Your Average Wise Guy
The Satya Interview with Ted
Photo courtesy of Ted Rall
Cartoonist, journalist, political pundit, public citizen,
and all-around wise guy. Ted Rall is all of the above,
but that doesn’t quite sum him up. Readers may recognize him as
a regular guest on Bill Maher’s Real Time and his former show
Politically Incorrect. Others may be familiar with his syndicated cartoons
and weekly columns.
Rall has studied U.S. involvement in Central Asia for
years and has traveled the area extensively, making him something of
an expert. Soon after 9/11, Rall and his wife went to Afghanistan to
witness first-hand what the U.S. would do in retaliation. What resulted
are two unique books. In Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation
of Afghanistan (iUniverse), Rall brings his file-cabinet knowledge together
in a step-by-step explanation of the American obsession with controlling
access to oil and natural gas in Central Asia. To Afghanistan and Back
(NBM) is a powerful account of what Rall experienced while in Afghanistan,
narrated in cartoons.
Here, Rall talks to Catherine Clyne
about art, politics, controversy, and the importance of maintaining
a sense of humor.
What inspired you to become politically
active and why do you think it’s important to be so?
Citizenship is hard work. People who say they don’t have time to
read the newspaper have time to watch television and go to dinner, and
I think as part of society, it’s our responsibility to be part of
the society that we’re in and to take an active role, in whatever
form that may be.
I’ve been a news junkie my entire life. My mother lived in France.
It’s a given that politics are an important part of everyday life
for most Europeans, and she taught me that I needed to keep up on the
news. I learned English reading the newspaper and watching the news every
night; it just became a habit. It makes a lot of people depressed to watch
the news, but I feel you need to know what’s going on, that information
I come from a left-of-center political perspective that tends to be very
far left on economic issues in particular, and I’m most interested
in discussing issues that I think are being ignored by the mainstream
Do you feel artists—particularly today—have an obligation
to be politically active?
I wouldn’t say that it’s an obligation. I tend to find political
art more relevant, but I certainly enjoy lots of music and films and other
forms of art that are purely entertaining or comment on aspects of the
human condition that are not explicitly political.
Artists are in a unique position because they have access to the public,
but any thinking person has to stand up to fight injustice whenever he
or she sees it. I think it’s more important in a time of grave political
crisis, as we’re living through now, to make a stand. I’ve
had arguments with people who say, “Whatever happened to moderation?”
and the answer is, These are not moderate times. If you lived during Nazi
Germany, that was not a time to shut up.
How would you describe the current atmosphere for political cartoonists?
People are looking to political cartoons more than ever, in a way because
the mainstream media and the pundits are so quiet now. The Democratic
Party is in absentia. Cartooning has found a great importance with readers.
Unfortunately editors are quite the opposite, and for the most part—sometimes
entirely—have stopped running cartoons in magazines and newspapers.
The New York Times’s “Week in Review” seems
to be in the process of getting rid of them. Time Magazine stopped
running political cartoons entirely after 9/11, and they’ve never
come back. The ones that do run tend to be more frivolous than political.
So it’s this weird irony—there’s an audience for cartoons,
but nobody’s publishing them.
At this point, many people seem to feel the war in Iraq is over.
What message do you think peace activists should adopt? “Stop the
War!” just doesn’t seem as meaningful now.
No it doesn’t, although I guess maybe they could just erase Iraq
from all their signs and put Syria on them. It’s an awful tactical
dilemma to deal with that sort of thing.
In a way I think the left is chasing its own tail. Bush sort of subscribes
to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which is that if you
keep starting new initiatives, your opposition can never really mobilize
quickly enough to stop it—you’re starting a new one while
they’re still working on the old. Bush’s whole tactic has
been to throw so much shit at the wall in an average news cycle that potential
political opponents have no idea how to react. In the end, what’s
the issue here? Is it really war against Iraq? That’s an issue.
But where were these same protesters for the war against Afghanistan,
which was every bit as illegal and wrong-headed and immoral as the war
We have a very simple procedure that can solve this entire problem, which
is to throw Bush out of office. This guy was illegally installed by the
U.S. Supreme Court in violation of the Constitution, which says that the
Supreme Court has no jurisdiction whatsoever over election disputes. And
if you don’t believe the judicial coup d’etat theory, the
Constitution does provide for impeaching a president who goes off the
reservation. It’s a political process. If enough Americans are just
sick of him and what he’s doing—to the economy, starting wars
all over the place, running up the deficit and making tax cuts, spying
and lying—we can get rid of him. I think that’s really where
we need to concentrate—this guy’s got to go.
Why do you think people bought the story that Saddam personally
had something to do with 9/11?
My theory is that essentially, people don’t like to think they’re
living in a country that’s led by an evil, dictatorial madman. But
they are, they are living in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia. Russians
and Germans at the time were no different than us, they were patriotic
but a little dismayed and worried about the lunatics who were running
their country, and similarly, today, we have to understand the problem.
We can’t just go along with this. The President and the country
are not the same thing. Most Americans were against the war in Iraq, but
once it became clear that Bush was going to do it regardless of what the
UN or other countries or, for that matter, what the American public thought,
I think the sense became, “He’s going to do it anyway, we’re
in it, so we might as well support it and win it and get it over with.”
This is our armed forces, after all, our country and our flag, and we
want them to win. People retroactively think, “Bush must have some
secret information that tells him that Saddam was involved.” I got
thousands of emails like that. [I’m] like, really? If he has secret
information, why doesn’t he say so? That’s just rationalization.
People don’t want to think the worst about their own.
I can only imagine the anger that gets stirred up when you compare
now to Nazi Germany and Stalinism. How do you respond to that anger?
In a sense, being a political cartoonist and being a person with an opinion
means not giving a shit, and you have to be willing to take the First
Amendment out for a wild ride every now and then. It’s not something
that you should be hesitant to push to 120 miles per hour, so with that
comes people who are going to be angry. If I were to say something that
didn’t ring true, people wouldn’t feel the need to react to
You know a great deal about the history between the U.S. and
Afghanistan. What are some of the major points that most Americans aren’t
I think in recent history, they’re probably most unaware of the
fact that al-Qaeda was never headquartered in Afghanistan. It’s
headquartered in the northern areas of Pakistan and remains there, and
in fact has been strengthened by the war in Afghanistan. They’re
probably not aware that we could have caught Osama bin Laden if we had
sent commandos to corner him at his camp north of Kandahar and nailed
him and brought him to justice, but that the Bush administration made
no effort to do so. They’re probably unaware that the whole Tora-Bora
battle was just a big stage show and that Osama was never there.
They’re probably also profoundly unaware of the fact that the difference
between the old Taliban regime and the Northern Alliance is only one thing:
it’s the same laws, same restrictive rules concerning women, except
that the Northern Alliance likes to rape people and provides no security
whatsoever, it’s a bandit regime. I like to say the equation is
‘Northern Alliance equals Taliban minus law and order.’ We
have miraculously replaced the world’s worst regime with one that’s
It’s impossible to put in a nutshell, but what are some
of the most glaring facts that support the accusation that the U.S. invasions
of Afghanistan and Iraq are about oil?
I think you have to be on crack to think that the invasion of Iraq is
not about oil—what else is it for? The food? Saddam Hussein did
not have substantial amounts of weapons of mass destruction, obviously
there was no tie between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. You have only to
compare it with the North Korean situation to see where we are. North
Korea threatened to use an inter-continental ballistic missile on the
west coast—a real threat to U.S. security. If I were president,
I would seriously contemplate military action; but we’re not. North
Korea doesn’t have oil; Iraq does. We can also see what’s
going on with all the politically connected corporations, like Halliburton
and Bechtel, getting multi-million dollar contracts to “rebuild”
Iraq. Obviously, Iraq is about oil.
Afghanistan’s far more complicated, and I wrote a book about it,
Gas War, which details the trans-Afghanistan pipeline to get landlocked
gas reserves from southern Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean, and out to
market. In 1999, the Kazaks made the world’s largest oil strike
on the Caspian Sea—turned out they have six times more confirmed
oil reserves than Saudi Arabia does. The Bush administration was very
fascinated by the prospect of having a pipeline for natural gas and Kazak
crude oil that would basically run down the Herat-Kandahar highway. So
Bush flew some Taliban reps out to Texas to talk pipeline.
There are people who think that the breakdown of negotiations led to the
bombing campaign that began after 9/11. Here we are, more than a year
later, and the pipeline project is well underway. If you look at the bestiary
of personalities involved, it’s the Unocal deal all over again:
Hamid Karzai, the current president of Afghanistan installed by the U.S.,
was a consultant for Unocal; Zalmay Khalilzad, who has recently surfaced
as a special U.S. envoy to the Iraqi National Congress, his last job was
consulting for Unocal on the pipeline project. Essentially, the pipeline
was a top priority for the U.S. before 9/11, and it became a top priority
again after 9/11. It’s the only thing that we’ve actually
spent any time working on. We haven’t rebuilt Afghanistan, we haven’t
tried to make life better for the people there. In all likelihood it was
the main reason why we invaded Afghanistan.
It’s all stuff that we don’t know because there’s just
not enough reporting coming out of there, and what reporting there is
isn’t being widely disseminated in the U.S. For instance, there
was a great article in the NY Times three months ago about how not a single
house had been rebuilt in Kabul thanks to international aid, 15 months
after the invasion. Or how not a single line of electricity had been strung,
not an inch of roadway had been paved. In essence, nothing’s been
done. Karzai can’t even afford to pay his government, his employees.
Afghanistan has been more than abandoned—we trashed it and we’re
abandoning it again.
What’s it like to have all these facts at your fingertips
and experiences abroad, yet have ill-informed but powerful media personalities
spend so much air time discrediting you and your positions?
It’s funny, the more reaction I get from dillweeds on right-wing
talk radio, the more I know I’m having the desired effect. I’ve
sent Gas War deliberately to a bunch of right-wing publications but nobody’s
touching it. If they could find a hole in it, they’d rip it apart,
but they can’t because they know it’s all true.
It’s easy to despair right now. How do you maintain your
sense of humor?
Well you know, you can laugh or cry. For the last year I’ve just
been furious about what’s going on—really, more angry at my
fellow American citizens for not taking any action. About a month ago
I started thinking, I’m just tired of being pissed off all the time.
It’s true that everything going on is horrifying, but you do have
to have a sense of humor to get through life. In many ways, it’s
much more effective to ridicule and mock self-important, pompous stuffed
shirts like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld than it is to yell at them.
What makes you hopeful?
I think to be a political pundit, you have to be hopeful. You have to
hope that people are paying attention and they’re going to change
and do something.
I’m a student of history, and if I worry about something, it’s
because I’ve read about something in the past that I see as being
similar. Some of the optimism I have stems from history as well. The U.S.
and other countries have been down the road before, [with] similar problems
we face here, and yet cooler heads have ultimately prevailed. The only
unfortunate thing, and it’s a big one, is a lot of people get hurt
and killed in the process. In the end, people get tired of being mean
and wrong, and eventually they listen to reason. It’s just a matter
of time. There’s a lot of smart and well-meaning people out there
who are scared to talk but as soon as they feel free to speak up, they’re
To learn more about Ted Rall, see his cartoons or read his columns, visit
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