Days of Revolt: Mr. Fish
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and political cartoonist Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth discuss the use of art to speak truth to systems of power in an age of corporate domination of information
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi, I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.
Today we’re going to talk about the nature of the political cartoon, especially in an age of corporate domination of systems of information, a timidity on the part of the left with, to my mind, perhaps the country’s greatest political cartoonist, Dwayne Booth, also known as Mr. Fish. Thank you, Dwayne.
DWAYNE BOOTH: Thanks, Chris.
HEDGES: So let’s just start with what it is you do, in your own, in your own mind. How you would define what you do.
BOOTH: What do I do. I try to bring humanitarian ideas into the debate about politics. And I think that there is an interesting history when it comes to artists contributing that way to the conversation. If you think of–well, let’s just talk about art as a language. What does language, what does art have that, that words don’t have, what words don’t offer. What they have is, is images that reflect reality to people. It looks like reality. With words, you have to concoct an idea of what reality is. And when you have words and use your intellect, you can also manipulate what that reality looks like to people.
I mean, you can put it this way, too. Words are a device that people use to justify injustice, political wrongdoing. Images don’t do that. Images, you can interpret them with words, and you can screw up your comprehension of things. But words look like reality, and they appeal to people’s sense of reality, and also humanity, if you use, if you use people in them.
Just as an example, if you want to talk about what looking at–reading about Gaza, reading about what’s going on with the Palestinians, versus looking at what Joe Sacco does.
HEDGES: You’re talking about Footnotes in Gaza, the masterpiece.
BOOTH: Right. When you put a face, and you put imagery to it, it becomes something that resonates with people in a way that just text alone can’t do.
HEDGES: Although, he uses a lot of text.
BOOTH: He does. But you have the text to help you understand what you’re looking at. And what you’re looking at affects you in a different way. It’s easy to be presented with an argument that is just text, and then to argue against the validity of the catastrophe that’s being described. But when you add imagery to it, it makes it a much more difficult case to make.
HEDGES: One of the things I think you do extremely well is expose the mendacity or hypocrisy of power. And that’s something that you have found even left-leaning publications, Harper’s, the Nation, all of which have rejected some of your work because they felt it was too incendiary, for instance. When they dedicated the Martin Luther King memorial, you drew a picture of police with attack dogs attacking Martin Luther King, and one of the police was Barack Obama.
HEDGES: And they didn’t like it.
BOOTH: They didn’t like it at all.
HEDGES: This was Harper’s.
BOOTH: This was Harper’s magazine, that, you know, leading liberal publication. Very, very old. Yeah, they didn’t like it. Because what it does is it makes the conversation messy. People don’t like to–people would prefer to keep the appreciation of Obama–let me see, there’s a better way to put this.
HEDGES: Well, the stereotype, right. You know, the kind of the liberal stereotype.
BOOTH: Yeah. The idea is because they’re both African-Americans they must be friends. They must have that connection. You know, it’s not lost on me, the fact that Obama is the first African-American president. There is a significance to that. But Martin Luther King lived and died in contempt of the domestic and foreign policies that Obama has been exercising through his entire presidency.
So to not be able to show somebody who is, is, is against injustice and against institutional violence, and then showing the person who perpetrates that with the, you know, he’s African-American and is very, very suave about it, those two people did not like each other. You know, those two people are on opposite sides. So it’s important to use cartoons, images, if you put those two in that, in that visual fight, you know, it’s a difficult image to look at because it’s depicting violence.
HEDGES: It also depicts truth.
HEDGES: An unpleasant truth.
BOOTH: Right. And so what that does, it makes people, you either have to defend it or you either have to say this is wrong, which Harper’s did. Or you can say, this is exactly right. And then you have to have the conversation after you look at it, right.
HEDGES: Well, I think you’ll go places in the pursuit of honesty that very, very few of your colleagues are willing to go. You drew a cartoon based on a Norman Rockwell painting of a little girl being walked to school, but in this case she’s wearing a hijab.
BOOTH: Right. It’s the same, it’s just, it’s an update of prejudice.
HEDGES: Why do you, why do you run into such friction, do you think?
BOOTH: I think because it’s difficult to–when you have an image, right, when you have an image that is inflammatory in any way, it’s really difficult to, to recast that in such a way that it, to contain it. To contain it. Once an image is released, like I said, it resonates with people and it looks like reality. So it’s really difficult to verbally contain an image once it is, it is released. And so what images tend to do, since they are not verbal and they are not intellectualized, until after the fact, is they enter into a person’s, into a person’s mind. And it explodes your belief, and it turns your comprehension of what is being addressed in the drawing into shrapnel, and then you have to put it back together again.
And you have to put it back together in a way where you have to question your previous thoughts before you looked at the image. And that’s, people don’t want to do that. People like to base their political opinions on, on fashion, on allegiance to a, a, to your team.
HEDGES: Well, also, you’re imploding the very meticulously managed image that these figures in power have created for themselves at great cost, expense, and time.
BOOTH: Yeah. Yeah. And they’re also, it’s interesting, you just made me think. If you look at society, okay, where this is sort of a broad analogy. If you look at society as a chess match, right, we’ve got power represented by certain people, and we’ve got people who have less power. And they function in the rules of this game, right, that’s how society works. Art does not–it doesn’t have to rely on the rules of the game and all the expectations that people have, because it’s thinking outside, it’s questioning the folly of the game in a way that is unique, right.
So I try to do cartoons that look at that chess board, right, and make it a tragedy to understand that you cannot play chess with somebody where you’re not forced to sacrifice some of your own players, where you’re not going to–you have to, you have to attack the other opponent. Right, those are the rules of society, right.
So if you’re looking, and you’re living inside of a society that functions like that, it’s the job of the artist, or even just the radical thinker, to question the folly of this game. And with images when you show the brutality of how this game is played, that’s when people are going to see it as being much more believable than if you’re trying to convince them with an intellectual argument.
HEDGES: You’ve spent a lot of time illustrating the American military machine. That, you know, seeps into a lot of your work.
BOOTH: Yeah. Because it’s a difficult conversation for people to have. I did cartoons leading up to the invasion of Iraq that I never got any hate mail about. This is before the invasion. So I was questioning the obvious catastrophe that was about to happen. And I was also questioning the job of the, of the soldier. When the, when the invasion was, began, that’s when I started to get death threats, because I continued questioning what the, what, you know, how do we perceive the troops? You can’t just, okay, we have to support the troops.
And I did a cartoon that depicted individual troops. And I wrote, good guy, good guy, good guy, good guy, good guy, and I put a big bracket around it to group them all, and I said bad guys. Because the conversation is such that it’s not an easy conversation to have. And if you’re a responsible cartoonist and you know how to do that, you know not to, to–. As a cartoonist and a joke-teller, you have license to step outside of the box. It’s what humor does. And if you’re a good humorist, the stuff that you do is not funny. Because I think that great satire, and great art that is under the umbrella of satire, you have the responsibility to avoid making it just about finding the punchline. Because mirth cripples rage. And when you’re trying to inspire people to recognize what’s wrong with the government and do something about it, and get–put bodies in, to step out into the street and raise your first in the air, you can’t give people the phys–their physiological, the relief of the laugh.
HEDGES: That’s like the fool in King Lear.
HEDGES: Who speaks the most naked truth about Lear, throughout the play.
HEDGES: Which, you know, is coming from a point of satire, but also is, because it is a naked truth, twinned with a kind of painful recognition. Which I think is what your work does.
BOOTH: Yeah, and I think that people want to see that, because it does feel more honest. You know, I think people in their private moments, when they’re deliberating on these notions and on the reality of history and what’s happening in the world right now, they know that it’s screwed up. They know that there’s a problem and they know that there’s a lot of pain, right. Once you move into a public space where it’s impolite to complain as loudly as you want to complain, and when you want to speak truth to power, which is considered impolite, there’s a time and a place, you become much more conservative than you really are at heart.
So showing people art and getting them to look at an image, it happens internally. When you look at an image, your reaction to it is inside yourself.
HEDGES: Well, it hits you–I mean, it has a kind of emotional punch, I think, much of your work. And it is that kind of shock value, that recognition.
BOOTH: Right, but what is that shock? That’s the interesting thing about art. I think the history of art is that–what makes it really interesting is that, like I was saying, as an artist you create in this private moment, right. You’re less likely to BS, because you’re dealing with your own mind, you’re dealing with your own thoughts. So you are going to be a more honest person.
So as an artist working in a private space, you create in that moment, right. And you make something that has less BS. Then you present it into the public, and then the public does have this reaction. But at the same time they know that it’s true. It’s not as cold. It’s just like, wow, that’s crazy, that’s just wild. It resonates with them as a form of truth-telling. And that’s why it has significance, and that’s why it is, it’s savored by so many people. Because it does, it looks like the truth.
HEDGES: It is the truth. I mean, you also are not shy about drawing historical parallels. For instance, with the Palestinians and Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
BOOTH: Right. Because I think that we have a responsibility, particularly in this country, to condemn a state that is perpetrating massive violence on a population. And that is not anti-semitic.
HEDGES: I believe you did a piece on that, that you never were able to publish anywhere. Is that correct?
BOOTH: Right. I did one that I was thinking, you know, what group of people would have the greatest sympathy for a, another group that is being starved out of existence–.
HEDGES: Kept in a ghetto, like Gaza.
BOOTH: Right. And is, is being attacked by a state that is ruthless. You know, it would be the survivors of the concentration camps from World War II. It would be the Jewish population.
HEDGES: The deputy commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Marek Edelman, who was a socialist, so he was not a Zionist. He was a part of the [inaud.], coming out in the ’60s defending Palestinian resistance, and equating it to his own armed resistance against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. That didn’t make him too popular in Israel, either.
HEDGES: You know, when you begin to draw, are you propelled forward by, you know, a particular outrage at the moment? I mean, what is the process by which you create?
BOOTH: The process by which I create is I–. It’s funny, because I’ve gotten that question before. And like, what are your news sources? And it’s, it’s funny, because what my news sources are is I go to Google News. Because I think what I need to do is I need to see what the majority, the mainstream population is looking at. Which is usually the most ridiculous interpretation of what’s going on in the world. Because that’s what’s mostly, that’s the danger. It’s, you know, when the herd, that’s the information that the herd is being motivated by.
So I feel like it’s my responsibility to speak in a language that it’s going to be easiest for most people to understand, and to ridicule what is being perpetrated as truth. It’s a, it’s just, it’s that simple. And it’s not that difficult, because all you need to do is know that you’re looking at BS. Right? And then, and then naming it.
HEDGES: It’s mostly BS. I mean, look at the presidential campaign.
BOOTH: Yeah. And that’s another thing. It’s interesting, because when the presidential campaigns come around, people are always telling me, oh, you must be having the time of your life. And it is not–it’s the opposite. It’s a nightmare. Because it–because there’s so much that is going on–.
HEDGES: Because the levels of mendacity are so massive.
BOOTH: Yeah. But what drives me crazy is people’s understanding of–first off, thinking that you’re participating in a democracy by voting every few years is nonsense. Secondarily–and this is actually a problem with a lot of political cartoonists, and something that I try not to do, which is I don’t like to do cartoons that will have–we’ll just use George W. Bush as an example, because when he was president for eight years, political cartoonists had a field day. And what they did, and what I tried not to do, is depict him always as a monster, as a buffoon, as a monkey, as all these things, because what it did, in my mind, was it, it screwed with people’s concept of where the target of their, of their, of their ridicule should be.
If you’re looking at an image of Bush as a monster, you start to direct all your vitriol towards this, this monster. And you start to think, if we get rid of this monster, things will be a lot better. And at the same time, there’s this power structure that has gotten this monster in, who’s really just a figurehead on this, on this power structure that is not voted in, right. And then you start targeting this mythology while everything stays the same. And then you think, okay, once Obama gets in, he’s Ghandi. He’s going to change everything, because he’s literally the opposite of Bush. But only in style. And then you miss the opportunity to be intelligent about how to strategize a way to, to make positive change.
And then you’re surprised. It seems like the population is surprised every time it happens, you know, because now we’re, it’s just, again, it’s just like, thinking, who can get in there?
HEDGES: Right. Well, it shows a total misunderstanding of the nature of power, corporate power in the United States and how it works.
BOOTH: That’s right. And that’s, and like I said, there’s a lot of, of it–if you look at editorial and political cartooning in this country, it is embarrassing. None of them are my heroes, and they never were, because I think it’s a way to misdirect your comprehension of the world in many ways. Sure, a cartoon can bring up certain issues, political and social issues, and make you feel like you can access them as a reader, and then you have the right to have an opinion about some things.
But when it does what I was saying, if it vilifies a particular person and misses the webbing that supports this person, you’re actually perpetuating a stupidity that is not going to change.
HEDGES: Well, what they do, which you don’t, is they will critique the foibles of the system. You critique the system.
HEDGES: Which makes you far more subversive, and unpalatable, and a much greater artist, I think.
BOOTH: And woefully underpaid.
HEDGES: Well, you know, there’s a reason for that.
BOOTH: Yeah. And it’s actually, it’s actually a source of pride at this point.
HEDGES: Who are your heroes? Who do you–.
BOOTH: Who are my heroes?
BOOTH: My heroes are–. They’re, they’re writers.
HEDGES: Who, like who?
BOOTH: Let me see. I wanted to be a very dangerous philosopher when I was younger. And I read a lot of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and Rumi is also a great inspiration to me. And fine artists. You know, people are always talking about Daumier as the grandfather of political cartooning. It’s true. But what is, what is beautiful about Daumier is the work that wasn’t published while he was alive, to me. It was this, like, the third-class carriage, and certain things that reflect the humanity of people, and depictions of the downtrodden having dignity. That’s beautiful to me.
If we can create art that reflects our humanity, that’s political. Because if we recognize our own humanity, and the humanity in other people, then we’ll want to protect that humanity.
HEDGES: What about, like, [autodits], I mean, those great German–.
BOOTH: Yeah, yeah.
HEDGES: I kind of see you coming out of that, you know.
BOOTH: Yeah, I guess so.
HEDGES: Fierce critique of power, and what power does to the vulnerable.
BOOTH: Yeah. And you know, and it’s–. Like I said, it’s really important for me to be the kind of artist that can’t easily be classified. You know–.
HEDGES: As soon as you’re classified, you’re finished.
HEDGES: What’s the hardest topic for you to illustrate?
BOOTH: I don’t even know how to answer that, because I don’t–I think that I, I sort of follow my heart when it comes to what I want to, what I want to render, and, and–.
HEDGES: But a topic that you keep trying to get, you know, you, you know, when you’re working on that topic, it’s the hardest labor for you to convey.
BOOTH: I’d probably–. Hmm, that’s a, that’s a good question. Maybe it’s, it’s, it’s the dignity of human beings, and rendering them in such a way where you can’t misread the image, and say he’s saying that a liberal democrat is where it’s at. You know–. That’s why I was saying, the beauty of–it’s like the beauty of the New Testament, if you will. I, I do cartoons about Jesus. And I don’t believe in the mythology of, of the story.
HEDGES: You’ve actually used Jesus as a kind of, you know, prophetic figure in your cartooning.
BOOTH: Yeah. Because the truth of the matter is I love the radical idea. Right, the radical, the story of Jesus as the radical truth-teller, and the supporter of people who needed support and recognition for their, for their humanity.
HEDGES: That’s why they crucified him.
BOOTH: They killed him.
HEDGES: They killed him as an insurrectionist, yeah.
BOOTH: Yeah. So it’s, it’s–. That, to me, is, that’s the ultimate goal when it comes to creating art, is trying to avoid labeling from the outside. You know, it’s a reflection–it’s trying to find the humanity that is self–that is obvious, and self-evident.
HEDGES: I mean, you must struggle, as I do, and I’m going to ask you this final question, especially given the rise of the security and surveillance state, climate change, which has probably doomed [the human sp–]. We both have children. I mean, you see it, you get it, you illustrate it. How do you cope with that despair?
BOOTH: I feel that I have no–as I’m sure that you do. I mean, what else are you going to do? You know, I, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I felt like I was just fooling myself and contributing to this doomsday. I’ll keep it, I’ll try to make it as slow motion as possible, you know, by not participating as much as I can avoid participating.
HEDGES: Well, but you do more than that. You fight back.
BOOTH: That’s what I try to do.
HEDGES: You do it really well.
BOOTH: Thank you.
HEDGES: Thank you, Dwayne. And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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