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March 6, 2002

The war of Rall against all Via Charles Johnson, here’s the AP story about the Rall strip being dropped from the New York Times web site.
In a statement, Rall and the syndicate acknowledged the cartoon’s sensitive subject matter, but did not apologize.

“Pushing the envelope of polite criticism is what editorial cartoonists do,” the statement said. “Rall represents a point of view that will not be everyone’s opinion. He is looking at a recent news events with the cynical eye of a satirist.”

Of course, the truth is that what editorial cartoonists do sometimes pushes the envelope of polite criticism, not the other way around. It’s the difference between observing that professional boxers sometimes hit people, and claiming that if a professional boxer hits someone, it must be okay because “hitting people is what professional boxers do.”

What we see here is the long history of admirable efforts to defend artistic independence being twisted into a rationale for letting someone behave monstrously.

Indeed, many humans with more sentience than seafood have winced a bit at some of the wrangles among the WTC-bereaved over relief money, etc. But how this remotely excuses Rall’s strip, with its vile and inane slap at Marianne Pearl, is beyond me. Perhaps Rall thinks the whole Daniel Pearl murder was something concocted by the Bush Administration. Then again, perhaps he’s just a moron. [02:55 PM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on The war of Rall against all:

Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 07:35 AM:

The problem with writing things in a comment box is that every so often you close some entirely different window by mistake and your half-drafted prose slips silently into the ether.aaThis was one of those times. What I wanted to say was that this was a terribly unfunny cartoon. It set my teeth on edge. I cannot see what Rall, or anyone else, thought was funny about it.aaAnd yet. One way to create humour is to guess where the line rests between things which are funny and things which are offensive and sordid, and then skate just as close to that line as you possibly can. I like this approach. I like to write articles, and produce art, which works in this way, and I very often enjoy other people's humour of this kind. aaAlso, I think there is a seam of humour here which Rall fails to mine. At Christmas, a photo was released of 15 WTC widows with their new babies. This photo shoot must have been unspeakably sad, with general chitchat about births and the amazing things that babies do intermingled with tales of funerals and living as lone parents. But you see little of this in the photo. At some point someone said "ok, now, girls, lets have some nice smiles for the camera", and there were great big cheesy grins all round. And I've read a ton of interviews of the basic form "Nothing will bring my husband back, but I'm monumentally pissed off that I got less money than [some other widow]". I am not going to try, but I am sure that it would be possible to construct a piece of funny writing here.aaI think it's right that humourists flirt with the line between funny and offensive; and there will be times when they produce things that I find unfunny, or offensive, or both; and that this is actually a positive thing. And I'm sure that some people found the Terror Widows strip hilarious. They won't be able to tell you why the strip is funny, because that's rarely possible. But should Ted Rall be prevented from making them laugh, just because we don't get the joke?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 08:12 AM:

I think it's pretty obvious that I like humor that "flirts with the line between funny and offensive"; also, that I cut a lot of slack for humor that sometimes slips over the line. aaMore to the point, I also think it's pretty obvious that I don't think anyone should be "prevented" from publishing anything. Is there a parallel world where one can say "I think such-and-such is a loathesome idea" or "Thus-and-such is disgusting bad art", and not immediately have to defend one's self against charges of wanting to censor? Where one doesn't have to, wearily, once again, make the distinction between deploring something and wanting to prevent its existence? (To say nothing of the distinction between declining to publish something and making it illegal to publish.) I want that parallel world to exist. I'd like to move there.

Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 08:37 AM:

Two things.aa1) I found the strip very offensive.aa2) I think this Ted Rall strip is an interesting counterpoint.a aSo, unlike (seemingly) most, I'm not willing to condemn Mr. Rall as unspeakably vile human bereft of any goodness on the basis of this one work. He has, without doubt, crossed my line on taste with this strip -- however, if doing so once meant that I could no longer deal with a given human as a person, there are a very large number of people whom I could no longer interact with -- including, I'm afraid, myself.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 09:13 AM:

Well, of course, it's easy to strike a bravely contrarian position if you start by caricaturing everyone else's. In fact, though, I missed the "seemingly most" people who are "willing to condemn Mr. Rall as an unspeakably vile human bereft of any goodness". I speculated that perhaps he's a moron, and I had some vivid adjectives for some of his behavior, among them "vile," and "inane." Calling someone "an unspeakably vile human bereft of any goodness" is something else entirely, and I earnestly wish you would acquaint yourself with that distinction before you acccuse me of doing such a thing.aaSecond, you might want to recall that the way Ted Rall originally came up on this blog was in the context of my observation that some folks in the blogiverse seem to think the views of people like Ted Rall are more deserving of attention and opprobrium than, say, the immense web of connections between the current Administration and the House of Saud. Then, practically the moment I'd said that, Rall turned up with a cartoon that reminded me of why, on the other hand, he's earned quite so much opprobrium. Having begun by calling for perspective, now I'm being used as the extreme voice against which others get to strike a pose of measured moderation. Perhaps it's is just my own problem, but I find this makes me soggy and hard to light.aaErik! Old pal! Be measured and moderate against this! I'm glad you posted that other Rall strip, because it usefully focusses me on the fact that, while I grant that in this case he's not being horrible to any actual individual, nonetheless I pretty much disagree with every word in each of these four panels--in the words of the old joke, up to and including "a'", "of", and "the".

Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 09:24 AM:

I didn't think I'd said that it wasn't reasonable to criticise art, or say that it's loathsome; or that this can't be distinguished from wanting to censor it. I should have said 'discouraged' rather than 'prevented', for sure.aaThe impression I got from your piece was that you felt Rall had behaved monstrously in producing the strip, should have apologised for it, and that his behaviour was inexcusable. But when asked, Ted Rall said, roughly, "well, *I* thought, and still think, it was funny". And as far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much the only justification a humourist ought to have to make for their work. Though it certainly casts doubt on whether I'm likely to find his other work funny.aaIt does not explain, however, why the NYT printed it. And here things get interesting. Reports have indicated that cartoons of this kind get beamed straight into the editorial pages of newspapers by the syndicates and distributors, without any human intervention; so that the first a NYT editor sees of the cartoon is when it appears on the newstand. This seems implausible to me, but perhaps it is so. Why would they abrogate their editorial responsibility in this way?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 09:52 AM:

"And as far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much the only justification a humourist ought to have to make for their work." Once again, that depends on what you mean by "ought to have to make". In terms of whether he should be allowed to publish it? Sure. (Except I'd go further and say that, on that level, he isn't obliged to make any justification.) On the other hand, though: in terms of whether anyone else is obliged to publish it, praise it, accept it, refrain from apostrophizing it? Hardly. So I'm left wondering what we can usefully make of the assertion that "that's pretty much the only justification a humourist ought to have to make for their work". If we mean in connection with the basic right to say and publish things, it's a bad formulation because it presumes that this right must be "justified" on a case-by-case basis. But if we're talking about anything else, it's still a bad formulation, because it seems to imply that once the humorist says "I thought it was funny," no one else "ought to" be able to continue saying "I thought it was crap." Which I can't imagine you mean. So where is the sphere in which this formulation makes sense?aaA useful fact not mentioned in this discussion, but which may shed some light on your third paragraph: The print New York Times, by and large, doesn't run comic strips or editorial cartoons. This is One Of Those Things. (There have been one-off exceptions on the op-ed page, where cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, Mark Alan Stamaty, or "Tom Tomorrow" have contributed what are essentially op-ed columns in strip form.) However, you can read the latest work of a whole range of editorial cartoonists, plus Doonesbury and Dilbert, off their web page; I believe it really is just a matter of their web page being hooked up to the syndicate's feed. Yes, it does seem like a bit of an abdication of editorial control, but you can see how such things might happen.

Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 11:56 AM:

Ah. All becomes clear, or clearer. I had not been paying attention, and had assumed this cartoon had appeared in the NYT.aaWe're probably arguing at cross purposes here; I believe that Rall can make whatever jokes he likes, no matter how unfunny, and that the fact he makes jokes I don't find funny does not make him monstrous or evil. Meanwhile, however, the rest of us are perfectly able to say "well, this is a piece of complete garbage", and the New York Times is welcome to deny him the oxygen of publicity. Which they've hardly done by unlinking him, of course. I haven't yet laughed at a Ted Rall political cartoon, though I was amused by the one about Bill Gates buying God, so perhaps I'm just being sour about his politics. I do wonder sometimes how people get to be big league political cartoonists without ever once managing to be either funny or telling.aaBut I may be missing points all over the place; I'm browsing the web to distract me from the fact that a major piece of work is completely out of my hands at present; I can do no more to influence it and must merely wait while the important people make the decisions, so I can do their bidding.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 12:29 PM:

Fair enough. But honestly, I do think I've been reasonably careful here to distinguish between apostrophizing someone's behavior and making overarching claims about the state of their soul. Looking back at my two posts, I see that I called the cartoon in question "repulsive," "sordid", "vile," and "inane," and that it amounted to "behav[ing] monstrously." Those are assertions about Rall's acts, not (your implication above to the contrary) assertions that he, Ted Rall, is inherently "monstrous or evil." Maybe this is a fussy distinction, but it's important to me.aaYes, I did wonder whether he was "on drugs" and conclude that "perhaps he's just a moron," but colorful though both of these remarks are, they're still labelled as speculation and even had they not been they would still fall quite a bit short of claiming that any individual is "monstrous or evil." So, as with a couple of other posts here, I feel a little bit like I'm being called on to defend rhetorical failings and misdeeds other than the ones to which I'm undeniably prone. (Argument is down the hall. This is Self-Pity.)

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 02:18 PM:

I entirely agree with Patrick's observation on "pushing the envelope of polite criticism" - if he means, as I think, that they shouldn't shy away from doing so, but also shouldn't go seeking occasions for doing so. (Same goes for other creative artists. China Mieville's interview in the new Locus, which leaves the impression that he believes fiction MUST challenge convention and be subversive etc., left me very weary and not at all desirous of reading his fiction. I want authors who challenge convention because they've found a convention to challenge, not because they believe it's the purpose of fiction.)aaBut I do not see that Rall's cartoon constitutes "behaving monstrously." I have not seen the "we're victims, we're entitled" terror-widows interviews referred to uptopic. But if they exist, Rall's response seems a reasonable satire from here.aaIt certainly doesn't justify Andrew Sullivan's rabid ranting, like "No paper should ever run Rall again" or describing the cartoon as "Just when you thought this America-hating sicko couldn’t sink any lower, he goes and produces a cartoon like this." Sullivan seems to think that terror-widows are immune from criticism.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 03:09 PM:

Who referred to anyone having an attitude of "we're victims, we're entitled"? I see Alison Scott saying "And I've read a ton of interviews of the basic form 'Nothing will bring my husband back, but I'm monumentally pissed off that I got less money than [some other widow]'." That's hardly evidence on which to charge anyone with an inappropriate sense of entitlement. (Wanting to be treated fairly isn't the same think as feeling entitled, though some political factions seem to find it useful to muddy this distinction.)aaI haven't done more than glance at the China Mieville interview in Locus yet, although I'll eventually read it in detail. I did notice the pull-quote on the cover about "consolatory fantasy," which combined with his Tolkien squib in the DRIN makes me suspect he dismisses a lot of things as "consolatory" which I think are actually kind of dangerous and challenging. On the other hand, I think it's an enormous mistake to use any writer's theories about writing or literature, including their own, as a guide to whether one is liable to like their fiction or not. I like all kinds of things by people with whom I have immense literary disagreements. I love Tolkien--and I think China Mieville is one of the most spectacularly interesting new writers in the field. If he has to be on a tear against the legacy of Tolkien to do that, well, Harold Bloom, pick up the white courtesy phone, please.aa(The fact that China is a good-humored and intelligent fellow who could probably slide into this conversation with equanimity doesn't hurt, but even if he were a frothing nutbar, his books would still be worth reading. I've given up trying to map authors' personalities and theoretical positions to their fiction. Sometimes the correlations are interesting and sometimes they're, ah, interesting.)aaRegarding Andrew Sullivan, I think he's at his best when he /a/g/r/e/e/s/ /w/i/t/h/ /m/e/ doesn't indulge his tendency to insist that everyone who disagrees should be shot, set on fire, and torn apart by wild dogs. Moreover, I think the next time he does this, he should be killed.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 07:01 PM:

OK, change it to "we're victims, we're just as entitled as these other victims." An attitude satirized, fairly or unfairly, by others than Rall, especially when the victimization seems a bit indirect.aaThere are ways and ways of expressing one's concern at perceived unfairness in monetary compensation for intangibles. TV interviews are a particularly difficult way of making a nuanced point such as this. Nor do they immunize you from being satirized. Which is all that Rall did.aaI read the whole Mieville interview, and it certainly gave me the impression that he was lumping Tolkien with a lot of bad imitations, that he hadn't read the Tolkien essay he referred to, and that the whole idea that art can do something other than "challenge or subvert or question" offends him. And he says it all in a manner ("makes me want to puke") that - well, maybe he was just feeling a bit stroppy that day, but I don't know him personally, he comes across as a frothing nutbar over here.aaYMMV, but for my tastes, a useful rule of thumb is that I'm not going to get much out of writers who believe in getting in my face. I don't enjoy Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, or Lucius Shepard much either, so it goes. (But that doesn't mean I want cuddly elvsy-welvsies either.)aaOn some subjects, the best way to find good commentary is to link to whatever Andrew Sullivan has Viewed With Alarm.

Jim Treacher ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 09:49 PM:

The URL above links to my response to "Terror Widows."

Jim Treacher ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 09:50 PM:

Er, the link attached to my name, it looks like.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2002, 09:56 PM:

Also, speaking of left-leaning bloggers (which we were, somewhere, on one of these threads), here's Ted Barlow:aahttp://tedbarlow.blogspot.com/2002_03_03_tedbarlow_archive.html#10509297