Cartoonists: the foot soldiers of “democracy”

in In January 2015, 11 people at the offices of French “satirical” cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered, allegedly by two gunmen acting under the al Qaeda banner. Driven by both political and media figures, the response generated more noise than almost any other event in recent memory. This response included widespread calls to share cartoons in order to antagonize pious Muslims for the good of Western civilization, and over 40 world leaders positioning themselves as great champions of human rights. As I wrote at the time, the sheer deafening volume of the event—and the almost-thuggish calls for skeptics to fall in line—was grounded in what the raw material of the event presented to the ruling class. With its tidy narrative of whimsical artists mercilessly “martyred” by savage Islamist demons for exercising their free speech, the response to the killings was a perfect opportunity to reinforce the narrative of the West’s essential goodness, and a related series of myths about Western civilization.

Embedded in the response was a narrative about cartoonists. According to the official accounting, democracy is powered by dialogues and discussions—and these are driven by information. By crystallizing ideas, cartoonists perform a valuable service. More than that, by acting as impish provocateurs against the predations of undemocratic, illiberal regimes, cartoonists act as “the foot soldiers of democracy.” This was a connection too hyperbolic for me to make, but fortunately the 2014 French documentary Cartoonists: the Foot Soldiers of Democracy made the point for me. Given a Charlie Hebdo editorial from this week, and certain recent successes in the world of graphic novel memoirs, the point is correct, but not in ways its advocates may have intended. “Democracy,” the euphemism used in high places for the free-market capitalist system, is well-served by cartoonists. With their generally vacuous liberal politics, cartoonists are ideally positioned to perpetuate smears against the West’s designated enemies and convey an air of authenticity to propaganda masquerading as conventional wisdom.

In an op-ed conspicuously translated and released in English, the Hebdo editorial board asks “How did we end up here,” claiming to answer the question of how the Brussels terror attack of 22 March happened. Opening by invoking “Law and order fans,” “xenophobes,” “urban-planners,” and “sociologists,” the piece thus distinguishes its authors from both ivory-tower technocrats and more vulgar authoritarian racists. According to its authors, the culprit behind Islamist terrorism is not necessarily Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who had spoken at a French research institution earlier that month. However, Ramadan, a halal baker, and a hijab-wearer all bear a collective guilt. According to the editorial, political correctness has created an “iceberg,” of which non-murderous Muslims are merely the visible minority. Soon after 9/11, the favored metaphor to describe the cause of the terrorist horror was, rather than an iceberg, a swamp, that had to be “drained” in order to “find every snake in the swamp,” as Donald Rumsfeld said. Though the op-ed doesn’t come out and advocate for a solution, it follows that the only conceivable answer, now as then, is more military violence.

This sort of advocacy stops short of an overt call for war in order to maintain credibility with its squishy left-liberal target audience, and it’s understandably popular with various progressive-branded figures who align with the US State Department. However, the capitalist class is currently dealing with numerous issues that the rest of us would call crises. As it becomes increasingly apparent that the era of social democracy has effectively ended, and numerous governments stubbornly resist the Washington consensus, that means more security and terror for the majority of human beings whose whims aren’t turned into statecraft. It also means more propaganda to invert reality, like the idea that the West has been insufficiently violent. The Charlie Hebdo editorial board echoes Tony Blair, who in the past weeks has blamed terrorism on “flabby liberalism” and excess Western humility, too many concessions to political correctness and tolerance, and what Blair identifies as the fact that millions of Muslims are primitive and backwards. In America, Donald Trump channels far-right anger over political correctness by speaking his various bigotries freely, horrifying millions of liberals in the process. However, since liberalism and fascism are slightly different dialects of the same language, the messages of Hebdo and Blair carry weight with a target audience Trump could never reach.

For cartoonists, the Charlie Hebdo editorial board was atypically open with the service they were rendering. Cartooning is obviously an art form that’s as varied as writing or filmmaking, but publishers keep pushing certain kinds of work. Two of the biggest graphic novel memoirs of the last decade were Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Perseoplis 2. Documenting the author’s journey from childhood in Iran to adulthood in Europe, the two volumes were released in 2003 and 2004, right before and after Iran joined the Axis of Evil. French-Canadian author Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang was released the year after North Korea joined Iran and Iraq on the list. A film starring Steve Carrell was in pre-production until it was cancelled in 2014 following the very excellent Sony leaks and subsequent cancellation of The Interview. Last year, I was struck by how hard Riad Sattouf’s graphic novel memoir The Arab of the Future was being marketed, and it’s not hard to see why.

Translated into 15 languages, former Hebdo contributor Sattouf tells the story of his upbringing in 3 different countries: the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya under Muammar Gaddafi, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, and France. In the last 5 years, a NATO war killed Gaddafi and reduced Libya to a failed state controlled by armed factions—a fate numerous NATO countries and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council are trying to impose on Syria. With this background, a book that’s already being hailed as a modern classic offers a look at life in these countries. Despite being a child, Sattouf—and by proxy, the reader—“gets a serious education in the mysterious vectors of power that shape…the political world.” The book “takes its place alongside other classic animated retrospectives memoirs from the region, Persepolis…and [Israeli shoot-and-cry] Waltz with Bashir.” A reviewer for The New York Times fills us in on the specifics:

The Sattouf family lands in Tripoli in 1978. It has been almost a decade since Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi took power and three years since the publication of the first volume of the Green Book, which presents his “vision of society.” The country resembles a construction site, with many buildings in states of repair or disrepair. From this point forward, the story relies on Riad’s perception of the family’s experiences in Libya, even though he was only a toddler at the time. We are being given not memories but reconstructions of memories, whose sources are unclear.

[Sattouf’s father] gets another job, this time in Syria. Like all exiles and immigrants, he returns home dreaming of glory. But Syria under Hafez al-Assad is its own nightmare. There too a cult of personality persists. There too everything is in disrepair.

The Arab of the Future Libya panels

From “The Arab of the Future,” via “The New York Times.”

As ironic introduction, the Times story opens with two panels of the book: a local grotesque claiming that Libya is the most advanced country in the world, among other social achievements. A reader whose knowledge of Libya came from graphic novel autobiographies and the Times would come away with an understanding that Libya was a shambolic, dilapidated ruin—not unlike Syria, which was a “nightmare” of “disrepair.” One would have to get their Libya news from sources other than the Times, or anything hailed as a modern classic, to know that the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya had the highest GDP per capita and life expectancy on the African continent. In interviews, Sattouf cautions that he’s no expert on the Middle East/North Africa region, claiming “It’s inevitable that people ask me my opinion…I knew Syria in the 1980s but I can’t say I know anything about Syria today. I’m no more informed about the situation in the Middle East than the average person who watches TV.” It would be a strange divide that the author professes such a surface-level knowledge of Libya and Syria, given that Sattouf’s graphic novel is hailed as something educational. Obviously, though, what’s useful about a comic memoir of the two most recent victims of NATO violence is precisely that it conveys the same political information one would get from a steady diet of CNN or MSNBC. This way, the State Department line can reach the sort of urbane reader who might think themselves above watching cable news. “The Arab of the Future,” writes the Times reviewer, “will do little to complicate most people’s perceptions of Libya or Syria. Life in both countries seems like a living hell, with no moments of relief or pleasure.” In other words, life before a NATO war doesn’t sound appreciably worse than life after a NATO war—no harm, no foul.

Cartoonists are the perfect vectors for delivering these messages, because of both who they are and what they’re doing. Most don’t evince openly crypto-fascist leanings like the Charlie Hebdo editorial board, and the far-right in America has traditionally been drawn to editorial cartooning. The ones who publish autobiographical travelogues of the designated enemies generally have vague centrist core, consequently they can reliably parrot whatever the mainstream line is on a given target country. As a writer for The New Statesman claimed in a piece on Tintin, cartoonist “Hergé was a sponge. Not known for being a very political person, he often absorbed the dominant narrative on an issue and made it part of his comics.” The same could be said about nearly everyone doing similar work today.

Guy Delisle, whose autobiographical comic travelogues have featured North Korea, China, Myanmar, and Israel, continues this aspect of Hergé’s work. In his 2012 graphic novel Jerusalem, for instance, Delisle is surprised to learn that Yom Kippur was a holiday as well as a war, and that Gaza’s residents can’t leave. However, it was 2004’s Pyongyang that’s hailed as Delisle’s “masterpiece.” Deslisle starts his trip to the DPRK by bringing in a copy of George Orwell’s 1984, as an extremely original symbolic act of protest. Once there, Delisle doesn’t evince much interest in the history of the Korean peninsula, or understanding why the state is as “reclusive” and “paranoid” as it’s presented. Instead, as some reviewers have pointed out, Delisle is frequently perturbed by the sorts of inconveniences that must seem unforgivable to an upper-middle class tourist: maids intruding too early in the morning, wait staff leaving tablecloths damp, hotel food that’s too greasy, locals that seem kind of weird and creepy, etc.

The most successful tour guides through Washington’s official enemies, like Sattouf and Delisle, possess some set of shortcomings that leave them unable to do anything but “absorb the dominant narrative on an issue and make it part of their comics.” For Sattouf, this experiencing Libya and Syria as a child; for Delisle, it’s being stunningly uninformed. As relatively comfortable members of the upper-middle class, though, they can translate this dominant narrative into something that will resonate with the other members of their class. I recently re-read Susan Sontag’s 1999 agitation for the NATO war on Kosovo, which includes descriptions of expat life in Italy, and passages explaining how walks along the Adriatic shore give authority to calls for “humanitarian intervention.” This brings the reader, who presumably summers in the Med, to identify with Sontag and her calls for NATO bombs. It’s why North Korean defectors, handled by Western spy agencies and stage-managed by Christian NGOs, often open their speeches by decrying the DPRK’s one single TV channel and lack of Internet.

So when Delisle bemoans Pyongyang’s horrific customer service, it should be understood as part of the signaling that’s a crucial part of delivering propaganda to its target audience. Sattouf’s readers are also painted a picture of general decrepitude, punctuated by other dystopic signs: the “cult of personality” and the brainwashed citizen regurgitating regime propaganda to his neighbors. People in North America and Western Europe are used to these sorts of signals, since they’ve heard them since the dawn of the Cold War. Socialism, one is relentlessly informed, is a nightmare of bleak, drab disrepair; the solution is for the free market to come in and spruce things up, bringing cheap consumer goods and all the TV one could watch. By portraying an official enemy as gross and run-down, a graphic memoirist recalls the full panoply of horrors associated with any country that charts an independent course. There’s even a useful catchall term for the systems of intransigent states, which both delegitimizes their economic systems and unites them under the banner of the worst Communist bogeyman of the 20th century: “Stalinist economies” (As Michael Parenti humorously observes, “’Stalinist economies’… so we’re fighting Stalinism?”).

The popularity of cartoon tours of official enemies fits into larger trends. More broadly, the recent past has seen the triumph of stories as a narrative form. In a piece for Film Comment on the Black List, the annual list of most-popular unproduced scripts, Nick Pinkerton explains what Hollywood wants to see more of: “A palpable shift occurs in [2010]. The ‘Based on a True Story’ biopic, always a popular prestige form, begins to runs rampant.” Beyond Hollywood, stories dominate everything from journalism to podcasting, stealth marketing and political canvassing. New York Times Magazine culture editor Adam Sternberg echoes countless anonymous Hollywood executives when he advises freelancers to “Pitch a story, not an idea. Story has characters, timeline, conflict. Like a movie!” If a writer wants a grant to write about science, the Alfred P. Sloan foundation will pony up dough to “books that profile scientific and technological figures from varying angles but with an emphasis on the human story.” In other words, Malcolm Gladwell. In response to the “pseudo-profundity of Malcolm Gladwell,” Steven Poole writes that “The method of ‘exploring’ ideas through stories is now the preferred mode of, or replacement for, serious thought and argument.”

As a way of communicating information, stories are fun, but they’re profoundly limited. Certain types of more rigorous thought, like critical analysis, aren’t conducive to being filtered through the lens of a third party’s direct experiences. Despite what Sternberg suggests to freelancers, most writing that’s trying to educate should actively avoid emulating films, since visual culture is about immediacy over historicity. Stories limit the weighing of truth claims in favor of the experiential, emphasize atomized pathos over historical exegesis, and privilege writers with connections and resources over thinkers with the most lucid analysis. A story’s goal is to foster identification with the character, not to provide the most accurate insight.

While graphic novel memoirs detailing foreign enemies are part of a wider trend of usefully reductive “stories” as the paramount way of engaging an audience, they also fit snugly within the rise of “creative non-fiction,” a genre that plays fast-and-loose with facts in a way that has great propaganda value. From Spaniards barbecuing Cuban babies to Kuwaiti incubators to Gaddafi’s free Viagra, the history of US wars is replete with fictitious horrors passed off as obvious truth. Twitter user @Cordeliers points out that Creative Non-Fiction (CNF), a form of “fact-free pseudo-journalism” is enjoying a boom, as it’s being used to pass off State Department propaganda as truth:

No surprise that the faux-journalism called CNF is being fostered & heavily promoted by ruling class via foundation grants, prizes, etc. The genre sprang to prominence with Samantha Power’s fictionalized genocide accounts in service of empire, and gained momentum via the worldwide success of Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea, exposed as a fraud by Jon Krakauer. Mortensen worked closely with US military during all his time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the book is an imperialist white-saviour fable. CNF offers a new mode of obscuring truth at a time when we need it more desperately than ever before. No wonder CNF is catnip for Foundations, State, and Molly [Crabapple]. [emphasis added]

This latter celebrity, who’s shown a great affinity for Nazis and the US State Department, is unsurprisingly a big advocate for cartooning as a crucial component of a functioning democracy. “Political cartoons have traditionally been one of the most subversive art forms,” the friend-of-Nazis says, “It’s art that’s populist and dangerous—that crosses borders between nations and classes.” By way of proving the democratic utility of cartoons, two targets are offered: 19th century American politicians, and the current Syrian government. When it comes to offering proof that cartoons are a vital part of a functioning democracy, evidence of their domestic utility is scarce. However, there seems to be an endless stream of comic memoirs “proving” what we’re told in every corporate media outlet: America’s enemies are dystopian hellholes, with democracy and better living standards inevitably following regime change.

As a way to shape understanding, cartoon memoirs have a unique selling point. They are full of all the storyness of creative non-fiction, but with the added benefit of being fun pictures. Their form adds an aspect of frivolity and whimsy, which is disarming in a way that prose can’t be. Just as Jon Stewart could never be fully accountable for his shortcomings since he was “just” a comedian, a graphic novel memoir is “just” a comic. As long as overseas regime changes need to be justified, there will be more State Department propaganda trickled-down through comics. And as long as cartoonists keep providing this service, they’ll be celebrated as “foot soldiers of democracy.” Of course, cartoonists aren’t “foot soldiers of democracy,” any more than they are “shock troops of regime change.” They, like so many other famous artists, are just more people making good money by telling us what people in high places want us to hear.

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5 thoughts on “Cartoonists: the foot soldiers of “democracy”

  1. lots of good stuff here. this statement
    “In other words, life before a NATO war doesn’t sound appreciably worse than life after a NATO war—no harm, no foul.” i’m at a loss. it floored me. how callous & indifferent our media is. that’s unfair. rather, how enthusiastically collaborative they are.

  2. This was one of the best things I’ve ever read online. It brings to mind the incessant horror stories about Chavista “dictatorship” not coming from working class, ordinary Venezuelans, but instead from upper-middle-class babies whining about the country no longer revolving around them and the usual right-wing hacks like Francisco Toro. Every single political cartoon I’ve read about the country is following their lead entirely.

    • I googled “Venezuela political cartoons,” and that’s a perfect example. Pictures of Chavez putting tape on journalist’s mouths, killing the economy–I saw one of him sacrificing the country on top of a giant skull. It’s just the pure distilled propaganda line against Venezuela, distilled into images and with a journalistish veneer.

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