The political cartoonist on his new biography of Edward Snowden and living in an Orwellian age.
Recently, the left-wing political cartoonist Ted Rall drew a cartoon captioned “How Al Qaeda Could’ve Used U.S. Media Management Techniques to Weasel Out of 9/11.” An Al Qaeda operative stands at a podium, saying, “Guys were shooting at us from those towers.” Then the operative hedges, saying, “It was us. But not that many were killed by us as have been killed by them.” He concludes, “We take the greatest care to prevent the loss of innocent life, and when we make mistakes, we admit them.” Likening the US military to Al Qaeda may seem simplistic or severe, until you consider that, at the time Rall’s cartoon was published on his blog, the United States had just bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
Rall’s intense criticism of US government mendacity has animated his work for decades. His rigorous and fearless political insights have earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination and editorial cartooning jobs at some of the most prestigious institutions in American journalism, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times. His bold views have also led to him getting fired by those publications. Earlier this year, Rall was asked to leave the LA Times. “I was a critic of the LAPD,” he told me in the following interview. “That’s why I got fired.”
Originally from Kettering, Ohio, Rall was raised by a single mother who had immigrated from France. “My mother survived the Nazi occupation,” he said, a trauma that informed her liberal worldview. Theirs was a politically active household, with Rall campaigning alongside his mother for George McGovern’s presidential candidacy. When Rall was a teenager, he won a local political cartooning competition, which set him on the path of channeling his political ideas into acerbic comics.
Rall’s new book of comics journalism, Snowden, is informed by this same directness and revolutionary spirit. Perhaps the most appealing and unusual element of Rall’s biography of the former-NSA-employee-turned-international-fugitive is that, though he casts Snowden mostly as a hero, he simultaneously acknowledges that Snowden was, for most of his life, unremarkable. Rall’s Snowden seems no more likely to tell the world about the NSA’s secret programs than any of the other 1.4 million employees with Snowden’s level of top-secret security clearance. As Rall said, “There’s something fucked up when you have to be one in a million to do the right thing.”
I talked with Rall over breakfast at the Small Press Expo (SPX) convention in Bethesda, Maryland, where he spoke on a panel about the legacy of comics journalism. Our conversation ranged from the influence of his mother to the evolution of his comics style and the political symbolism of Bernie Sanders.
—David Burr Gerrard for Guernica
Guernica: How did you first get involved in comics, and in politics?
Ted Rall: I like that you stated both because they’re not really one and the same. I got into politics as a little kid. My mother, who raised me as a single mother, was and is a very political person. I remember her taking me to campaign with her for George McGovern in 1972. She would work the phone, and I would work for her. The news was always on, and she always subscribed to at least two newspapers.
My mother survived the Nazi occupation of France. She was five years old and living in southern France when the country collapsed, and the Nazis invaded. It was a very traumatic experience for her. Her father was MIA throughout most of the war. By the time the Allies arrived, she was nine, and she was severely malnourished. She was traumatized. She lived in a world where, for her, everything could come crashing to an end.
She was always into politics: left versus right, always very important. It didn’t even occur to me that it was possible not to be a political person. I was fortunate in that I lived in a town that had a very good political cartoonist, Mike Peters—he was and still is the cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News. At the time, he was a very aggressive young Turk, a very antiestablishment, anti-Nixon cartoonist. Like a lot of political cartoonists, he’s mellowed a little bit over the years, but he was an angry young man at the time. I was very taken with his cartoons in the paper. They made me want to do what he did.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, there was an Ohio state political cartooning contest. At the time, thousands of kids all over the state of Ohio entered—today, there would be one entry. I won, and Mike Peters was deputized to come to my school and award it to me in front of my very unimpressed classmates. But afterwards, Mike was like, “You’re a real talent. You should come down to my office and I could teach you a few things.” So I did.
I lived in a town where most people worked for the US Air Force, or National Cash Register, or Mead Paper Corporation, all very boring jobs. You had to wear a suit or a military uniform. When I went to visit Mike Peters, I thought, “Here’s this guy wearing collar tips and hip-hugger jeans, he’s hanging out in this ink-stained newspaper office, and he has this sports writer passed out drunk on his sofa.” I thought, “What a great job! He works in this great place. He hangs out with drunk people. He gets to make fun of the president of the United States. I want this lifestyle!”
I remember thinking, “Richard Nixon’s a bad person, but he doesn’t deserve to be made fun of simply because he has a ski-slope nose.
Guernica: Can you talk about the development of your distinctive drawing style?
Ted Rall: Well, one of the cartoonists here at SPX, Peter Kuper, is responsible for that. I was trying to draw like Mike Peters and failing miserably. He’s an amazing, loose artist who just uses a brush and draws super fast. It’s like he can draw cartoons in his sleep. For me, the writing has always come naturally. The drawing has always been hard.
In the mid-’80s, I met with Peter when I was trying to get my work into his magazine, World War 3 Illustrated. He said, “You really should consider playing around with media.” I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “You know, buy different kinds of paper. Buy different kinds of pens and fool around with them. You’ll see that sometimes the medium will drive your style.” He liked scratchboard and so he recommended scratchboard. So I did, and the kind of blocky, highly abstract sort of style came out of using scratchboard.
It was about that time that I realized what I didn’t like about most political cartooning, which was very caricature-based. I remember thinking, “Richard Nixon’s a bad person, but he doesn’t deserve to be made fun of simply because he has a ski-slope nose. He’s a bad person because he kills innocent people.” So I turned against caricature and I wanted to come up with a style that was almost featureless, where you could barely identify people, or only identify them through context.
I convinced myself that there was a political reason for this approach. I remember Pat Oliphant, he would draw black people with huge lips, he would draw women with wasp waists and huge breasts. I remember just being disgusted by it and thinking that that was not the world as I saw it. I wanted to mix things up. For example, I wanted to have black people in a boardroom scene not as part of a civil-rights scene. I wanted to engender a race- and gender-neutral world in my cartoons, and my style came out of that.
Guernica: I noticed Snowden is better-looking than the other characters in your new book.
Ted Rall: True. There’s something very appealing about his eyes, I think. He looks like he has sad eyes. I can sort of work with that. Also, he has almost Trumpian hair, very strange hair.
Matt Bors said in one of his cartoons that he would love for Trump to be the nominee because he wanted to explore the mysteries of Trump’s hair. That’s how I feel about Snowden. I spent a lot of time drawing Snowden for this book, and I really don’t understand his hair. If I ever meet him, I’m going to request to touch his hair.
Guernica: Why did you want to write a biography of Snowden?
Ted Rall: My publisher suggested it. I immediately thought, “What a great idea,” because no one else had done it in any form. There’s a book by Luke Harding called The Snowden Files and there’s some biographical stuff in there, but it’s more about the story of the Snowden revelations than it is about him. There’s a book called No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald that’s much more granular about the programs. There wasn’t a book that analyzed Snowden as an individual.
I love biographies. To me, Snowden represents the perfect subject. Here was a guy who was faced with an existential dilemma, which is what I love.
It’s kind of like why I like [my mother’s hometown] Vichy, France, as a subject. You have a very clear right or wrong, but doing the right thing is super hard. So, if you’re living in France under the Nazis, like my mom did, you could go along to get along, but that’s the wrong decision. You could do the right thing and resist, but you were literally risking death for you and your family.
With the NSA, why was it that, out of all those people who saw all those files, so few people stepped forward? There’s something fucked up when you have to be one in a million to do the right thing.
Guernica: Especially since Snowden’s personal politics are probably not what leftists would have liked.
Ted Rall: He’s a libertarian. He’s a free-market guy. That’s very clear. He’s still a patriot; he still has faith in the system. You can tell. For example, the way he revealed the information. He went to mainstream corporate media outlets. He didn’t leak everything to Michael Moore, or to Julian Assange, or to me. I think he saw, and disliked, what happened to the Wikileaks revelations. He probably thought they didn’t make the impact that they could have, because of Chelsea Manning and the way that she did what she did. But Snowden’s politics are kind of beside the point, I think. I think this is an issue of ethics.
Guernica: Why did you begin the book with a discussion of 1984?
Ted Rall: I know it has become a little bit cliché to talk about the surveillance state in conjunction with Orwellianism, but what made me think that this was the way to open it was that I was reading through all these NSA programs that Snowden has revealed, and one of the ones that fascinated me was that smart TVs can be used to look at you in your room. That is totally like the telescreen from 1984. It’s not sort of like it, it’s not a lot like it, it is it. And the ability of the NSA to turn on your cell phone, even if it’s powered down, and listen to you in your home—that’s insane to me. People had been warning that 1984 was just around the corner. Well, it has arrived, and Snowden has proven that.
Here in the US, we’ve built this insane infrastructure of oppression. When it’s not run by a Barack Obama…but by someone who is off-kilter, like a Carly Fiorina, that could be dangerous.
Guernica: You say in the book that we already live in Oceania.
Ted Rall: We do.
Guernica: You also say that right now the government isn’t as bad as the government in 1984, but it could get worse.
Ted Rall: Right, I mean, what people don’t seem to ever understand is that any infrastructure that exists under your regime, in your current government, will be appropriated and inherited by the next regime. I mean, the KGB came out of the NKVD which came out of the Tsarist version of the same thing. And now, the FSB operates out of the old KGB building in Moscow. The infrastructure remains exactly the same. There’s a little bit of reshuffling of personnel, and that’s it. The way to make sure that there’s no FSB today would have been for the Tsar to not have built an infrastructure for it in the 1800s.
Similarly, when France and all sorts of other occupied countries in Europe fell, the Germans inherited all of the census and police records. One of the things that they included was religious affiliation; that information was on index cards at the local police precinct at the gendarmerie. The Nazis would go down there, and pick them up, and it was easy-peasy to sort out all the Jews and pull them aside. Then they’d be like, “Okay, now we have all the addresses and we’ll do the roundup.”
After WWII, the French decided to abolish all references in state records to being born overseas if you’re a French citizen who’s a foreigner. So if France is ever invaded by the Germans again, they won’t be able to just go around and find people who are not from there.
It might sound a little paranoid, but the fact is that if a right-wing government led by someone like Marine Le Pen comes to power, this would make it harder to discriminate against people. It gives people who would be victims of discrimination a head start to hide, or leave, or resist. Here in the US, we’ve built this insane infrastructure of oppression. When it’s not run by a Barack Obama—who, by the way, I don’t think is a perfect president—but by someone who is off-kilter, like a Carly Fiorina, that could be dangerous.
Guernica: Can you talk about your experience with the LA Times and having to leave that job?
Ted Rall: My situation with the LAPD and the LA Times is a reflection of how you could be doing nothing wrong, but government surveillance could still be used to screw you over. In my case, I was writing a weekly cartoon and column for the LA Times since 2009. One of the things I wrote about was a jaywalking crackdown in LA. This appeared on May 11 this year. I was just beginning the essay by talking about this incident that happened to me in 2001 where I was arrested for jaywalking in LA. The cop was mean to me. He pushed me around. He handcuffed me, and it attracted a lot of attention. People were gathered around me and yelling at the cop. Ultimately, one of his partners showed up and let me go. I got the ticket and I fought it, and that was it. I filed a complaint with internal affairs back at the time.
Anyway, fourteen years pass, and this piece publishes. Then, two months pass, and a reporter at the LA Times calls me. He tells me he has been deputized to investigate this. The LAPD had supplied the LA Times with a copy of an audio cassette that the cop took at the time; he made it secretly. He had a uniform audio cassette recorder. This tape purports to show that I was lying, that the cop treated me very politely. He didn’t rough me up, he didn’t shove me up against a wall, he didn’t throw my driver’s license on the ground like I wrote about, he never handcuffed me, and so on. I listened to the tape, and it was 95 percent inaudible. It was a lot of noise, a lot of traffic. I said, “This is a fucking joke. There’s nothing on this thing.” He was like, “Well, it doesn’t back up your story.” It doesn’t back up their story, either! It doesn’t back up any story! It’s just inconclusive.
The short version is that the LA Times fired me, and they burned me in public. They wrote an editor’s note that’s still online that basically calls me a liar and a fabulist. So I was insanely upset. The next day, a bunch of people emailed me from all over the country and said, “I have expertise in audio technology. If you email me the audio file, I’ll see if I can clean it up CSI-style and see if there’s anything on it.” I sent it to a bunch of people. Most people couldn’t do anything with it because the quality was so bad.
Finally, I got one guy who was able to enhance it to such an extent that you can hear a woman shouting, “Take off his handcuffs!” This was important because there were four important discrepancies between what I said and what the LAPD said. Two of them were that I had been handcuffed and that there was an angry crowd. This audio doesn’t prove that there was an angry crowd, but it certainly proves that there was an angry witness, which is something that the LAPD had denied. So I sent the enhanced audio tape dub to my editors at the Times, but they ignored it.
They’ve doubled down because there was a lot of heat on them from the media. The Guardian, the International Business Times, the New York Observer, and other media sources have published similar results. Even the guy that the LA Times hired as an audio technician got similar results. When they got the new information, they should have just retracted what they said and taken me back. But they didn’t.
I was a critic of the LAPD. That’s why I got fired. That’s why the cops supplied it. If anyone denied it, I would say, “If I’d done a bunch of cartoons that were in favor of cops, do you think they would have supplied that tape to them?” No.
I would like to fire every cop in America and start from scratch.
Guernica: At the same time, surveillance has helped supply a lot of publicly available evidence of police brutality, particularly in the last year.
Ted Rall: Yeah. I mean, I’m in favor of uniform cameras. I think they will make police less brutal. But even the Sandra Bland case, with the dashcam video, shows how the cops have already learned how to manipulate these things. They drag her off the camera.
I would like to fire every cop in America and start from scratch. We don’t need as many of them, and the whole model of policing is completely off the rails. For the most part, the police are engaged in very little protection of the public. That’s probably 5 percent of what they do. The rest of it is writing tickets. For an ordinary citizen, what is the common interaction you have with a police officer? When they pull you over for speeding, or when they write you a ticket for parking. The rest of the time is patrolling minority neighborhoods like an occupying army. It’s suppression of blacks, and it’s revenue enhancement. Surveillance is a Band-Aid. That’s like saying, “Let’s surveil the SS.” No! Let’s get rid of the SS!
Guernica: You’ve also reported from Afghanistan. Can you tell me about that?
Ted Rall: I went to Afghanistan for KFI Radio and the Village Voice. At that time, I was not planning on doing a book. I just wanted to go and see things for myself, and I thought that reporting could pay for my war tourism. When I got back, my publisher kept asking me, “What was it like? You should do a book!” I banged out a book in six weeks—To Afghanistan and Back. It did really, really well. It’s imperfect, but it does have immediacy going for it. That’s what I wanted people to feel.
That’s what comics journalism does better than anything else: you can get a feeling of what it was like. Like Scott McCloud says, especially with a simple drawing style, you can project yourself into the image, and imagine yourself having those experiences.
Then in 2010, I went back to Afghanistan again with two other cartoonists, Matt Bors and Steven Cloud. The idea was to see how Afghanistan had changed after ten years of foreign occupation. That book was called After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests. That book and To Afghanistan and Back use very, very different approaches, but they both have some repetition. I think repetition is important in that kind of book.
Americans are not terribly intelligent people. They need to read important things several times.
Guernica: Why is repetition important?
Ted Rall: Americans are not terribly intelligent people. They need to read important things several times.
Guernica: You’re working on a biography of Bernie Sanders. A lot of your cartoons talk about how he’s a sacrificial lamb for the Democrats, so that they can feel better about electing Hillary Clinton.
Ted Rall: At first the pro-Democratic media didn’t want anyone to compete against her. But then, the news spin was like, “Oh, it’s great! This will make her stronger! It’s good for her. That way, she’ll come out of the primaries as a better candidate.” It’s still trying to make the point about her inevitability as a candidate: “Here’s this old guy, and we’ll tolerate him, but we know that we can’t have a socialist candidate for president.” Even though the enthusiasm level for Hillary is nearly zero, even among her most ardent supporters.
Bernie Sanders is an impressive guy. My working thesis in the book right now is that his authenticity and his credibility stem precisely from the fact that he has been marginalized from the mainstream political process for decades. He’s been in the US Senate, yeah, he has had a life in politics for thirty years, but he’s never really been able to get anything done. He’s the only socialist in the US Congress. He’s not a Democrat or a Republican, but he’s always been saying the same things about income inequality, in particular.
Finally, now, after the Occupy Wall Street moment, the impulse is out there. In the polls, a third to maybe 40 percent of Americans indicate that they prefer other systems over capitalism. When you have that kind of response, that impulse has to be transmitted somewhere.
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