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Ted Rall’s “Censored” Obama Cartoon and Other Controversies

Are editorial decisions really censorship? When I discussed the issue with Ted Rall, America’s most widely read alternative editorial cartoonist, he was unequivocal: “To edit is to censor. It’s true. Look it up in the dictionary.” And thus, his latest blog column headline is “I have been censored by Daily Kos.”

I recommend that you read the whole story. But here it is, in brief: A few weeks ago Rall began giving his cartoons to Daily Kos. For free. But when he logged onto the site last Thursday, he was confronted with an admin message that read, in part: “Your depiction of Barack Obama as ape-like is intolerable… If it happens again, your posting privileges will be suspended.”

Naturally, he’s stopped contributing.

Rall is no stranger to controversy. His savage 1999 Village Voice takedown of Art Spiegelman as New York’s ruling cartoon power broker made him a pariah among many comics artists. More recently, I reported on Imprint about Rall’s “print vs. online publishing” debate with graphic journalist Susie Cagle, which you can read here. And he’s had frequent run-ins with editors and the public during his 20+ years of political cartooning. A fiercely independent progressive, he’s been called a racist and much worse by the right. And now he’s hearing it from the left.

Here’s my full interview with Rall, conducted for an upcoming Print feature on banned political cartoons. Among other topics, he discusses his profession’s current lack of expressive freedom, the comic he’d take back, the one that made him doubt himself, and the future of cartoon censorship in general.

What’s your perspective on the state of censorship under Bush and Obama?

Neither the left or the right has a monopoly on censorship. For me, it is less about an individual cartoon being censored as much as it is an entire point of view or a body of work. For example, it has always been difficult to get anti-free-trade agreement cartoons printed in any newspaper or magazine, or widely disseminated online. The corporate media likes free-trade too much to allow it to be criticized. Also, after the 2000 Bush v. Gore election recount, no one wanted to discuss the question of Bush’s legitimacy.

You could draw cartoons about the issue, but you knew that nobody was going to put them in print or post them online. That is the effect of censorship: to stifle a point of view that deserves to be heard, even if it’s not necessarily correct.

After September 11, the mainstream media—and even the alternative media—abdicated their role as critics of the government. Pretty much if you were critical of Bush or the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, nobody wanted to hear from you. That has only barely begun to change, I would say in the last year. And even so, we are nowhere close to having the freedom to do the kind of work that we were able to do back in the 1990s.

What about your perspective on editors who censor cartoonists?

It isn’t easy to be an editor. I have been an editor. I have gotten into shouting matches with cartoonists over work that I would not send out. This was because I was editing material for corporate media, and I knew that the ramifications for both of us would be severe. So, of course, I have a lot of empathy for editors.

In many cases, a good editor is simply trying to protect you from yourself, save you from being hurt in your career, or truly trying to help you bring out your voice as effectively as possible, and sometimes you agree and sometimes you don’t agree with them. These decisions are never easy. Where I get annoyed at editors is if there issues of taste are really masquerades for issues of politics.

But that doesn’t happen too often with me. Anyone who runs my work knows what they’re getting into, for the most part.

Of all the work you’ve had censored, which have affected you most personally?

The Pat Tillman piece is the one that I would take back, because it later emerged that the back story behind Tillman was very different from what was being portrayed in the media at the time.

The only way a cartoonist or any other creative person can produce their best possible work is for them to be protected from censorship of any kind, whether it be governmental or economic. If you have to worry about being fired because you offend someone, for example, you will pay too much attention to not offending anyone, and not enough attention to creating great work.

Freedom means economic freedom, and economic freedom means the freedom to not be fired no matter what you do. There is literally no freedom of speech in any society where someone can lose income for what they say or do.

Now some people will reply that it isn’t practical to let artists or writers express themselves completely freely, and maybe they are right, but let’s not kid ourselves that we live in a free society.

What do you see as the future of cartoon censorship?

To edit is to censor. It’s true. Look it up in the dictionary. So there will always be censorship as long as there are gatekeepers. Of course, anyone can put anything up on the Internet, but if nobody comes to see it, if it’s not at a site that is well-funded and hires programmers who are able to direct traffic toward it, then it might as well have been published in your own bedroom.

So I think that things will pretty much continue the way that they have been, with one big exception: vulgarity is going to be far more widely accepted than it ever has been in the past. George Carlin’s seven dirty words will no longer be considered so dirty, and will trickle through the culture. The Internet and cable television will assure us of that.

What do you think? Can editing be considered censorship? And between Rall and Kos, whose side are you on?

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