Meet a Visiting Cartoonist: A Chat with Ted Rall
Editorial cartoonist Ted Rall used to appear regularly in the City Paper’s pages, but in recent years he’s expanded beyond "just" being an "alternative" cartoonist. He writes a weekly syndicated editorial, just returned from Afghanistan where he was practicing cartoon journalism (with cartoonists Matt Bors and Steven Cloud), and has a new prose book, The Anti-American Manifesto (Seven Stories Press, $15.95) in which he calls for the overthrow of the government. He’ll appear at Busboys and Poets on 14th at V streets NW tonight at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the book, but we got to him before the FBI did to ask him some questions—most of which have nothing to do with cartooning. See you in 4,000 words!
Washington City Paper: So my first question is, do you still have a beard?
Ted Rall: No. I shaved it off. Ironically in response to the fact that we got arrested in Afghanistan on suspicion of being suicide bombers. Our beards were too long for the Afghans and after the third detention, we said enough is enough and we went to a barbershop and got trimmed Afghan style.
WCP: That’s pretty funny. I assume that you’re coming to D.C. to talk about your new book?
TR: That’s right.
WCP: What’s your new book about?
TR: It’s about the desire to replace the two-party system with something better. Understanding the fact that’s not going to happen by marching in the streets, or writing poetic letters to the editor, made it obvious that as it has always been and as it always will be, that if we want to improve our lives we’re going to have to take some radical chances.
WCP: Why do it now, post-Bush/Cheney, or even post-Reagan for that matter?
TR: Obama is why, actually. He’s about the best that the system has to offer. This two-party system, owned by corporations, is not going to give us a president who is less owned by corporations, or who is smarter, or who has more integrity. This is about it, this is as good as it gets. It’s very clear that he’s neither willing nor able to solve the problems that face the country. He’s not willing or able to stimulate the economy, to put people back to work, to stop the widening disparity of wealth, to pass a real health care plan, to get us out of Afghanistan, to get us out of Iraq… if he’s the best that they’ve got, we need better.
WCP: So the situation that we’re in right now—would you blame Bush for it, or would you go back further?
TR: Oh, we’re talking about decades of malfeasance, corruption, and a country that’s intentionally deciding to become a poor one on purpose. It’s really kind of crazy, so it’s not just Bush. Reagan and Clinton bear a lot of the blame for free trade agreements that sent American jobs overseas, for the widening disparity of wealth, for crushing the unions—it goes on and on. You can go back a lot further than that too. In the most recent era I would say that it began with Reagan.
WCP: So would you describe yourself as a frustrated idealist or a professional curmudgeon?
WCP: You can pick somewhere in-between.
TR: I don’t know—I’m not good at labeling myself. I don’t know if anyone is good at labeling themselves. I would say that I’m an idealist, and anyone who’s not an idealist is a bad citizen.
WCP: To get a little wonky on you, it seems as though you’re more a Jeffersonian than a Hamiltonian?
TR: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I think Thomas Jefferson is the finest leader this country has ever had.
WCP: I must say that personally I have a little trouble trusting the mob, much like the founding fathers did.
TR: Well, yeah, if the United States proves anything, it’s that democracy doesn’t work. You can look at California’s referendums to prove that. I’m being droll there, but in reality the country is too undereducated to have a functioning democracy. As Toqueville said, you need a well-educated, well-informed electorate in order to make democracy work and we don’t have that. In fact it’s considered geeky or dorky to be an intellectual, and if you are, you’re supposed to pretend that you're not.
WCP: Right, but that’s a long-standing trend in America. It goes back at least until the 1820s and Jackson.
TR: Yeah, for sure. Anti-intellectualism has a long history.
WCP: Populism is on the rise, which honestly I expected when Reagan was president, but this time it’s the right-wing, a modern Know-Nothing party essentially. Did you expect that?
TR: I guess I didn’t expect the exact configuration of the Tea Party. Who would have thought that people would think it was cool to dress up like Paul Revere? Certainly that strain in American politics has always been there, and probably always will be so it’s not that surprising. It’s also not surprising that the right is better prepared and organized than the left. That’s also been the reality for a long time.
WCP: So what makes a leftist viewpoint, in your opinion, more palatable than the Tea Party viewpoint?
TR: The Tea Party doesn’t have a viewpoint. The Tea Party has an attitude. The Tea Party doesn’t have an ideology that’s coherent or cohesive. It’s generalized rage, which is rational and understandable given the state of the country—considering that the country has been looted by political gangsters. The problem is that the right, in the form of the Tea Party, is claiming that people who are also victims like immigrants and minorities and Muslims and anyone who can be characterized as "other" where in reality it’s the old white male Protestants who are stealing and raping the country blind. You’re asking me why the left wing viewpoint would be more palatable—well first of all, there is a left wing viewpoint. There is a place where we would like to take society, and that’s a better place for most people. The vast majority of people would live better under a left wing government and you can see that all over the world, in general. There are always exceptions, but in general left wing governments are better to their people than right wing governments. That’s not going to change because being on the left means supporting the people and caring about the people. If you put the people last, and you put big business first, then you’re on the right. That’s the division.
WCP: In your first chapter, you talk about this being late-stage capitalism, but to me it looks vaguely like a return, at least during the Bush years, to early-stage capitalism with less rules, less taxation, and the like. I would have said something like FDR’s New Deal would have starting moving us to a late-stage capitalism. Can you talk about why you think we’re in a late-stage capitalism now?
TR: It’s the classic Marxist model, where the trend toward monopolization has gone to an extreme, to the point where competition has been stifled, and where new generations of young people find their road to advancement cut off and are unable to find work or start new businesses. Capital has frozen. You know the country’s still rich. In 2008, money didn’t go away. We didn’t become poor. The lifeblood of the economy stopped circulating and rich people stopped investing. It’s really quite crazy if you think about it. The thing about American capitalism is that it does everything exactly backwards. When it should be audacious, like now, it’s timid, and when it should be timid, like during the late 1990s, it’s profligate. It’s really an incredibly stupid system (laughs) . The reason I wrote this book is that it’s become obvious to everyone. You couldn’t call for revolution in 1989—well you could call for it, but no one would have cared. I think more people are open to the message now. Someone asked me the other day, ‘well, how are you going to radicalize people?’ and I said ‘you don’t have to radicalize anyone.’ Once you get a pink slip and an eviction notice from a bank that is paying its CEO $40 million a year, you’re radicalized. You don’t to need read Mao’s Little Red Book.
WCP: Well that seems like it should be true to me, and one of the things that has continually surprised me is how little of that there is, and how people’s rage seems misdirected.
TR: That’s always going to be the case. The job of people who are organizers and political people is to try to convince people to follow their point of view, so it’s up to the left and to progressives to talk to the people in a way in which they understand, which unfortunately we haven’t been doing. The fact is when someone has lost their house, they don’t have to be evicted. We could live in a world where we could just say, ‘you know what, the bank can’t take your house just because you’ve fallen on hard times.’ We could change that entire system. We could live in a world where we could say that a boss can’t hire and fire at will. You have to be fired for a good reason. That world is right now called France where you have an employment contract. No one should be dying or going broke because they can’t afford health care, but yet they are. We can overthrow a system that is abusing us in this way and replace it with something better. I think that if people understand that there is another way to live and that there are people who are willing to help them get there, then they will support that. But right now, what do you want people who are inclined to the left to do? There’s no leadership, no organization, no movement… there’s nothing to follow and nothing to join.
WCP: That’s one of the things I haven’t quite understood, especially about the health care thing where people who would actually benefit are opposed to it, and people like me who already have health care and will be taxed more are positive for it.
WCP: I don’t really understand that weird switch.
TR: First of all, the problem with Obama’s plan is it was poorly communicated, but also it’s a terrible plan. If you look at the details, the average person is going to end up paying more for health care. Their deductibles will be higher, their co-pays will be higher than if they had just got regular insurance. It’s a ridiculous system.
WCP: I personally would ascribe most of the problems you describe to the standard "guns vs. butter" debate and Bush’s desire to have both, which is essentially what sunk Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. What do you think about that?
TR: America has another good book by a cartoonist and its title is Addicted to War. That’s just one way that we’re deciding to be a poorer country. If we stopped invading other countries and we stopped stationing 650,000 men and women around the world in foreign military bases and poured that money—the same assets—back into the US economy in terms of helping people lead better lives, and build infrastructure, create jobs, health care, education, etc., etc., we would be living in paradise. This is a rich country. But we’re pouring all of our resources into the defense business and it’s gotten dozens of times worse since Eisenhower’s famous speech in 1961 (warning against the military-industrial complex). It is so out of control, it’s insane.
We have a militarized society. I just came back from Afghanistan, and when I was there, people keep saying, ‘Why do you send soldiers? Why don’t you send help?’ which is what people in New Orleans said during Katrina. ‘Why are you sending soldiers? Why don’t you send help?’ It’s what people in Haiti said when we sent soldiers instead of help. What is wrong with us? I think most people fundamentally, even people on the right, they know it’s crazy. They want it to stop. They just don’t know how.
WCP: I think part of the problem is that we no longer have a functioning alternative to our soldiers. There is no Civilian Conservation Corps for America, nor a functioning State Department which could help people set up a government anymore.
TR: Right. But there could be obviously. As millions of American learned after marching in the streets after 2003, peaceful protest does not work anymore. The system is not going to change by itself.
WCP: When you call for revolution, what would you see replacing the current system? Parliamentary democracy?
TR: I’m all the way on the far left, as far as you can get, so I would like to see a completely leftist proletariat dictatorship, but what I want is neither here nor there. I don’t think that what I want is important, or relevant, or realistic to even discuss, because once you unleash the forces of revolution, anything could happen. You could end up with a right wing coup. Who knows where you’re going to end up? You could end up with a Christian theocracy. What the revolution does is create the physical and ideological space for the discussion to take place. Right now, we don’t really know what Americans want, but what we do know is that this system is currently broken, and what we need is to come in with a clean slate, start from scratch and undergo the difficult process that the United States has not undergone for 200 years of figuring out how we really want to live in the year 2011.
WCP: I would argue and say the Civil War was one of those situations and what we all decided to do was go home and forget about it…
TR: I would say the Civil War was a serious convulsion in the narrative of the United States. Certainly you could say the continuity of ‘every four years we got a new President or re-elected the old one’ is a fiction and the Civil War definitely counts for something. The Civil War was not an attempt to determine how we were going to reorganize the economy or our political life. It was about something different, but it was not an attempt to redistribute wealth, or figure out who the new elites were going to be, or what our national priorities were going to be.
WCP: Do you think we’ve covered the topic of the new book fairly well, or is there something else you would like to add?
TR: The basic argument for me is that if you think the Democrats and the Republicans are equally useless, and you think the two-party system is essentially unreformable—in other words, they’re not going to allow a third party to challenge them in any meaningful way which I think is the case—they will not let a third party play fair, and if you think Obama’s not good enough and you’re not happy with what the ‘reform’ looks like, then you have to come to the same conclusion that I did. You can either accept that the country is going to go down the shitter, or you can get off your ass and do something about it. And that’s what I’m urging people to do— to get off your ass and do something about it, and I don’t mean sending a donation to Move-on.org. I mean do something about it. The way people have always done something in other countries.
WCP: I wanted to ask you about the decline of unionism in America. Somewhere along the line, workers seemed to feel as though their bosses had their best interests at heart.
TR: You really think they feel that way?! That’s a little more than I think most people would say.
WCP: Sometime I have conversations with people who seem to think that the 40-hour work week was just a god-given right that was handed down to them.
TR: There’s probably very little awareness of how things were before, but there’s little awareness of the rights that they have now that are being trampled. The Fair Labor Standards Act entitles everybody to a fifteen minute break in the morning and in the afternoon and also paid overtime, unless you supervise at least three workers. Most people who don’t supervise three workers and are on a set salary are not getting paid coffee breaks and they’re not getting paid overtime. American business is stealing millions of dollars from the American worker every week and everybody goes to work and shuts up because they’re scared to lose their job. These companies should pay it back, retroactively.
WCP: Moving onto your other main project now, your trip to Afghanistan—so in the end, was it all worth it for you?
TR: I would say it was a productive trip. These things never go exactly as you plan. If you knew how everything was going to be, there would be no need to go. It was a very enlightening experience. Steven, Matt and I were the only unembedded journalists in Afghanistan, and in many cases we were the first American citizens that Afghans, even in major cities, had ever laid eyes upon, which was astonishing really if you think about the fact that there are over a quarter of a million Americans, between troops and NGO people, in Afghanistan. They don’t really interact with the Afghan people. The entire time we were there we only saw a few Americans zipping by in armored personnel carriers, surrounded by men with huge guns pointing them at people and screaming at them to get the fuck out of the way, or to be shot. The Americans are living like scared little bunny rabbits and not interacting with the people, which we did. The people were generally amazed, asking ‘Aren’t you afraid of us?’ to which we’d say, ‘No, should we be afraid of you? Are you bad people?’ and then they would laugh. Of course they’re not bad people. So the point is, I found it very enlightening. The infrastructure is a lot better than it was in ’01—I mean well it exists and there is some. The US has made some infrastructure progress since ’05, but unfortunately they started too late for the Afghans, and it’s kind of like a bad relationship they have with us now. It terms of security, I think the biggest flaw is that the United States has made no effort whatsoever. If you accept the fact that we’re invading a foreign country, which I think is inherently illegally flawed, but within that extremely flawed context, if you are going to do it, we should have made providing security for the Afghan people our number one priority. Instead it’s no priority at all. We let the Taliban and these neo-Taliban gangsters run around and do whatever the hell they want—kidnap and kill and rape and murder people for fun and we could stop them, but we don’t lift a finger to do it. Meanwhile we’re chasing ghosts in the mountains across from Waziristan. It’s a big shame—we’re killing all these people in a war yet in a way, we’re not even relevant to the Afghan people.
WCP: So are you in a way defending the idea of a surge—adding more troops there?
TR: No, because the troops aren’t doing anything. We’ve got plenty of troops there. One hundred and forty-thousand troops is a lot of troops. The problem is that they’re all at Bagram Air Force Base drinking Starbucks. They’re not doing anything. Well, they’re doing things because they’re fighting and they’re dying, but for nothing that the Afghan people give a shit about. Sending more troops to sit at Starbucks and BK and IHOP is a waste of time. If you’re not going to have a real serious effort to fight an intelligent war, then more troops aren’t going to make any difference. The generals are idiots, the president and his team are morons and they don’t know anything about what they’re doing.
WCP: Their president, or our president, or both?
TR: Both. Well, mostly ours. I’ll give it to Hamid Karzai. Nine years into it, he’s a puppet and he’s still alive. In Afghanistan, that’s saying a lot. He’s pretty wily. He’s not stupid. Obama and Bush—they don’t know a damn thing about what’s going on over there. I don’t think they have any interest in finding out. If I were Obama, the first thing I would have done is brought in Ahmed Rashid who wrote Taliban. He’s the leading expert on Afghanistan in the world. I would have had him move into the Lincoln Bedroom, but they didn’t bring him in. They don’t talk to people who actually know what they’re doing.
WCP: So you’re hoping to have the book out early next year, with all three of you working on it?
TR: It’s my book —it’ll be 95 percent my stuff, but there will be some additional stuff by Matt and Steven. The book will come out probably in September of 2011.
WCP: How did you guys get along together on a trip like this?
TR: We expected all sorts of problems, but the truth is that there was never a cross word, there was never disagreement, we got along famously. Whenever anyone was sick, or just bummed out, he just got quiet. We’re all kind of wired that way. We’re not whiners. We just got quiet and kept to ourselves, but nobody got sick that long. Matt was sick for about four or five days, which is pretty normal, even for someone who’s gone repeatedly. I was sick, Steven got sick, we all go sick. You can’t go to Afghanistan without stomach problems.
WCP: With this one, you tried something that was new for you, which was funding it through Kickstarter.* I assumed that worked out well for you, since you went.
TR: Yes, it did. It turned out I had to still kick in a significant amount of my own money, but it was well worth doing. The Kickstarter thing turned out to be amazing. I don’t know how I would ever have been able to go back to Afghanistan without that help.
WCP: So you would consider using it again for a project?
TR: I would, but a lot of the people who donate are your fans, and I hesitate to view my fans as an ATM. Everybody’s having trouble and the economy’s terrible for everyone, but I still think it’s the duty of press organizations and media outlets, magazines, etc, to pay for this sort of thing. First of all, it’s good for them. They’ll get more readers, but it’s also kind of their moral duty to pay for it, so that’s always where I’m going to go first and try to get it. If I fail, and I think it’s really important, sure I’d try again.
WCP: I was wondering if this was going to become a model for cartoonists, at least for special projects like yours, or entry-level people.
TR: I don’t think it will work for entry-level people. It would work better for people who already have a fan base. I’m a known quality. People trust me that if they donate fifty bucks, I’m not going to take it and go to Aruba. I’ve done this before, they know I’ll do it again, they know the quality of work I do. I’m a known quality for them. For someone who’s new and just starting out, I don’t know. It’s a hell of a leap of faith to send money to someone you’ve never heard of. I’m sure it’s directly related to how much money they want. If someone just wants $1,000 to print a comic book it might not be such a challenge, but I think the more expensive it is, the more street cred you have to have.
WCP: Saturday’s the National Book Festival—you could always try to crash that. There’s supposed to be 130,000 people on the Mall.
TR: On Saturday, I’ve got an appearance at the Baltimore Book Festival. Monday’s my first time at Busboys and Poets—I hope some people show up.
*I provided funding in this way, based on my liking for both cartoon journalism and Rall’s work.