One of the inspirations that got me to start interviewing people was reading the Attitude books that Ted Rall did in the early 2000s of interviews of alternative cartoonists. Ted Rall is one of the most incisive cartoonists today. He began his editorial cartooning career in 1987 when some editors of small alternative weekly newspapers saw his photocopied work hanging from lampposts in New York City. In 1991 San Francisco Chronicle Features launched Rall’s three-times-a-week editorial cartoon syndication with a dozen clients, including the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Daily News. Now with Universal Press Syndicate, Ted Rall appears in more than 100 newspapers throughout the United States. Rall won the 1995 and 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards for Outstanding Coverage of the Problems of the Disadvantaged. In 1996 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of 16 books, including “To Afghanistan and Back,” “The Anti-American Manifesto,” and “The Book of Obama”, and (coming in March 2014) “First We Will Kill You, Then We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Rall also writes a weekly op-ed column for Universal Press Syndicate.
Thanks Ted for doing this interview. Your cartoons represent one of the most radical viewpoints that I know. What were the influences on your political point of view? Were there any writers, books or political thinkers that had an influence on you?
By the standards of American editorial cartooning and what passes for journalism here, I agree. But that’s only because the 50-yard line of “acceptable” political dialogue has moved so far to the right since I was a kid. (I just turned 50.) In most other countries, I’d be considered mainstream. At least in their media. The American people are far to their left of mainstream media in the United States; even MSNBC is right-wing: pro-war, unconcerned with poverty, pro-corporate.
Honestly, I read so much this question is impossible to answer well. I have thousands of books now, not counting those I’ve gotten rid of over the years. Like everyone else, I was influenced by a myriad of writers. In no order, I’ve read a lot of Mark Twain, Sartre, Marx, Mao, Lenin, Robert Caro, Guevara, and Mencken. I love old travelogues, especially Central Asian explorers like Sven Hedin. Lots of history and political non-fiction. Sartre comes closest to expressing my view of the world; Marx got most of the economics and class structure stuff right, in my opinion.
You’re definitely a left-wing cartoonist, but one of the things that I like about your work is that you are equally critical of the Left as you are of the Right. Your cartoons keep President Obama accountable in the same way you kept President Bush accountable for his policies. What is your philosophy on political cartooning? Are there any past editorial cartoonists that influenced your philosophy or that you wish to emulate?
I used to think American editorial cartoonists were liberal or conservative. Now I see I was wrong. Actually, they’re Democrats and Republicans. Whatever “their” party does, they defend — even if it’s something their party formerly, and recently, deplored. So I think it would be more accurate to say that I am equally critical of the Democrats and the Republicans. I have ideas of how things ought to be, and these days, the Democrats fall short of my standards at least as often as the Republicans. But to be clear, with the exception of some of the libertarian impulses, I never side with the Right.
I agree with Mike Lester that a positive, praising editorial cartoon is no cartoon at all, but a greeting card. Good editorial cartoons are critical. Without exception. I believe that, unless I have something interesting to say about a topic, I should skip the subject and draw about something else. To do otherwise is to be redundant. I try to avoid anything obvious or easy. And I especially loathe sentimentalism, like the cheap post-9/11 cartoons that basically said, “It is sad when people get killed.” Of course it’s sad. We don’t need cartoons to remind us of that. When I read cartoons, I look for originality, audacity, and cartoons that make me think about a subject in a new, interesting way. Which requires a strong opinion. I can’t stand “measured,” middle-of-the-road cartoons where the cartoonist refuses to take real stand. If you can’t tell the artist’s politics from their cartoon, it’s a bad cartoon, probably drawn by a bad cartoonist.
Many of your cartoons and essays give a strong critique of the nonviolent civil disobedience tactics of the Left, saying in essence that the tactics that worked so effectively for social movements in the 1960s are not as effective today in bringing about meaningful change. In your recent books, “The Anti-American Manifesto” and “The Book of Obama: From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt”, you argue instead that people should revolt from a system that is no longer responsive to people’s needs. Why do you think the civil disobedience tactics of the 1960s are no longer effective? What do you think of more recent social protest movements like the Occupy Wall Street protests?
Let’s be clear: there were many positive liberation struggles during the 1960s. And all the effective ones, including civil rights, had a violent component. Without Malcolm X, Martin Luther King would have gotten nowhere. No significant leap forward in the political sphere has ever occurred purely nonviolently. Mostly nonviolently, sure. Not purely. Also, the system has become even less responsive, more repressive and thus more impervious to reform during the last 50 years. You can tell that by the fact that no major social programs have been enacted during that period — the powers that be pretty much want us to suck up our declining living standards while they stuff their pockets with stolen corporate loot. We’re increasingly powerless within the system. Unions are finished. Voting for Obama got Democratic voters a Republican president. The media doesn’t air leftist or progressive grievances. Thus there’s no reason to work within the system. It’s a complete waste of time, as protesters against free trade agreements and the invasion of Iraq have learned. I was active in OWS. There and then as here and now, I argue that broadcasting our unwillingness to use violence, even to defend ourselves from violence, emboldens state repression and reduces our chances of success in liberating ourselves.
In many of your cartoons during the Obama era, you make the argument that there really isn’t that much difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties, that both are controlled by corporate interests and both have an exceptionalist view of America that dictates their foreign policies. How did corporations get such a stranglehold on both political parties? What do you think of the differences between Democrats and Republicans on LGBT rights, abortion, immigration issues? I read some articles that argue that over the past few decades, the Left has tended to have the most success in cultural and social issues, while the Right has controlled the national discourse on fiscal and foreign policy issues. Do you agree with that assessment?
Corporations have the most money. They’re giant cash extraction machines. Since money and power have a symbiotic relationship, it’s no surprise that big companies buy influence among elected so-called representatives of both major political parties. Whoever has the most money will always own the most politicians, under any system. Thus the only way to take money out of politics is to abolish all income and wealth disparity. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some distinctions between the two parties; there are. Democrats have naturally been more responsive to the concerns of gays, lesbians, women in general, and ethnic minorities than Republicans — this is in response to their constituencies. But compared to economic concerns, these are secondary issues. Obviously a gay man is happy that he can now marry his boyfriend if he wants to. That’s great. But I ask: why were gays prevented from marrying in the first place? Because they didn’t have enough economic power to buy political influence. Straights did. Now gays do too. I’d rather see a system where everybody had exactly the same economic resources, and thus the same access to political power. That would liberate everybody.
I agree with your social issues vs. foreign policy divide, at least until recently. But I’d note that things have merged as the two parties have blended together. It was Democrats, not Republicans, who expanded the fleet of killer robot drones, deported immigrants in record numbers, and created a truly Orwellian national security police state. And Republicans like Rand Paul are taking the lead to oppose these developments.
When I first began doing political cartoons for the Tri-City Voice about 5 years ago, I bought your Attitude series on alternative cartoonists and they had a big early influence on how I approached my cartoons. How has the recession of 2008 affected you and other alternative political cartoonists? Have alternative cartoonists influenced mainstream editorial cartoonists in the past decade?
We began in the alt weekly press, which has been devastated by the decline of classified advertising in the wake of the economic crash as well as competition from online sites like Craigslist. Lots of great cartoonists, many of whom appeared in the Attitude anthologies, have since suffered so many cancellations that they have been forced to quit: Carol Lay, Lloyd Dangle, David Rees, Ward Sutton, Mikhaela Reid, Tim Krieder and Masheka Wood are some names that come immediately to mind. There are others, and I apologize to them in advance. The public is worse off as a result of losing these important editorial voices. (Though it’s never too late for a cool editor to email one of these cartoonists and offer them work!) Everybody is hurting. You can’t do good work if you’re constantly hustling for new clients for lower and lower rates. Of course, “mainstream” (old-fashioned) daily newspaper cartoonists have also been slaughtered: lots of layoffs and syndicate cancellations. That said, I think there are signs that things are starting to turn around. Some websites, like Daily Kos, Medium and Sulia, are running cartoons and paying for them. NSFWCORP, a print-only publication, does too. Content hasn’t been king for years, but now many readers prefer a curated (quality over quantity) experience and that requires hiring professional cartoonists to provide them.
I’m glad you asked about the influence of alties on the old-timers. The influence is undeniable. Although you’ll still see donkeys, elephants, cross-hatching and lots of nonsense metaphor labeling, most of the smartest editorial cartoonists at dailies are adapting to the altie revolution. Some are varying their drawing styles. Others are being more literal, less metaphorical. There are fewer labels. Which is great. Because, aside from the fact that I am friends with most of these guys, we need the profession to create lots of good cartoons that make readers think fondly of our craft. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case for years. Which is why, when most staff cartoonists get fired from daily newspapers, readers rarely notice, much less care, even less so protest against the decision.
I deeply admire your recent series of cartoons that have been critical of the NSA and the government’s intrusions on our privacy. I especially like your cartoons on August 1, June 28 and June 24. Why has this issue struck such a strong chord in you? Why do you think this issue hasn’t caused more of an outcry in the American public?
Thank you. This goes to your previous question about what makes good cartooning. I would be doing fewer NSA cartoons if more of my colleagues were doing them, and they were smart cartoons. Someone has to keep the flighty scatterbrained U.S. reading public focused on the fact that they’re being data-raped daily. Unfortunately, it’s a tough battle. People work long hours, and the media has found that distracting the public with stupid bullshit about sex scandals and celebrities maximizes their profits and minimizes their friction with the ruling classes. Still, when you think about it, it’s incredible that cities aren’t burning over the fact that the NSA and FBI are reading and storing every email, text message and every other detail of our digital lives in a scary supercomputer.
You are very critical of this country’s use of drones, our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the American preoccupation with military power. What negative effect do you think this military interventionist mentality has on our American culture? You took a trip to Afghanistan with fellow cartoonist Matt Bors to witness with your own eyes how the war has affected the local Afghan population. How did that experience affect you and your views of American foreign policy?
By cheapening foreign lives (“kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out”), militarism cheapens our lives too. Placing military concerns ahead of domestic matters leads to the militarization of domestic policing. Our culture has become coarsened by our collective willingness to turn away, to not protest, as the government murders hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our name. You have to be stupid, or at least act stupid, to tolerate it. And we do. We all do. Me included, of course. What choice do we have, until this regime is overthrown — which, inevitably, it will be?
My 2011 trip was not my first trip to Afghanistan, so I can’t say that anything I saw changed my initial view that the United States should never have invaded in the first place. It was nevertheless fascinating. Ten years of occupation had left the Afghan people short on hope. Back in 2001, they were optimistic to a fault. They thought the U.S. was going to rebuild their war-torn nation. By it was obvious to everybody that not only was that not going to happen, but the U.S. was going to leave the country even worse off than it found it.
Can you tell me about the time you lost the offer of a staff job by refusing to cross a picket line?
It was 1990. At the New York Daily News, the tabloid made famous by the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline, unionized reporters and other staffers went on strike. It was a brutal, vicious clash between intransigent, greedy owners and a union that perhaps didn’t realize that a recession was not the best time to throw down the mat. My cartoons had begun to catch on, especially in New York, and attracted the notice of editors there. I got a call: would I be interested in the staff editorial cartoonist position, at least for the duration of the strike — perhaps permanently? I thought long and hard about it. I was 28. They offered me four times what I was earning as a freelancer and as a banker during the day. I wanted the job. But I didn’t want to cross a picket line. I am from Ohio, which had been destroyed by union-busting. I called my mom and asked her her opinion. “I didn’t raise a son to watch him cross a picket line,” she replied. She was a union rep at her school. So I turned it down. I’ve often wished I’d had the job. But I never regretted not taking it. It wasn’t a fun decision, but it was the right one. I’ve never been offered a full-time job since.
What was your most harrowing experience as a journalist in Afghanistan?
There were several. But I’d go with the night, depicted in “To Afghanistan and Back,” when there were knocks on my door in the middle of the night, which I ignored. Turned out that a group of Afghan soldiers were going door to door to journalists’ guest houses in order to rob them. One, a cameraman from Sweden, opened his door and was shot to death. I fled first thing in the morning. On the way out of town, a group of soldiers ambushed us, shooting at our truck as we drove by. You know how they say you can feel bullets go by if they’re close? It’s true.
What is your conception of what an editorial cartoon should be, as opposed to what it often is?
A (good) editorial cartoon inspires thought and/or discussion about a political or social issue. Most do not actually do that. For example, “obituary” cartoons merely note the passing of a boldface name. Many cartoons are illustrative, merely depicting what is happening (as opposed to what’s wrong or what ought to be done instead). Many more are opinionated, but in a bland, predictable way, parroting Democratic or Republican Party talking points.
What kind of social change you would like to see, and how do you see your work contributing to that?
I would like to see the complete abolition of all class and class-related social distinctions, the establishment of the environment as society’s top priority, and the end of military force except in cases of defense. I hope that my work helps create the space to discuss such possibilities, which is the first step down a long, difficult road.
You do so many different kinds of work… can you talk some about your business model and how you make a living these days, after the collapse of print media?
No two career trajectories are identical, nor have they ever been, but I feel that I’m finally started to figure out the transition to the digital era. Syndication, the business of selling the same cartoon or column or puzzle to multiple outlets, is doomed. Websites and print publications want exclusive content, stuff readers can’t find anywhere else. While they’re willing to pay more for this exclusive content, they are not willing to pay a full-time salary. So the future belongs to content providers who are prolific. If you can create an exclusive cartoon for five outlets every week, you can make a modest living. That’s what I do, more and more, although I am still syndicated. And of course I also have the column, and books, and residual copyrights in old projects.
Though you are a leftist cartoonist, you have expressed admiration for the work of conservative cartoonists like Chuck Asay, Scott Stantis and Mike Lester, and you count many of these conservative cartoonists as your friends. That’s one of the things that I admired about the cartoonists I met when I attended two AAEC conventions: they have great admiration for the work of cartoonists regardless of whether they agreed with the political opinions of the cartoonist or not. At a time when our political culture is so partisan, why do you think editorial cartoonists are able to make friendships across the political divide?
Good cartoons are hard to craft, and there are only a few good editorial cartoonists — including the three men you mentioned. They do great work. As someone who struggles to create good cartoons, I can’t help but be impressed by cartoonists who do, even — especially, since I can’t imagine defending the policy stands they have — right-wing cartoons. Besides, we’re not at war. This isn’t Congress. If anything, the real division, the real friction, is between moderate, centrist middle-of-the-roaders and those of us (on the Left and Right) who traffic in real ideas and strong opinions. I have a lot of contempt for liberals who defend Obama even though he’s not a liberal and doesn’t share their professed ideals. If you can make your case, and do it well, I’m impressed.
When I first attended an AAEC convention, I was struck by the anxiety that many editorial cartoonists have over the declining economic opportunities for editorial cartooning as newspapers have declined in readership and have downsized their staffs. Do you see any viable alternative models out there for editorial cartoonists who want to earn a decent living doing their craft? Is the fate of editorial cartooning intimately tied to the fate of national newspapers? What do you think of internet cartoon sites like The Cartoon Movement as possible revenue channels for political cartoonists?
Last question first: it’s telling that the Cartoon Movement has stopped commissioning new works of comix journalism. According to what I’ve been told, the Dutch government has slashed their budget as part of general austerity measures. It’s really too bad, since they have posted some great work, and I’ve enjoyed working with them. Hopefully things will change there. This is a pattern we’ve seen a lot: when comix journalism and political cartooning is a charity case rather than a for-profit business venture, the ride typically doesn’t last long. It’s hard to imagine, for example, how Symbolia will last, though of course I hope I am wrong. Political cartooning can be part of a great newspaper, and print newspapers will still be around decades from now — in fact, cartooning will be required for any paper that wants to succeed. Currently, however, the legacy management teams of most print newspapers don’t know what they’re doing and that ignorance of their own readers’ needs has led them, first to hire lame cartoonists, then to edit them into blandness, and finally to fire them. If the Internet has proven anything, it’s that the edgiest politics and the sharpest political cartoons are the most successful. Until print editors and publishers understand that outrageous outsells boring, they’ll be in trouble and so will political cartoonists. It’s going to take a while. Right now, the trend seems to be favoring prolific artists who can produce exclusive content for multiple websites and publications. I’m currently doing stand-along unique cartoons for newspapers in Los Angeles, Pasadena and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I do them for MAD, and also for NSFWCORP and soon for Medium.com. You can make a decent living, but only if you draw fast, have a lot of ideas, and — this is the most important — you’re not boring, bland, or draw in old-fashioned donkey/elephant metaphor/label styles.
Here’s a question I had when I attended the Washington D.C. convention. I noticed that many editorial cartoonists who work in major newspapers consider themselves journalists who shun participating in political demonstrations to maintain their journalistic integrity. But I’ve read that past political cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, Art Young, Boardman Robinson and Robert Minor went to political protests and rallies and were active in political organizations. Do you think there is a difference between how editorial cartoonists in major newspapers view themselves as opposed to editorial cartoonists in alternative newspapers? Do you view yourself as primarily a journalist or as a political activist who does cartoons?
There is a split in the profession over this issue. Traditionally, I have tended to side with the more conservative viewpoint, allowing my politics to speak through my work and public statements rather than signing petitions or speaking at rallies. Some of my colleagues have been activists. Tom Tomorrow campaigned for Ralph Nader, Stephanie McMillan co-founded an anti-capitalist collective and David Rees donated the proceeds from one of his books to a demining NGO in Afghanistan. Since the 2008 economic collapse, however, I have become more of what the French call an artist engagé. Though reluctant to sign letters and petitions, I participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including a “people’s foreclosure” inside a bank branch. My book “The Anti-American Manifesto” calls for revolution. So I’ve evolved in that sense. Most of my time and energy goes into my role as a political and cultural commentator, but I also am an unapologetic activist. When it comes to straight journalism, however — for example, if I am assigned to cover a conflict zone — I consider myself a journalist in search of the truth, wherever it leads me, even if that means changing long-held points of view. I wouldn’t do any activism while, say, covering a protest march. Nevertheless, my sympathies lie where they lie, and I make no apologies for that. All journalists are biased politically. What I do is let my readers know about my biases so they can decide for themselves whether or not I am credible.
When I read about your passion for keeping editorial cartoonists accountable for ethical standards, when you promote the work of exciting alternative political cartoonists, when you criticize editorial cartoonists who do political gags rather political commentary, it shows for me that you have a deep passion for the art of political cartooning and that you care deeply about maintaining the high standards set by past political cartoonists. What is the most rewarding thing for you about doing political cartoons? What do you think your cartoons contribute to the political discourse of this country?
Thank you. It’s sad that I’m a little unusual in this respect. Everyone should reward the most exciting artists, everyone should hate boring and bland work, everyone should come down hard against artists who commit ethical breaches. For me, the best part about political cartooning is that it is so hard. No one has ever drawn a perfect political cartoon, and I don’t think anyone ever will. The form is deceptively simple. That becomes painfully obvious when newbies attempt the form; the results are embarrassing. In terms of political discourse, each medium — photography, video, animation, journalism, Twitter, whatever — delivers commentary and discussion in its own unique way. Political cartoons are unique too. It takes a lot of distribution channels to access the people.
I always end these interviews with a question about the interesting things that a traveler can visit in your area. In your area of New York, what would you recommend to someone who is visiting the area for the first time?
The subway museum in Brooklyn. Called the Transit Exhibit, it’s a collection of old New York City subway cars parked inside a disused MTA subway station. It’s rarely crowded, cheap, easy to get to, and a fun 45-minute visit you’ll never forget.
Here are some books by Ted Rall:
Here is a youtube video of Ted Rall talking at Elliot Bay Books, in Seattle, June 2, 2012
“Disposable – New Boss, Same As the Old Boss” an animated short by Ted Rall
“Stop the Presses: How to Save Newspapers” an animated short by Ted Rall
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Navy Veteran Randy Leer
An Interview With Cartoonist Scott Stantis
An Interview With Cartoonist Peter Evans
An Interview With Progressive Christian George Koukouris
An Interview With Cartoonist Gustavo Rodriguez
An Interview With Children’s Book Illustrator Lea Lyon
An Interview With Democrat Nancy Hirstein Smith
An Interview With Cartoonist Ann Cleaves
An Interview With Muslim American Activist Zahra Billoo
An Interview With Peace Activist and Lay Pastor Jim Ramelis
An Interview With Cartoonist Monte Wolverton
An Interview With Cartoonist Adam Zyglis
An Interview With Reverand Gerald Britt
An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards
An Interview With Poet, Activist, and Teacher Diane Wahto
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen
An Interview that Everyday blogger Diane Wahto kindly did of me