Pissed Off And Wide Awake: Ted Rall’s Case for American Radicalism
by Kara Westerman
“The greatest achievement of the American government and its allied corporations is that it has convinced us that there is nothing we can do about anything,” says Amagansett cartoonist Ted Rall in his graphic novel “The Anti-American Manifesto. “Ideology is stupid for those of us who have no power. It doesn’t matter what we would do if we did. We don’t. “
This past winter, after thirty years of listening to NPR, I couldn’t tell where NPR stories ended and my brain began, my experiment with Alt-Right Christian radio began. My questions: Would this media change my brain? Might I grow a small pair of horns? At the very least might I get another perspective?
It was terribly exciting to listen to all the right-wing vitriol. It was amazing to see “us” as a cliche after seeing “them” as a cliche for so long. But I could only take the violent and misshapen personalty disorders for so long.
I had been duped by the left to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, even these sociopaths, but it was just wrong.
Had 30 years of NPR changed my brain into a lazy liberal sponge that couldn’t accept the reality of pure evil?
There is an antidote to all the free-floating angst. People like Ted Rall exist. Political cartoonist, graphic novelist, journalist, proud Marxist, intellectual, and all around agitator, it is his mission to teeter on every edge, pushing the boundaries of what this culture, and other cultures, can bear to hear about themselves.
He’s radicalized. Sometimes it gets him into trouble — with the Alt-Right, the regular right, the soft Left, and of course ISIS.
“We think there’s nothing we can do to stop the alarming rate of species extinctions, close the disparity of income and wealth, curb militarism, or just about anything else. To be American is to feel helpless,” he reminds us in “The Anti-American Manifesto.”
Few people, besides Pope Francis, dare to say the word revolution these days. Mr. Rall doesn’t mince words when he says that revolution is the quest for happiness, and that it is worth throwing out the whole political system and starting from scratch.
“A revolutionary war against exploitation is the only way we can begin to directly address and solve most of our problems,” he says, pointing out that we need to define evil and then point to those doing it —“The politicians, bureaucrats, corporate executives, media power brokers and environmental exploiters who spend every waking minute thinking of new ways to rape the world we live in to make an extra buck.”
I saw Mr. Rall speak in Amagansett in 2015 to a packed room of the over-sixty crowd, who listened eagerly to his radical leftist political views, and his sense of irony and humor, while he showed slides of “Snowden,” the first in what would become a series of graphic biographies of major figures in the public discourse.
“People come to my book signings and tell me ‘All you do is complain! What should we do?!’ I’m a political cartoonist by nature. I’m not really used to being positive about anything, but Snowden was a kid who did exactly what you’re supposed to do when confronted with evil and wrongdoing. You’re supposed to out it, even at great personal risk, and he did. I thought here was a story that deserved to be elevated,” he says.
Mr. Rall is definitely drawn to characters who are taking the braver route despite the odds, like the subject of his graphic biography, “Bernie Sanders,” and the one he is working on now about Pope Francis.
“Doing what’s right isn’t supposed to necessarily be easy — it’s just right,” he says.
So what compelled him to do a graphic biography of Trump in 2016? When many people still thought Donald J. Trump was laughable and un-electable, Ted Rall predicted his win.
“I wanted to be wrong, but I had the advantage,” he says. “I grew up in the Rust Belt. I saw the yard signs.”
He thought people should take Trump’s candidacy seriously.
“Yeah, he’s gaudy and he’s gauche — all those things,” he says. “But he’s been the most politically successful politician in my lifetime, whether you like him or not. He changes on a dime.”
He tells me he wished he had some kind of rebellious story arc, but he grew up in Dayton, Ohio with a progressive political single mom. He remembers helping her hand out McGovern buttons, and make calls for the Carter campaign.
“She protested the Vietnam War. She tried to be a social democrat, but was disappointed, like a lot of us,” he said
After Columbia University, Mr. Rall was still convinced that communism was a pie-in-the-sky ideology, and that capitalism, an “extremely efficient, albeit ruthless ideology” was the system that worked in the real world.
He took a banking job, because he believed that people who worked in the economic world were smart, efficient, and driven single-mindedly by the profit motive. Surprisingly that’s where he had his first political awakening, when he discovered shortly that most of the people in banking, just like most of the people everywhere, were driven by a lot of different crackpot desires. He also realized that capitalism didn’t really work very well at all.
“There are lots of things it fails at, even if you’re just trying to line your pockets. It’s not even very good at that,” he said.
Mr. Rall worked on Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal loan application at his banking job in the ‘80s, and was asked to go over Trump’s tax returns, which were required to apply for the $25 million.
“He didn’t have one thin dime on paper. He had a negative net worth for sure at the time,” he said. “It was kind of like ‘I’m Donald Trump! I make magic beans!’ He didn’t get the loan, by the way.”
After his string of graphic biographies, Mr. Rall longs to get back to his meatier books, like his 2010 “The Anti-American Manifesto,” which asks the question “Why is there the absence of a full-fledged revolution in America for over two centuries? What’s the explanation for the failure of Americans to revolt, even when they have a chance?”
Mr. Rall tells me he wrote the manifesto because he came to believe that the American system could not be reformed.
“Reform is always preferable to revolution, if you can pull it off, but if you get to the point where that is impossible…. It’s like a boil that has to be lanced,” he said. “The whole system is crappy and it’s never going to improve.”
He was amazed that he could even get a book with that title out into the public, let alone do a book tour.
His position is that we are already living in a system with a huge amount of violence.
“We might not always be aware of it, being ‘privileged white folks,’” he said. “Every time someone is evicted from their home — making people homeless is violence, depriving people of healthcare is violence — drones, bombings, police shootings — there’s violence throughout the system! I’m advocating an end to violence that may require some violence in order to effect.”
Mr. Rall’s “After We Kill You We Will welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” is a travelogue of sorts, part graphic novel, part history, part political rant. It is an impressively smart, troublesome and wild book, both in subject matter, and structure — it knows no bounds. He is lucky enough to have a publisher who, like himself, doesn’t want his books to fit into conventional boundaries.
“This wasn’t a simple story and I didn’t want to tell it in a simple way,” he says.
Mr. Rall says he has received many death threats, from right wing zealots here, and even a credible ISIS threat last year.
“ISIS just hates cartoonists. And I’m like the most pro-Muslim cartoonist ever — they should love me! But they are a dour bunch,” he says.
When I ask him if he doesn’t think there are some ISIS jokes about us that they laugh about amongst themselves, he says “Of course there are — they’re people! Everyone has jokes.”
While in Afghanistan he met the foreign minister of the Taliban Government in Kabul:
“I asked him — Photography is ‘Haram’(forbidden) — right?
‘Yes’, he said.
‘So what should happen to anyone who takes photographs?’
‘They must be killed.’
‘Killed. Because it is an insult to The Prophet and to Allah.’
I asked him about the two passport photos I was asked to submit in order to get a visa — a photograph of a human being is considered the worst thing.
‘Don’t you see the inconsistency?’
He said, ‘There isn’t one.’
I said, ‘There is! In Islam murder is wrong, and to cause someone to sin is wrong!’
He thought about it a long time, and then he said, ‘But how are we supposed to know what you look like?’
“He never saw the humor in it!” Mr. Rall laughs heartily.
When I ask him how he moved this far left and became a Marxist, he told me that he’s been paying attention and that he cares about people, that it is “simply illogical and irrational to advocate an ideology that starts from the point of view that we are all created un-equal.”
The metrics that capitalism uses to justify paying some people more than others don’t even make sense, he adds.
“Some kids are just born smarter than others. The ones not lucky enough to be born smart — should they be condemned to a life of poverty and misery and cancer because of this accident of birth?”
He adds that it’s hard to even buy into the idea that being smarter is actually what’s going to get you higher pay in this system.
“If it were a meritocracy, it doesn’t stand to reason that some people start the marathon at the 25-mile mark, and everyone else starts at zero,” he says. “Sure, Donald Trump is a self-made man, except for the millions he inherited from his father.”
When I remind him that not everyone agrees that we are entitled, just by being alive, to basic rights — shelter, health care, education — he fires back: “If you don’t believe that — THEN YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!”
I ask him if he’s willing to have less so that everyone can have enough.
“Once you agree that everyone should have enough, it only logically follows that everyone should have the same,” he tells me.
“It doesn’t make any sense otherwise — why should anyone be living a substantially better life than anyone else, have a better doctor, a better house…People who want revolutionary change and are totally against violence should think — how is that ever going to happen?! The rich and powerful are never going to give up power voluntarily!”
My favorite part of “The Anti-American Manisfesto” is his advice for those of us in the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie who want to know what we should do to begin to bring about radical change.
Mr. Rall advises “taking possession of oneself.” He tells me its a mental shift.
“You just decide one day. Let’s say you’re in an abusive relationship, and you decide — I’ve had enough. You might not leave for five years, but that mental shift is when you started to get your way out the door. There’s that moment when you’ve had it and you’re going to look for something else. You just decide — I’m done with this system. I’m no longer vested in it.”
He’s not a new-agey kind of person, he reminds me. He doesn’t generally “subscribe to that kind of rhetoric, and it’s a little new-agey to say, but the only freedom you really have is the freedom to think for yourself. It’s about that.”
“You’re already ready in your heart,” he says. “It’s about deciding that you’re no longer going to buy into this garbage. You’re waiting for the day you see people out on the streets with red flags so that you can go join them — yeah! These are my people! I’m dropping everything — let’s go!”
2 thoughts on “Pissed Off And Wide Awake: Ted Rall’s Case for American Radicalism”
I love the way Westerman does her coverage of everything from film to people to animals to the unique lifestyle created by denizens of the East End. Intellectually honest and curious, she brings a vital energy to everything she writes. Also, The Beacon in general is the perfect platform for good writers, with great photography and choice of coverage.
Thank you, Gayl!