Yes, despite what the GOP thinks, racism in America is alive and well.
However, aside from the very real institutional racism that haunts the U.S. from its Jim Crow Jr. prison industrial complex to less funny things like "Saturday Night Live," some on the left are beginning to see it where none actually exists.
The latest victim of knee-jerk claims of racism is award-winning political cartoonist Ted Rall and his former diary on the liberal blog Daily Kos. Rall logged in to Kos on Thanksgiving to find a baffling message explaining why he had been banned.
Your depiction of Barack Obama as ape-like is intolerable. Being critical of Obama, even ferociously so, is not the problem. Through British and American history, blacks have been subjected to racist depictions of themselves as monkeys and apes. No excuse is acceptable for replicating that history now no matter what your intent. If it happens again, your posting privileges will be suspended.
The purportedly offensive work:
As Ruben Bolling, creator of "Tom the Dancing Bug," notes: anyone familiar with Rall's work knows that crude, "ape-like" depictions of all races is basically his shtick. We're primates, after all. And while a lot of the irrational anger directed at Obama is undoubtedly rooted in the irrational fear of melanin, it's a bit tragic when the left cannibalizes one of its own.
Rall's addressed the Daily Kos censorship on his blog, and written about the media pile-on (something I know nothing about). Since this kind of stuff drives me nuts, it was a good excuse to email one of America's finest purveyors of political doodles.
Q: So, what the hell?
As I have already stated, this is an extremely upsetting accusation. Racism is one of the most serious charges anyone can be accused of, and it is especially tough when you are on the left. While anyone can take issue with my drawings of the president -- which is kind of odd coming four years into it, but whatever -- accusations of racism shouldn't be flying around as cavalierly as they do on and by Daily Kos.
From what I can tell, the vast majority of the criticism comes from white supporters of Obama who are willing to pretty much say anything in order to get their critics to shut up. It's pretty shameful behavior. That's what we saw coming from that administrator.
Obviously if there's even one person who is legitimately troubled by something that I have drawn or written, it worries me and bothers me and I want to do something about it. So I may well end up changing the way that I draw Obama in the future. I have to think about it and work on it. But I am not going to be cowed by an anonymous administrator for a website that doesn't even employ me. Frankly, I think that given the kind of work that I have done over the years, often taking risks to stand up for the poor and disadvantaged, I think that I should enjoy the benefit of any doubt. That's what really bothers me about this.
Q: Do you know who the admin is who banned you or how to contact that person?
No, I have absolutely no idea. The message was completely unsigned. The screenshot that I posted is all that I saw.
Q: And have you talked to anyone over there since this happened?
No. No one has contacted me.
[Nor has anyone at Daily Kos returned my inquiries. -Ian]
(Editor's note: Markos did, however, publish a post about Ian reaching out to him, in which he claims the cartoon's racism is "obvious" and then rather amazingly seems to deny that Rall was even banned.)
Q: Seems like some people who've never seen your work presume the Obama cartoon is somehow racist, and I talked to a couple people on Twitter who supposedly understood how someone might think that. I don't. Do you?
Not really. I only have a small subset of noses, lips, facial shapes, etc. All of the ones that compose Obama have been used on white characters as well. I have a very abstract drawing style. Ironically, I initially developed an abstract drawing style in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of caricature which can lead you to being accused of being sexist or racist.
Context matters a lot, namely the context of a cartoonist's or artist's body of work. Because of the Internet, it is increasingly easy to take work radically out of context and excerpt it or sample it or just take one piece, but the readers really don't have the whole picture. For example, if I were to do work in a sarcastic voice, people who don't know my work wouldn't know that I was being sarcastic.
I admit it, I really don't see it. That said, I will definitely be thinking about it and trying to see if there are modifications I could make that could address these concerns.
Q: And is it the responsibility of viewers, consumers of art, whatever you want to call them to be somewhat familiar with an artist's work before rendering such an awful (inaccurate) judgment?
I think it's necessary for people to dig a little deeper before they thought start flinging around words like racist or sexist or misogynist or whatever. When you find out that the artist in question has a long history of politics on the left and has always come out against racism in all of its forms, that should inform your analysis of something that you might find offensive. I think what is really going on here is the power of suggestion: people follow a link that says "hey, come look at this horrible racist cartoon of the President drawn like a gorilla" and guess what? People are going to be predisposed to thinking that the cartoon of the president is racist and looks like a gorilla.
Q: Does at least some of this "outrage" seem disingenuous to you -- a way for The Defenders of Obama, so to speak, to cast you out of their happy, Dem-loving bias fest?
Definitely. Ever since I started posting over there, even when I posted my column which has no cartoons in it at all, people were very upset and calling me all sorts of derogatory names. Seems to me that they have been out to get me from the very beginning. In fact, there were many progressive posters at Daily Kos who predicted that this would happen from day one. They saw it coming. This has happened before to people like Michael Moore, Glenn Greenwald, Greg Palast and other progressives who owe no explanations to these jackals.
Q: And how much of this is an odd projection do you think? The latest thing I can think of like this (kinda) was when Justin Bieber (I'm so sorry) drew some horrible graffiti of an anthropomorphized monkey wearing a hat and tank top. I can understand more so why people might think that's racist, as opposed to your situation, but at the same time it's just a damn kid drawing a monkey! Thoughts?
Yes, I agree. A big part of me thinks, wow what is wrong with you that you see a gorilla there? That never crossed my mind. I don't think of Obama as a black guy. I think of him as a man who is worth over $10 million, is the most powerful politician in the world, and commands the biggest armies and navies on the planet. I'm not thinking about monkeys are gorillas or ways to demean him personally. My issues with him go far beyond that. If you look at the history of blacks depicted as gorillas in racist art from the 19th century, you don't see anything that comes even close to what I draw. So I really kind of don't know what they're talking about.
Q: Speaking of which, on a scale from 1 to 10, how maddening is it to you that many people take a dig at Obama to mean you're simply spewing right-wing talking points?
It is maddening. On a scale from 1 to 10, it's a 10. It's the binary nature of American politics. The friend of my friend and the enemy of my enemy, etc., but it's not real. I tend to look at politics from a more international, European outlook. Both political parties in United States are to the right of center. And they both have a lot more in common than not.
There's nothing new about this. Back in the mid-1990s, when I attacked Bill Clinton from the left, I had right-wing newspapers buy my cartoons because they thought I was one of them. But it definitely seems to be getting worse.
Q: Why do so many think in this black & white way? Why is everything such a political zero-sum game? Can't you hate over-zealous nonsense without being made out to be Rush Limbaugh?
There are a lot of us out there, but it's hard for us to express ourselves without being shouted down on the Internet by the Obamabots. It's possible to be a leftist and to hate the Democratic Party. I don't know why that's so difficult for people to understand. After all, there is nothing left about the Democratic Party.
(Editor's note: Shortly after this story's publication, Rall said he would start drawing President Obama differently to avoid any potential for confusion in the future.)