Opus 83:

Opus 83: MORE ROILING ABOUT RALL (March 20). Not content with skewering the alleged entrepreneurial greed of those widows of the Nine-Eleven tragedy who have tried to parlay their grief into profitable careers, Ted Rall finished the week by taking swipes at what he perceives as the excess of generosity that has resulted in money being thrown at surviving victims of the disaster in the months since September. And then, in a startling turn-about, he seemed to retreat from his earlier defiant posture as an opinion monger and tried to take refuge under the mantle of harmless humorist. But let's go back to the beginning of the current fuss and follow the chronology since then.

            First, if you don't remember the circumstances surrounding Rall's nefarious "Terror Widows" cartoon, take a moment to review Opus 82 by clicking here. Then return and we'll take up the chronology.   

            You're back? Okay, here we go again.

            A couple days after the Weekly Standard called Rall "pathologically mean-spirited," Alan Keyes, onetime Presidential candidate and host of MSNBC'S "Alan Keyes Is Making Sense" program, weighed in with his online column. Invoking the U.S.'s holy war against terrorism and the concomitant imperative to support the cause with national unity, Keyes postulated that Rall's cartoon was "an assault on the decent national sensibilities crucial to the war effort" and called, forthwith, for Rall to be fired "by those with professional authority over him" in order to prevent the cartoonist from "subverting our national resolve." Keyes then went on to suggest that if Rall's supervisors wouldn't fire him, then perhaps governmental action would be necessary, implying the need for official censorship.

            At the same time, at New York Metro's website, people were invited to vote on the cartoon, choosing from: (A) Rall is right. Get over it; (B) Yes, it's insensitive but don't be so darn PC. Leave it up; and ( C) It's disgusting for Rall to belittle our tragedy. By March 17, the third response was leading with 52% vs. 40% for B.

            Meanwhile, Rall's brethren in the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) saw in Keyes' column a genuine threat. Given the Bush League's hysteria about the war it is waging coupled to its penchant for muzzling criticism, it was easy to imagine the overnight emergence of a wartime censorship akin to that which had prevailed in Word War I and II. Hoping to nip this sort of thinking in the bud, the AAEC Prexy, Scott Stantis, and Vice President, Ann Telnaes, fired off a letter to Keyes on March 14.

            "Dear Mr. Keyes: The membership of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists was more than a little mystified by your recent column posted on MSNBC.com. As a commentator surely you must appreciate that the First Amendment is our first and best protection in an open and democratic America.

            "In your column you wrote: 'But it is worth remembering that when serious and sustained attempts to undermine public opinion on a matter genuinely essential to national life cannot be resisted by other means, governmental action may be necessary.' It is puzzling that a person who has railed against the left and its attempts to stifle [the] speech it finds offensive would advocate a government sanctioned book burning. While the AAEC doesn't comment on individual cartoonist's viewpoints, we strongly condemn any type of press censorship.

            "We respect your right to criticize but, in this instance, the AAEC believes Alan Keyes is Making Nonsense."

            And while this was transpiring, the April issue of Gear magazine hit the stands. In it, Rall's cartoon posited a fanciful future ten years hence and took us to a New York fire house where the fire fighters are still, ten years later, receiving cash donations to alleviate the financial distress of the widows and orphans of Nine-Eleven. The pile of cash has, by this time, grown to such monumental dimensions that the "vault" under the firehouse won't hold any more so they're forced to heap it all up in the corner. The fire fighters are now the highest paid civil servants in the world and enjoy in consequence "the lifestyles of Third World dictators." They're even driven to fires in limousines.

            Clearly, the cartoon was, as Gear editor Bob Guccione Jr. said, "deliberately preposterous." And that, in fact, was the font of its humor. But even if it wasn't calculated to rouse the ire of the stalwart NY fire fighters, it did. Coming on the heels of the "Terror Widows" cartoon, the Gear cartoon inspired outrage among the fire fighters. And MSNBC invited Guccione and Rall to be interviewed on the subject. The interview, conducted by MSNBC's Lester Lockjaw (not his real surname) was aired late Friday afternoon, March 15.

            Lester began by asking Rall what the message of the cartoon was supposed to be.

Rall, sitting next to Guccione, had the peeved air of a man who was both annoyed and bored by the week-long controversy his cartoons had provoked, and when he spoke, it was with a condescending manner that matched his look. What he said, however, suggested that he was just a little cowed by the vehemence of the anger he had stirred up-and perhaps he'd even been counseled to soft-pedal his opinions in an effort to get out of the spotlight rather than to provoke further outrage by defending the opinions his cartoons seemed to embody.

            "It's a joke, Lester," Rall began. "There's no message to be sent in a simple cartoon that's a joke.... The cartoon that appeared in Gear about the fire department ... is a simple 'what if' question-what if money kept pouring in year after year after year. People need to understand: this is a cartoon. It's a cartoon," he repeated, speaking slowly, deliberately, as if talking to the mentally deficient.

            Lester then took up the earlier cartoon that "mocked the widows" and asked if Rall was trying to send a message that "nothing and no one is sacred."

            "No," Rall said. "I'm just a cartoonist who has ideas and does cartoons for different clients. I wasn't trying to send any message, any kind of post 9-11 message. But while we're on the subject: This is America. We can and should be able to talk about anything. There are not any sacred cows. And anyone who says otherwise obviously doesn't like the Constitution very much."

            Guccione chimed in to make it clear that his magazine "never intended to hurt anyone." The idea, he said, was "simply to make people laugh-and to provoke a little thought. Humor is at its best when it's very extreme and very outrageous. It is, after all, humor."

            Lester then cut away to talk to a New York fire fighter named Steve Cassidy.

            "If he hadn't gone for the widows first," Cassidy said, "we would have let it go." But, he went on, the cartoon is wrong on the facts. The cartoon shows fire fighters receiving money, but no money is going to any living firefighters. The money goes to the families of fire fighters who lost their lives in the World Trade Center.

            Asked why he thought Rall drew the cartoon, Cassidy said it looked as if Rall was just looking for notoriety. "I never heard of him before this," he finished.

            Asked to comment, Rall reacted, his ego bruised, by citing the number of newspapers that publish his cartoon and the Robert F. Kennedy journalism awards he's won and a Pulitzer nomination.

            "I resent the insult and the implication," he said, "that we're looking for notoriety on the backs of dead fire fighters. If people haven't heard of me and if they're living in New York and haven't heard of me, they're not paying attention," he continued, noting his regular weekly appearances in the New York Times ("which you may have heard of," he sneered) and Village Voice.

            "I don't need any more notoriety," Rall finished.

            Guccione repeated that his magazine didn't intend to cause anyone any pain. But, he went on, "we're going to step on toes with cartoons of a satirical nature. That's why we asked Ted to join the magazine."

            Asked if he would be doing more cartoons of this kind, Rall said he couldn't say for sure but implied that he would. "Most of my cartoons are about current events," said he, smiling tolerantly, "-things going on in the culture. There are no sacred cows. I don't think people who look for the truth, the hard truth, in a cartoon are going to find it. A cartoon is satire. It's a cartoon by definition.... It's not true. You should not be looking for truth in a cartoon."

            Rall's response throughout this encounter was in sharp contrast to his more combative stance the week before on CNN and on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." In both those appearances, Rall asserted the opinion that inspired his "Terror Widows" cartoon-namely, that some of the widows ("a tiny group who have been doing the rounds on TV") were "trying to promote some kind of very narrow religious or political or personal agenda." And his cartoon was intended to ridicule this bunch of war profiteers.

            Writing in his own syndicated newspaper column on March 13, Rall indicated that his "Terror Widows" cartoon had been aimed at those who "have gone from asking for much needed help to taking excessive advantage of American generosity in the wake of overwhelming tragedy."

            But Rall offered no such defense for his Gear cartoon. It was, as Lester inferred from Rall's responses, "just a joke."

            But even a joke has a target. In this case, Rall posed a ludicrous situation-a seemingly unending flow of donations to fire fighters-which implicitly asks the question: How long do we keep on giving? And if Rall doesn't see that his cartoon contains that criticism, he needs to devote a little more time to studying his medium.

            The cartoonist was clearly feeling embattled. And I think, under the gun, he became confused. To seek to explain or excuse his work by saying it is just "a cartoon" looks very much as if he is attempting to evade responsibility for what he's said. And when he hitches "cartoon" to "satire" in an off-hand way, suggesting that even satire is harmless fun, he's either displaying ignorance or he's equivocating. (And Rall is not ignorant.)

            Moreover, by implying, strenuously, that cartoons are harmless, Rall ironically emasculates all his colleagues who attempt to stimulate public debate on governmental policy and social practices with editorial cartoons that are provocative. I'm pretty sure Rall didn't realize the effect of his words: heretofore, he's been an outspoken advocate for hard-hitting editorial cartoons that express decided opinions-that is, cartoons that make pungent comments rather than just tell funny jokes. In fact, Rall has belittled cartoons that just tell jokes. And now, suddenly, he says that's all he's doing. Not likely.

            As I said, I think Rall was advised to cool it before he went to MSNBC. But whether he was so advised or not-and whether or not he acted upon the advice-it's clear he wanted to avoid a confrontation.

            Guccione at least recognized the significance of a satirical cartoon: it might step on toes. Rall seemed eager to escape criticism by saying that he was only trying to make people laugh.

            At the same time, somewhat incongruously, Rall stoutly maintains that the First Amendment gives him the right to say whatever he wants to say. He defends his license as a commentator, but then denies that he has anything at all disturbing to say.

            Rall seems to think that his First Amendment right is being attacked if people voice their displeasure with his work. Well, Ted-they have the same First Amendment rights as you have.

            It seems, upon reflection, that Rall can't stand the heat in the kitchen. At least, not after a solid week of being basted in the oven of media scrutiny.

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