Russia before the war. And when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, its armies came through Ukraine, where the Nazis were greeted as liberators. Unlike America, which could bring its troops home after losing on the other side of the world in Afghanistan and Iraq and shrug off its imperialist misadventures and could leave Vietnam after pretending that more political will on the home front would have resulted in victory, Russia sees its military operation as existential. Ukraine isn’t a misbegotten side project. It’s as essential in the same way the United States would respond to a Canada that turned hostile to the U.S.

            Unfortunately and dangerously, American media consumers are being pounded with an endless deluge of propaganda promoting the ludicrous idea that Ukraine is winning and/or will ultimately prevail militarily. This fantastical assertion props up political support for shipping $60 billion worth of weapons to Ukraine, with more on the way—never mind the 70% that Zelensky’s wildly corrupt government sells on the black market and the Javelin missile systems that wind up for sale on the dark web. (Christmas is coming! Don’t forget your favorite political cartoonist and columnist.) By way of comparison, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that we could abolish homelessness here for $20 billion.

            We’re also being told that Russia is crumbling under the crushing blow of vicious Western sanctions deployed as part of the White House’s openly-stated war aim that it wants “to see Russia weakened.” The Russian economy, it is said, is collapsing. Russian elites, they say, will soon overthrow President Vladimir Putin.

            Let me tell you firsthand: there is zero sign of economic distress in Russia.

            I’ve spent the last two weeks in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Russia’s two biggest cities. Stores are bustling, people are spending, unemployment is low and still falling, there are lines at ATMs and whatever else is happening, the economy is anything but bad. The Galeria Mall across the busy street from my hotel in Saint Petersburg has a few closed stores shut down by Western chains but the majority remain and consumers are shopping like mad. European and American tourists are few and far between, but it’s exactly the same here in sanctions-free Istanbul where I’m writing this. Westerners stopped coming at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown two years ago and still haven’t returned. If Russians are unhappy with Putin—and they’re not—it’s not because of the economy.

I know from bad economies; where I live in New York, crime is out of control, homeless people go untreated for an array of mental illnesses and some are killing people, and being killed, and many storefronts have been empty and boarded up since the beginning of the pandemic. Any New Yorker would or should happily trade places with their Muscovite counterpart, who lives in a city with clean streets and subways that don’t serve as rolling homeless shelters and where life feels as if COVID-19 was never a thing. News stories that claim Russia is on the ropes are a giant magnificent pile of lies so over-the-top that I can’t help but be impressed by their glorious audacity and easily-debunked mendacity. All you have to do is go to Russia, as I did, and see for yourself that it’s all bull—but hey, that’s a lot of trouble—because of sanctions that seem to be hurting us more than them.

            Self-delusion is more fun. Who, after all, should you trust? The same U.S. state media that told you Saddam had WMDs? Or some cartoonist-columnist who told you, well in advance, that the U.S. didn’t stand a chance in Afghanistan, Trump would win in 2016 and that he would attempt a coup d’état to remain in power?

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

DMZ America Podcast #60: Pelosi goes to Taiwan, Midterms, U.S.-led Assassinations, Monkey Pox and Ted Reports from Russia

This exclusive episode finds award-winning cartoonist Ted Rall Zooming in a report from St. Petersburg, Russia. He and Scott Stantis (not in Russia) discuss Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic trip to Taiwan. Which leads the lads to talk about the assassination of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Scott and Ted also discuss Monkey Pox and, last, Ted delivers a boots-on-the-ground report about life inside the Russian Federation under Western sanctions. Spoiler: it’s nothing like you think.

 

 

Greetings from Russia

            I’m interested in stories that go uncovered and undercovered. Fewer stories are less obscured today than life in Russia under Western sanctions. I’m especially interested in stories that are so imbued with spin and propaganda that the news media has abandoned all pretense of objectivity. That’s certainly true about the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

            I spent last week in Moscow to check things out for myself. Now I’m in Saint Petersburg. If you’ve never been to Russia, Moscow feels a bit like D.C.—streets and plazas on a scale hostile to pedestrians, impressive metro, intimidating government buildings raised by and for the political class. Saint Petersburg is more like New York, the country’s intellectual capital, steeped in history, sophisticated and hip rather than utilitarian and brutalist.

            Friends worried about my safety. Their concerns could not possibly have been more misplaced.

Some worried that I’d be detained like the WNBA player Brittney Griner, who got caught at a Moscow airport with vape cartridges containing cannabis residue yet is being portrayed as a political hostage of Vladimir Putin. I wish Griner the best and hope she doesn’t go to prison, but I don’t understand the assumption of Americans that they don’t have to obey the law when they visit a foreign country. Foreign prisons are full of Americans convicted on drug charges; American prisons host many foreign nationals. If you can’t conform to local legal norms, stay home.

I don’t vape or use cannabis so no worries there.

            But I was pulled out of the passport line upon arrival and pulled into a side office. A young man I think was an FSB officer questioned me about my occupation, education, travel itinerary, politics and my opinions about Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Unlike other Western travelers from “unfriendly” countries who report having been held for hours, the officer didn’t ask to look at my phone and sent me on my way after about 20 minutes. I assume that my experience was eased by the fact that one of my cartoon clients is Sputnik News.

I’ve been through this sort of thing before. No matter the country or its culture, intelligence agents assigned to border security are cut from the same cloth everywhere you go: young, intelligent, big smiles and a certain sinister charm. The Mossad grilled me for hours at Tel Aviv airport. Same treatment by an Iranian intel dude after entering overland from Afghanistan. Don’t lie to these guys. They’ll know.

            Yes, it’s legal to travel to Russia. You can still get a visa. You can still fly in, albeit not over Europe. I flew on a packed plane to Istanbul and connected to a Moscow-bound flight that detoured an extra hour or two by going around and to the west of Ukraine.

            The Russian economy, Americans have been told, is a wreck. If so, it’s the biggest secret in Russia. Storefronts are occupied, bustling with shoppers like it’s the week before Christmas. Gas prices are a reasonable $3 a gallon. Highways and city streets are choking with car traffic and pedestrians. Restaurants and bars are doing brisk business. New buildings are going up. Nowhere in the nation’s two most important cities does one find deranged armies of homeless people screaming at thin air and threatening people, streets blanketed with litter and shattered and boarded-up storefronts, as are blighting New York. There was an hour-long line—on a Tuesday—to enter the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

            To be sure, sanctions are affecting the tourism business. Hotel prices have fallen as a result. Restaurants in tourist areas have been impacted as well. Westerners stopped coming when COVID began two years ago; this feels like an extension of that. So it’s not a shock.

            Some Western businesses, like McDonald’s and Starbucks, have closed. Who cares, except the Russian workers who got laid off? Burger King is everywhere. As in Rome or Paris, you can score a much better cup of joe at a zillion cafes.

            Nothing has made as big an impression on businesses in Russia as Visa and Mastercard’s decision to stop honoring American- and European-issued debit and credit cards in Russia. Russian nationals can use their MIR debit and credit cards here, but not in the West. When Westerners come to Russia, we have to bring a stack of cash to pay for everything, including hotels. There is a sort of workaround; I have an account at one of the major U.S. banks that still has branches here and so have been able to withdraw cash via ATM. Suze Orman would love the inability to go on a credit-card bender.

            Signs of war are few and far between: the “Z” logo on some metro posters, the occasional motorist with a patriotic flag on their car, sailors in port for Navy Day.

            Needless to say, the sanctions don’t affect Russian political or financial elites. All Biden and the EU are doing is making it harder for Americans and Europeans to visit Russia. This means we have no cultural impact whatsoever, no political influence. As we’ve been doing in Cuba and Iran for decades, we’re cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

            Google, or Google News at least, is supposedly blocked in Russia. Not true.

 

            Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, all officially blocked by the Russian government, actually come and go in some mysterious, haphazard way.

            My email is blocked.

            Russia allows a lot of Western media outlets, including those highly critical of Russia and its war in Ukraine, to broadcast inside the country. I watched pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian stories here on CNN International, CNBC and the BBC. Western news apps like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and the Associated Press work without a hitch. However, and oddly, my syndicate’s cartoon website GoComics is inaccessible in Russia.

            In the United States, on the other hand, the powers-that-be are blocking apps of the TV and radio broadcasters RT and Sputnik News, as well as their text journalism content. Both networks are banned in the EU. By this metric, Russia’s news media is freer than ours.

            Many of my friends worried that Russians would respond with rage and violence when they learned I was from the United States. I know from my travels that Americans’ inability to separate people from the politics of their country’s government is fairly unique and so shrugged them off.

But Russians’ reactions have surprised me. Outwardly glum and cold until they get to know you, they warm up with big bright smiles and express happy surprise that anyone from the United States still takes interest in Russia. Drinks are comped, good vibes all around.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

DMZ America Podcast #59 | July 29, 2022: Ted Calls in from Moscow; Paul Pringle and Other Self-Serving Figures at the LA Times

In this week’s DMZ America Podcast, cartoonist Ted Rall calls in on a shaky line from Russia. Listen to this first-hand account of how US sanctions are (not) affecting Moscow and how things look and feel in the Russian capital. LA Times investigative reporter Paul Pringle, in the news over his controversial book (“Bad City”) calling out corruption at the Times and in LA in general, and attacking his own newspaper over a USC scandal, played a key role—perhaps largely forgotten—in the LA Times’ infamous decision to fire and smear Ted as a favor to the LAPD. Scott and Ted recall how things went down in 2015 and analyze how few people at the LA Times have much to be proud of.

 

 

What Are Awards For?

           What are awards for? More precisely, what should they be for?

            John McWhorter recently argued in The New York Times in favor of a retroactive Pulitzer Prize for Duke Ellington, who was snubbed for the journalism and arts award in 1965. My encyclopedic ignorance about jazz entitles me to have no opinion whatsoever about this attempt at raising an issue.

            One sentence in McWhorter’s essay, however, deserves special attention: “We assume that Pulitzers are awarded to work that qualifies as for the ages, that pushes the envelope, that suggests not just cleverness but genius.

            Do we really assume that?

Should we?

When the Pulitzer board or governing body of other major prizes like the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys and so on decides upon the recipient of an award, what message is it trying to send?

            I agree with McWhorter. An award for best whatever of the year should first and foremost go to the best work in that category. A close-second consideration — my opinion, obviously — should favor work that is transformative, original, different. Judging by lists of previous prize winners, however, some people disagree…particularly those who decide the winners of these contests.

            While the media obsesses over awards and prizes handed out to its fellow elites, such competitions are part of life across every social strata, from elementary-school best-citizen awards to 4-H contests to merit badges to best employee of the month at a fast-food joint to your boss’ annual review. They determine whether or not you get a raise, sometimes whether you keep your job or get laid off, and even whether people are shocked or just shrug their shoulders after you kill yourself. Awards and prizes are key components of human motivation under capitalism, of which angling for higher relative social status is a primary driver, perhaps the top one.

            Like most of my fellow scribblers, I have spent too much of my time and energy handicapping — always unsuccessfully — award decisions for two simple reasons. First, winning one can really help your career. When I started out newspapers were reluctant to pick up my cartoons, which were drawn in a brutalist style at odds with the prevailing, crosshatched norm and ideologically far to the left of my colleagues. The establishment imprimatur of the 1995 RFK Journalism Award made enough editors feel safe to run my work that I was able to quit my day job. Second, we look to award announcements for indications of the kind of work that the powers that be are looking for from us. Conservative cartoonists, passed over in favor of liberals year after year, not unreasonably believe their work is neither valued nor wanted.

            As a judge on several award committees (not the Pulitzers) I have participated in numerous discussions about what criteria should be applied to assess the worthiness of prize applicants. I have also raptly absorbed countless secondhand accounts of the proceedings inside the hallowed halls of the Journalism Building at Columbia University, where the Pulitzers are administered.

            (Earlier this year, Columbia eliminated the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, merging it with a category so broad that the possibility that a political cartoonist could win has been reduced so radically that there’s no longer a point to entering.)

            My experiences as a judge convinced me that the all-too-human members of prize committees are incapable of rendering anything approximating a reasonable decision. Very few judges have the comprehensive knowledge of the field they are judging necessary to do the job. Almost none have any historical background that informs the relevance of what they are looking at. Most elevate superficial factors — it made me laugh, the art is pretty — over more serious concerns like: does it make you think? Does it make you think differently? Does it take the form in a new, exciting, better direction? Does this award encourage smarter work, or — as is too often the case — discourage it?

Seymour Topping, late administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, vetoed my elevation from finalist to winner on the grounds that “[Rall] doesn’t draw like the other editorial cartoonists.” The same year, one of the RFK judges told me I won because my drawing style was different. Both decisions were dumb.

So what are awards for? Mainly, they’re for reinforcing the status quo. For example, the common practice of having previous winners of a contest judge it ensures stylistic continuity.

Awards are a stupid idea poorly executed. People win prizes to make up for having been passed up in earlier years even though other, younger creators are now better than them. Corruption is rampant. Committees don’t bother to look at some entries. Committee members direct other members to vote for their friends and drinking buddies. Sometimes there is horse-trading in order to evenly distribute prizes to winners affiliated with different employers. Even worse than corruption is the utter lack of qualifications of those making the decisions; among the decisionmakers for the cartoon Pulitzer have been a freelance technology writer and editors for newspapers that don’t run any cartoons.

            Although I have won awards and still apply — you have to play the game — I would abolish them. Unlike sports like track and basketball, where the metrics are straightforward — you either cross the finish line first or the ball goes through the hoop, or not — journalism and the arts are subjective. I may disagree with the Motion Picture Academy’s choice of the now-forgotten “Ed Wood” over Tarantino’s Gen X masterpiece Pulp Fiction” and giving a Grammy to Milli Vanilli over fellow nominees Tone Lōc and the Indigo Girls. But it’s a fair bet that the voters who made those calls assess film and music, and who should win awards for it, via different metrics than I do. Even if it were possible to objectively determine what is “best,” elevating one person at the expense of an entire field is toxic and discouraging.

            But contests aren’t going anywhere. So we should try to agree on what it means when someone or something is declared the best of its kind.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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