Reluctant Revolutionary: An Interview With Ted Rall

Not one to shy away from controversy, the outspoken and acerbic political cartoonist Ted Rall (best known for his take down of 9/11 widows and football-playing war heroes) has recently published a new book, Anti-American Manifesto with Seven Stories Press, in which he urges the reader to throw off the chains of pacifism and once again take up the difficult discussion of violence as a political tool. Intrigued by the boldness and chutzpah of this gesture, the GC Advocate sat down with Rall to talk a little bit about the complications and possibilities implicit in this argument.

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Advocate: So, Ted, let’s jump right into it. In your new book you explicitly advocate the use of revolutionary violence. It’s hard to get any more radical than that and I can’t imagine the decision to write such a book was an easy one to make. Indeed, in conversations with friends about the book I’ve found that even the mention of revolutionary violence is almost universally greeted with disdain, shock, or disbelief. I am really interested in how you came to this decision to write the book, the events or ideas that led you to this argument, and why you felt compelled to write this book now?

Ted Rall: Well, it was a very difficult decision, from a career standpoint as well as from the standpoint of being a simple American citizen. As a student of history I am well aware of the fact that revolution is dangerous and violent and brutal and can make things worse before they make things better, so it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. I want to be very clear that even though the book is a call to arms and a call to get rid of the current government, and it does definitely defend the use of violence (I would say that there is no such thing as non-violent revolution; no radical change has ever taken place without violence or the credible threat of violence), but I think there is a tendency to sensationalize the violent aspect of the book. Most revolutionary activity is inherently non-violent actually. It’s just that violence is part of the revolutionist’s toolbox; it has to be, otherwise there is no way to credibly remove the state. The rich and the powerful don’t give up wealth and power voluntarily so you can’t fight it nonviolently without effectively tying one hand behind your back.

In terms of the decision to write the book I kind of followed a simple, logical process, which is to ask myself and many other people whether there was any possibility that this system, the Democrats and the Republicans and the corporatist capitalist system that they support, could or would address any of the really serious pressing problems that are faced by the Unites States today—whether those are income inequality or the environment and climate change, or skyrocketing deficits, or war and militarism, or healthcare—and I don’t think so. We are talking about a government that can’t even get it together enough to improve the efficiency of automobiles. I mean we’re talking about a government that passes a health care reform plan that actually makes health care more expensive and harder to obtain for most Americans, so how are they going to provide socialized health care. We are talking about a democratic president who issues an executive order granting himself the right to assassinate American citizens, so how is that president going to increase personal freedoms and civil rights and so on. I am forty-seven years old, I have seen a constant downward trajectory and I came to the conclusion more in sorrow than in anger that the system had become unreformable. It was one particular event however that proved it perfectly for me: the bank bailouts. When Obama decided to continue them in November of 2008, the process that Bush had begun in September and October of 2008, I knew that the system was unreformable, because we are talking about using an economic crisis that called for jobs creation as an excuse for lining the pockets of major corporations; in other words, business as usual. Yet the situation was anything but usual, it was the full blown collapse of the of the global economic system and the only solution to keep political stability going was massive job creation stimulated by the government. But they did not and could not and would not do that. When Obama refused to be the new FDR I knew that, Obama being about the best most progressive, smartest president we were gonna get out of this system, I knew that the time had arrived to call for revolution. Now I wish that other people were doing it, I wish that I could join someone else’s movement. I don’t want to stick my neck out; it’s not fun to attract all of this heat, but no one else is doing it. There’s no Left whatsoever in the United States. All there is is wimpy liberals. So, I wrote this book in order to start a conversation. This is not revolution for dummies, this is not a how-to guide, this is not the anarchists’ cookbook. If you are picking this up looking for how to overthrow the US government buy another book; this is not that book. This is a book that creates the space to have a discussion that is just not even part of American politics. American politics occurs strictly between the Ds and the Rs. We don’t even talk about the Greens and the Libertarians, much less the possibility of getting rid of the system entirely.

Advocate: Along those same lines, how has your life changed since the publication of the book? What’s the last month been like for Ted Rall? What have you learned about America, particularly concerning the subject of this book?

TR: I guess many things did not come as a surprise. The fact that the media and the political system are so deeply entrenched and unwilling to consider actual change came as no surprise. The fact that there are many very reactionary, hateful people who defend the status quo no matter what came as no surprise either. But what did come as a surprise were the huge crowds that came out to my book signings, which indicated to me that there is a thirst for talking about these sorts of options. Many, many people have been over the system for a long time, but that conversation doesn’t take place, so I provided a forum for that kind of dialogue to happen. What I’ve learned, and it’s kind of what I suspected, is that there are a lot of people out there like me. I wouldn’t have written the book if I thought I was alone. I don’t think I’m such a unique thinker. A lot of people can look at the same set of circumstances and draw similar conclusions, and they have. So in terms of how my life has changed, I mean, it hasn’t really, except for being very, very busy doing interviews, but that’s about it.

Advocate: One of the claims that you make in your book, and one that I think many Leftists would agree with, is that the Left in America has become pacified to the point of complete ineffectiveness. Why do you think this is? What has changed and how can the Left get its “groove” back as it were?

TR: I wish I knew the answer to the first question. This process started when I was a kid, so in a sense I’ve been living with it my whole life. I’ve never seen what a real Left looks like, but I’ve read about it in books, and I’ve seen it in movies. I don’t know what happened to the Black Panthers and the New Left and SDS and all that. But from what I’ve read, the baby-boomers who fought these battles were exhausted by the end of the late sixties and the early seventies. The drugs and the violence and the failure to get anywhere against the war in Vietnam just wore them out. The assassination squads led by COINTELPRO, and all the strikes of ’68 having no real result just brought them to the point of being tired. And there was no Left at all, even a lame Left in the 1970s, and when opposition started to coalesce it was a whole new generation, it was my generation, generation X, in the eighties against Reagan, and I remember from that time we didn’t know what to do. The country had turned so far to the right we didn’t have the confidence of our convictions. We didn’t feel like if we led the charge there would be anyone there to follow us. So without role models and without any sense of a forward momentum people just got lost.

In terms of the militant pacifism, that is something that really mystifies me because a lot of people will talk about Nelson Mandela, for instance, and say “oh his peaceful example…” Well, he might have a calm tone, but he shot a cop! That’s how he ended up in prison in the first place. If I remember right, he shot a cop while the guy was directing traffic, so it’s not like he was a pacifist by any means. The ANC was very violent and they were considered a very radical communist organization at the time, so I don’t know. In terms of how the Left can get its groove back, well, my book doesn’t explain that either. It’s a call for people to be strong. But how to organize people to do that, I don’t know. There’s going to need to be revolutionary programs, there is going to need to be charismatic leaders, there is going to need to be propaganda films and political parties to start this process of radicalizing not just people’s politics, but their tone. It’s very frustrating for me to see the self-confidence that the Right has and not understand why the Left doesn’t get that this is how we need to be too. I mean, we are right. They’ve been proven wrong about everything, so why are we so wimpy? We are trying to save the world here and yet we’re worried about hurting people’s feelings. I don’t get it at all.

Advocate: It seems to me like one way of getting that groove back is precisely the threat of violence. How exactly would the use of violence by groups on the Left change the political landscape in America? Wouldn’t the use of violence, as several people have suggested to me, merely delegitimize any group that used it and alienate potential allies?

TR: That is an argument, you know. I think what would really happen if there were a real Left is, of course, that there would be numerous stripes of the Left, some more radical than others. When violence has been used it can be very inspiring. For instance when ELF burned down those houses in Washington State on a development, or when they burned down a ski lodge in Aspen, or when they burned SUVs at a car dealership, I remember thinking: that’s funny. I hate those SUVs, I hate suburban sprawl. There are twenty million vacant homes in the United States, why are we still building anything? And you see the ineffectiveness of non-violent approaches. You go to city council meetings, you argue against a development, but the fix is in, everyone’s been paid off. And of course it happens anyway. Did these guys stop the process of sprawl? No. But they got a piece of these guys. They bugged them. They caused them problems. It just seems to me that all of the power is going from corporations and from the Right and coming down like a fist on the Left and on ordinary people. And every now and then when you get to bite these guys back it makes you feel better.

In terms of the danger of turning off the moderates, well, that’s true; that is always a danger, and in fact, if the Left is violent and the government and the Right do not respond with violence then that would not work. What the Left would have to count on is the extremely violent and hostile nature of the system itself; that they would overreact and expose themselves as the monsters that they are. That’s the purpose of any kind of violent act. Like 9/11. If the Unites States had not responded violently and had used that as an opportunity to open up dialogue with the Islamic world, it would have been counterproductive to al Qaeda, but it was a huge victory for al Qaeda precisely because the United States responded with extreme violence, and that radicalized moderates. I think violence only works if it provokes bigger violence from the state, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that it probably would.
Advocate: This leads me to my next question, actually, which is about the idea of complete revolution. Your book, as far as I can tell, argues for complete and total overthrow of the United States government. Aren’t there other less drastic tactics that might produce revolutionary change, or is this the only option?

Look, I can’t predict the future. It would be great if it were possible to reform the system and get some substantial change out of the existing system simply because it would be cheaper and easier in terms of blood and money—that would be preferable. Revolution should always be the last resort. But it’s hard for me to imagine right now, as things stand, because the system has been so incredibly resistant to any kind of reform in recent years. It’s all about give backs, it’s all about push backs. “We’re going to fire you, we’re going to take away your rights. After we make you poor we will make it impossible for you to declare bankruptcy.” It’s just relentless, and that attitude of “we will not compromise, we will not be reasonable” just leads me to believe that you can’t negotiate with these people. But you never know.

Advocate: In the book you also argue that revolution is necessary in large part because the United States is already on its way to collapse. Can you talk more about that? How do you see that happening and when do you think it will happen?

TR: There are so many possible ways that collapse could ensue that it is impossible for me to tell you how it will go down. I don’t know if it’s going to be environmental collapse that sparks food shortages and food riots. I couldn’t tell you if it will be simple economic collapse because the government can no longer issue debt. I can’t tell you whether it will be the complete collapse of the consumer economy because of high unemployment and the inability of people to spend money. I don’t know if it will be blowback from one of America’s countless wars of aggression. All I can say is it just feels incredibly unsustainable and since the collapse probably is coming sooner rather than later, the question is what we should do about it. Should we just let it happen, go the way of the Soviet Union in the early nineties and let the country tank the way Russia did in the nineties? Or do we act and step in and replace the system with something that works better now?

Advocate: In your book you are extremely, how can I put it, reticent about proposing any kind of replacement system…

TR: Yeah, that’s the major criticism of the book. People don’t like that. They want to be told exactly where I’m going to take them, and the answer is: I’m not taking them anywhere! It’s up to them. It’s up to others. This book is already 280 pages; it’s too long really for a manifesto as it is, and it’s actually kind of ridiculous to be in a situation where you have to write a book like this, because in any other country it’s a given that if the government doesn’t work you can overthrow it. And it’s only in the United States that we have such childish politics that the idea of bringing up revolution as an option is somehow shocking or radical. In a way it’s almost embarrassing to have to write this thing.

But the next question is, obviously, what does the new government look like, what does the new regime look like? And I have my ideas about that and I hint at them and I am working on a book now that’s a sequel to this that will lay out what I think should happen next: a transition to Socialism. But like I wrote in the book, what I think really doesn’t matter. I am one of three hundred million people; I am not special. I am not smarter or dumber than anyone else. I am just a guy, and I have my opinions and I will put them forward. But what needs to happen is for us to start thinking outside of this box, get rid of this system, and have a national conversation that involves a struggle over what comes next. Are we going to have a left wing government, a right wing government, something else, who knows? But we need to have that talk. I felt that if I laid this out as a purely left wing book that it would, first of all, needlessly eliminate potential allies on the right, and secondly, it was kind of beside the point. I viewed it as becoming a giant distraction. As it is people on the right would love that because they look at my politics and they say that Ted Rall’s book calls for left wing revolution, but it doesn’t. It just calls for revolution. I didn’t put it in the book, because I wanted to make the case for revolution outside of the construct of ideology, because it is impossible to predict what’s going to come next.

Advocate: Speaking of the Left: in your book you are pretty harsh on some very well liked and admired figures on the Left. Michael Moore, for instance, and the Yes Men, whom I think are really hilarious…

TR: They are hilarious..

Advocate: So, what’s up with that? What’s the problem with what they do? Aren’t they allies in your cause?

TR: I would say the reason I picked them is because they are so good. They are the best that the official American Left has to offer, in the same way that Obama is the best, in terms of the mainstream political system, that the system has to offer. Michael Moore has got this immense audience of tens of millions of people, his movies can open up in hundreds of theatres, he can talk about things that no one else can talk about, he’s got this great Midwestern folksy sensibility, he has a gentle delivery; he’s really kind of a genius. And his TV show was even better than his movies I think. And the Yes Men are great too. And I am sure you’re asking yourself, ok what are you talking about, why are you down on these guys so much, and it’s because they don’t go there. Like Jon Stewart and Colbert, this kind of dissent validates the official system by saying “look at the American political system; it’s so big and open minded that it even allows a guy like Michael Moore or the Yes Men or John Stewart to operate.” And the implication is, it’s not that bad. But you notice that they marginalize people who actually call for radical change, like Howard Zinn or Ralph Nader. Those people are not allowed to get their message out. So you’re allowed to go up to the edge of ridiculing, but you can’t call for real change; all you can do is poke gentle fun, or not so gentle fun, but it’s got to be all in fun. You can’t call for the actual system to be replaced, and that was really the argument I was trying to make there.

Advocate: Do you feel like you have been marginalized in that way?

TR: Absolutely, sure. And that was before I wrote this book even. The country lurched to the right significantly in 2001 and has not come back at all, and everybody I know who is, like me, a Lefty cartoonist, has been savaged by the decline in print and the changing political climate. But I don’t view it as a personal thing; I take it for granted. I guess I could be a milquetoast liberal and have a few more client newspapers, but what would be the fun of that? The story that I’m trying to write about my own life is about taking chances and doing what I think is right, not just trying to put a few extra bucks into my 401K.

Advocate: World events seem to be catching up with the book. Witness just the recent student protests in London, or the news that Obama’s planned spending and entitlement cuts have angered both the liberal left and the radical right. Do you see events like these as somehow echoing or speaking to what you talk about in the book? Is the revolution already underway, and if so, how do we get these movements to coalesce.

TR: The revolution is not underway, but certainly the revolutionary climate is upon us. And the Europeans seem to be, as usual, setting the standard for what needs to be done. They are used to this, they know about this and they are probably going to go first, but Americans are incredibly docile and they’re going to have to stop shooting each other at the mall and start aiming their rage at the rich and the powerful who deserve it.

Advocate: Lastly, I wanted to give you the opportunity to respond in print, if you like, to a commentary by Fox News anchor Greg Gutfeld, who called you a “bitter cartoonist” and said that “advocating phony revolution is where idiots like Ted start and end.” He also argued that you would come after him swinging your NPR tote bag.
TR: I think that is funny. I’ve read a lot of those right wing blogs where they just sort of assume that all Lefties are effeminate and unable to stand up and fight, and they make it real personal, like “I would beat you down; you’d be carrying your yoga mat” or whatever. It’s so funny that they think that is how politics are going to play out, but I am paying the price, in a way, for forty years of wussie Lefties. They are not afraid of us; they think that we are a bunch of wimps, that at the first sign of a fight we are going to run away like little girls. I don’t blame them for thinking that because that is what the American Left is. I think everyone can strive to be braver but I doubt too many of them would do as well as me and two other Leftie cartoonists: Matt Bors and Steven Cloud who just came back from Afghanistan in August. We were there for a month and we lived with locals, unembeded, no contacts with the military, no guards, just us, low key, and we traveled all over the country, we went to Taliban areas and we stayed at Taliban hotels…I’d like to see those guys, those armchair warriors do what we did and see how they come out of it.

In terms of Mr. Gutfeld calling me a “bitter cartoonist,” well, guilty as charged. All good political cartoonists are bitter about injustice and stupidity and I am guilty and I plead guilty. In terms of whether it’s a phony revolution or not, well, there is no revolution at all, so it can’t really be phony, but I certainly would like to see a real one.

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