I’ve been drawing Obama pretty much the same way since 2009. Interestingly, no one said boo until last week, when my usual cartoons about Obama’s lies — this one about his reneging on his pledge to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 2014 — hit a little too close to home for Daily Kos, a website run for the benefit of the Democratic Party.
A rabid subset of DNC Obamabots used Kos to spearhead a campaign smearing me as “racist” for drawing the president like a “monkey” or “gorilla” or “ape” or “simian.” Never mind that most people can’t see it because, after all, it isn’t true. They censored my cartoons anyway.
Fellow cartoonist Eric Millikin suggested that I find a drawing of how I actually draw monkeys so people could see for themselves that my Obama, though not pretty, is also no monkey.
This cartoon from 2009 is a riff on my MAD magazine comic strip Fantabulaman, which mocks the superhero format by positing a superhero who really does have no weaknesses — and is thus boring. MAD did an all-monkey issue, and this was my entry.
Note, the humans come off as less attractive than our simian cousins.
This should settle the matter once and for all — but I doubt it will. When haters wanna hate, they hate.
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.
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.
A Powerful Form of Journalistic Commentary Falls Victim to the Digital Dark Ages
This week I’m heading to Salt Lake City for an annual ritual that may soon come to an end: the annual convention of the nation’s top political cartoonists. This is bad news for my summers. It’s terrible for America, which is about to lose one of its most interesting art forms.
The AAEC convention is always a blast. Hundreds of intelligent, quick-witted and hilarious guys — sadly, it’s almost all men — talking politics, the media and culture, one-upping each other with one witticism after another, even during serious panel discussions and the you’d-think-it’d-be-deadly-dull business meeting. Partisan divisions fall away as drinks flow, gossip unfurls and jokes fly; one of my dearest friends is a conservative cartoonist.
Turns out, even the dumb editorial cartoonists are smart. The same men who crank out Uncle Sams and avenging eagles blasting feckless Talibs, cartoons choked with outdated labels and metaphors no one understands, turn out to be hilarious, funnier and a shitload smarter than the stand-up comics (hi, Louis C.K., hi Jon Stewart) we’re supposed to be worship these days. (Why the dumb cartoons? They say that’s what their editors want.)
Alas, editorial cartooning is dying in the United States. After decades of decline (punctuated by countless warnings), there are so few political cartoonists left that it’s hard to see how the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists can survive much longer. If the current trend continues, political cartoons — which are thriving in pretty much every other country on earth, helping to effect radical change in places like Syria, Iran and Spain — will disappear from the United States, which perfected the art form, at the peak of its golden age.
A hundred years ago, political cartoonists ruled the earth. Like dinosaurs. There were thousands of newspapers and thousands of cartoonists working at them. Bill Mauldin, Paul Conrad, Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant were stars, boldface names. As newspapers declined, cartooning jobs vanished. In 1990 there were about 280 professional political cartoonists left. By 2000, roughly 80. Now less than 30. Many states don’t have one.
The layoffs continue. The Bergen Record just laid off Jimmy Margulies. He won’t be coming to Salt Lake City.
It’s the same story with syndication. It costs a paper about $15 or $20 a week for three to five cartoons by an award-winning cartoonist, but even that’s too much for cash-strapped newspapers. They’ve slashed their syndication lists. (They say they’ll use the savings to hire local cartoonists — but never do.) Many papers are doing without cartoons entirely.
In a field where bad news is the new normal, the New York Times’ 2012 request to cartoonists to produce hundreds of pieces a week for free stood out. Enough, we said. We refused. So the Times told us to take a walk. No other change at the Times has prompted as many reader complaints — but editors don’t care.
We joke — what else would we do? — that we should, like World War I veterans, go in on a bottle of champagne to be opened by the last man standing. Demographically and actuarially, that will be Matt Bors. At age 29, Bors is the youngest professional political cartoonist in the U.S. Despite the long hours he puts in supplementing his syndication income as an editor, blogger and freelance illustrator, he earns $30,000 in a good year. “I feel honored to be the youngest band member on the Titanic,” Bors says.
No wonder no one else wants to get into the field.
One of this year’s convention speakers is Victor Navasky, the author of a new book about political cartooning. Its subtitle references the “enduring power” of political cartoons. Yet Navasky mostly ignores developments since the 1980s, when Jules Feiffer and Matt Groening (“Life in Hell”) sparked the “alternative editorial cartooning” movement that includes artists like Bors, Ruben Bolling, Tom Tomorrow, Jen Sorensen, Keith Knight, Stephanie McMillan and yours truly.
American editorial cartoons have never been this smart, funny or relevant. Yet the best and brightest cartoonists of our generation are being pushed out of work because they can no longer earn even a meager income. In recent years talented cartoonists including Lloyd Dangle (“Troubletown“), David Rees (“Get Your War On”), Mikhaela Reid (“The Boiling Point“) and Tim Krieder (“The Pain—When Will It End?“) have called it quits because they couldn’t pay their bills.
No jobs. No newspaper or magazine has hired a cartoonist from the new generation in more than 20 years.
Fewer opportunities. Fewer papers or magazines are running work by freelancers. Just last week, Time magazine quietly announced that it would no longer run cartoons. They’d been buying reprints for $20 each — a big change from 2001, when they were paying $800 to four artists, including me, for original content — but it was still too much.
Shrinking rates. The Village Voice, which gave Feiffer and Groening their starts, was famed for its cartoons. Groening got the Voice to pay $500 a cartoon in the 1980s. By the time I came on board in 1999, it was $100. Five years later, they slashed it to $50, take it or leave it. Now they don’t run comics at all. If I had a dime for every email I get from editors that start out “I’m a big fan of your work but I don’t have a budget for cartoons,” I’d be rich. Yet there’s always a budget for writers.
Censorship. It’s often what you don’t see that has the biggest effect. The cultural and political establishment has ruthlessly suppressed the new generation of cartoonists (I’d say young, but it’s been going on so long that some of these “new” cartoonists are over 50). You’d have to ask the gatekeepers why, but I suspect that our style (snottier, influenced by punk rock), politics (further left) and demographics (Gen X and Gen Y) are hard to relate to when you’re a Baby Boomer editor, producer, museum curator or book publisher. They don’t hate us; they don’t get us. So they don’t give us any play. (For example: Navasky’s book.) Which translates to less visibility and fewer dollars in our pockets.
There are bright spots. The liberal blog Daily Kos reposts edittoons. Nsfwcorp, a subscription-only print periodical, commissions original work, exclusive to them. But those are not nearly enough to sustain the medium.
Anyone who reads cartoons understands that they’re unique. Mixing words and pictures delivers commentary in a compelling, memorable way that prose — I say this a writer — can’t match. As editorial cartooning disappears, reformers lose an arrow in their quiver. Corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs get away with more.
The bloodbath in journalism in general and cartooning in particular is usually blamed on the Internet. Professional cartoonists work for newspapers and magazines; they’re forced to cut back as print display ad dollars are replaced by digital pennies. What revenues cartoonists can earn by selling directly to their readers — books, original drawings, merchandise — is getting sliced ever more thinly by online competitors: online meme generators, amateur webcartoonists, YouTube videos.
But that’s not the whole story.
At newspapers, cartoonists are the first fired, the last hired. When media gatekeepers — including those on prize committees — reach out to a cartoonist, they gravitate toward old-fashioned cartoonists who use hoary tropes like donkeys, elephants, labels and lots and lots of random crosshatching. Fetishizing the past is counterproductive because it discourages innovators. Also, it doesn’t work. Readers don’t respond. But editors blame cartooning as a medium when their real problem is their lousy taste in cartoons.
The New York Times Book Review is rightly skeptical about Navasky’s optimism about the future of editorial cartooning online: “An increase in distribution channels is not the same thing as a creative renaissance, and so far major online news sites have resisted the chance to hire their own political cartoonists.”
As a writer and cartoonist, I’m constantly looking for jobs. Sites like The Daily Beast, Salon, Slate and Huffington Post always post listings for writers. Lots of them. But they never hire cartoonists. From U.S. newspaper websites to the new Al Jazeera America, there’s lots of work for writers (albeit, for the most part, poorly paid). No one wants to hire cartoonists.
Why not? I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. It’s probably just groupthink coupled with a general lack of understanding of the “enduring power” of the medium. Newspapers first hired cartoonists because they were popular with readers. They still are. Portable electronic devices and the Web are quintessentially visual — duh — and cartoons — especially political cartoons — are massive clickbait with awesome viral potential. Someone at some point is going to re-figure out that people like comics. Then there’ll be a scramble to find edgy graphic content — comix journalism, editorial cartoons, animated cartoon videos — followed by the unwelcome discovery that due to years of censorship and impoverishment, there aren’t many cartoonists left creating professional work.
In the meantime, the Internet will continue to be something few people would have predicted: a sea of text as bland as the op/ed page of The Wall Street Journal.
(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in March 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 11 other people is tragic. But it is not shocking. It isn’t even surprising.
What is surprising—weird, even—is the response of the corporate-owned political and media establishment. They’re coming out against violent rhetoric. Not real violence. They want to stop talk about violence.
Liberals accuse right-wingers of creating an atmosphere of hatred that fuels incidents like the Arizona shootings.
“We need to put the gun metaphors away and permanently,” urged MSNBC’s Keith Olberman. If he gets his way, a lot of people in Hollywood are going to be out of work.
Violent-rhetoric-causes actual-violence-is-a-liberal-meme. “Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin,” tweeted Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos after the Tucson shootings. Moulitsas noted that the website for Palin’s PAC featured an image of Rep. Giffords’ district with crosshairs over it. There is, however, no evidence that the accused gunman ever saw Palin’s website.
Righties counter that the really inflammatory rhetoric comes from the left. From, for example the likes of me: “Left-wing cartoonist Ted Rall’s most recent book calls for a violent response from the left against the right,” Erick Erickson of RedState whined after Giffords was shot. “The point of all of this is not to blame Ted Rall,” he then backtracked. Like hell.
The cognitive disconnect between reality and self-perception in American society and politics is bizarre and frightening. Whenever there’s a school or workplace shooting spree, Americans act shocked! shocked! shocked! To hear media commentators, you’d think this was a peace-loving nation of Dalai Lamas rather than a bunch of brawlin’, trash-talkin’, gun-totin’, foreigner-bombin’ yahoos who drive around Iraq shooting people while listening to death metal.
“Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our democracy,” said Keith Olberman. Does he live in America? Americans worship violence. Kicking ass is our national religion. “Violence and threats of violence” are part of our daily lives. As a kid, I got beaten up by bullies. As an adult, I collect death threats in response to my cartoons. When I ride my bike, motorists try to run me off the road. Most of my female friends have been raped.
When I served jury duty in New York prospective jurors were asked whether they or someone close to them had ever been the victim of a violent crime. Down the line they went, 50 at a time. They went through 150 people. Every New Yorker there had suffered the effects of a brutal assault or the murder of a loved one.
The first time I felt any self-respect was when I sent a high school bully to the hospital.
Sorry, Keith. Violence has plenty of place in our lame excuse for a democracy. Remember how Bush became president in 2000? He hired goons to assault Florida election workers and had a representative threaten a coup on national television.
“Such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society,” chimed in President Obama. Who was either coming from or en route to a meeting with Pentagon generals to discuss America’s wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, or perhaps the occupation of Haiti, or expanding the new concentration camp at Bagram. How many assassination orders have you signed so far, Barry? How many extraordinary renditions? How many torture memos?
As I recently explained to an interviewer: “The reason I oppose this particular regime is because it is so aggressively violent.”
And I’m not talking about gun violence.
I’m talking about the wholesale over-the-top violence of neo-colonialism abroad, fueled by a cult of militarism here at home. U.S. forces are currently engaged in combat operations and propping up puppet regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and many other countries. They are hated and reviled there. Here every other car’s bumper urges us to “support our troops.”
We kill so many civilians we can’t be bothered to count them; not even America’s wimpy phony Left opposes the killing of “enemy” uniformed soldiers who die defending their homelands. Military action is America’s default response to every major news story. The 9/11 attacks? Kill them all—even if we’re not sure who “they” are. Hurricane Katrina? Send in the troops—not help. Indian Ocean tsunami, earthquakes in Pakistan or Haiti—anything and everything is an opportunity to invade, corrupt, pillage and murder.
The young man accused of shooting Rep. Giffords is portrayed as sick, deranged, and fond of oddball conspiracy theories. In these things, he is a typical American. “Typical” Americans, after all, believe in angels and creationism and that Bush found the WMDs in Iraq and trickle-down economics. Typical liberal Americans think it’s perfectly fine to give trillions to bankers while millions lose their jobs and get no help whatsoever.
The Tucson gunman is accused of an act of “senseless violence.” Here, too, he is just another face in the crowd. We all pay our taxes. None of us loses a minute of sleep as those taxes are used to make bombs and hire men and women to drop them on innocent people, who then blow into bits of flesh and bone.
Then there is the covert violence all around us: the tens of thousands of Americans who die annually because they can’t afford to pay for a doctor’s visit, the millions of children who go to bed hungry every night, the millions evicted from foreclosed homes (tell them it’s not an act of violence), the hundreds of thousands who sleep outside and the millions who couchsurf with friends and relatives because shelter is too expensive. We don’t even think about getting serious about solving these problems.
Like terrorism, political violence is a relatively minor issue. And as guys named Lincoln and Garfield and Charles Sumner—who was nearly beaten to death by a fellow member on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856—could attest, it is not a new one.
The brutality being carried out by the political system and its corporate sponsors is responsible for the equivalent of tens of thousands of Tucson-level shooting sprees each year in the U.S. alone. For example, a peer-reviewed scientific study published in 2005 found that the death toll directly attributable to income inequality is “comparable to the combined loss of life from lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle crashes, HIV infections, suicides and homicides.”
But the ruling classes doesn’t want us to think about reality. They want to make us shut up. Thus their calls to ramp down high-octane political speech.
Political violence? We should be much more worried about violent politics.
(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)
Ted Rall is the political cartoonist at ANewDomain.net, editor-in-chief of SkewedNews.net, a graphic novelist and author of many books of art and prose, and an occasional war correspondent. He is the author of the biography "Trump," to be published in July 2016.