Creating a better world through words and images

Artwork/Political Cartoons
Artwork/Political Cartoons
Artwork/Political Cartoons
Artwork/Political Cartoons

As an addendum to my previous blog, reflecting on my experience at the Johnston Center’s (University of Redlands) outstanding summer seminar on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I’d like to offer an excerpt from a writing project which I shared with my fellow seminar participants exactly two weeks ago tonight (the penultimate night of the seminar was sort of performance and art night; poems were read, songs sung, stories shared, and ART created!).

I introduced the following text with a little background about my career as a political artist and writer, explaining one general approach I’ve taken to sharing the benefits of my political self-education over the last 15 years: embedding essential, usually neglected FACTS (about U.S. history/policy) in popular entertainment vehicles like graphic novels, screenplays, etc. — the more that can be turned into video, the better, in terms of reaching the largest audience.  The hope is that my stories can edify others by providing drama that is grounded in the real world, providing gravitas, even, to a comical account of a fictionalized President Bush (President George Washington Brash, Jr.) working on his memoirs…

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Decider Points The unauthorized autobiographical memoir of President George Washington Brash, Jr., reflecting on my time in office (only for real, this time)

“There are known unknowns (things you know you don’t know), and then there are the unknown unknowns (which you don’t even know you don’t know), and most confounding of all, there are the unknown knowns (things you know darn well, but just plum forgot about – willikers, what do you mean ‘torture as an interrogation tactic can backfire in all kinds of ways!’)”

— Defense Secretary, Ronald Dumbsfeld

“Nosce me ipsum” – Apollo’s maximum, meaning “Know My Self”

This book is dedicated to:

– Family first (comprising two First Families):  Lara, my lovin’ wife; Poppy & Ma-Bar; and of course Jed, Neal (before Zod), Melvin, and Prince Bindar Brash…

– Also to Carl Rave and Usama bin Rabid (who’s combined, if uncoordinated, efforts gave me a 90% approval rating, briefly, and two terms in office)…

– To the men and women of the U.S. armed services who fought so committedly to defend my many decisions …

– And finally, to the SCOTUS-Five and Kenny-Boy, for making it all possible (say “hello” to Jesus for me, Ken… or Lucifer – whoever’s closest; I wouldn’t want you to go out of your way).

And now a word for my critics:

I know a lot of you will take the information in this book and do a lot of crowing about it, claiming vindication:  “Oh boy, he admits to authorizing waterboarding!  Looky here, he acknowledges that there were no WMDs!  Hey, he was “warrantless wire-tapping” mostly domestic phone traffic months before 9/11!” (and so on).

But you must also acknowledge, after reading these memoirs, that I’m not the cartoon villain you made me out to be (neither was my Vice President, Dick Veyder, for that matter)… and you weren’t in my shoes when those planes struck our homeland.

I was.

And I was the Decider.

The simple truth is that nothing I did in office stands out all that conspicuously from the Executive actions of several of my predecessors, especially those who ruled during times of war.  FDR locked up thousands of ethnic Japanese-Americans in camps; and my immediate predecessor, Bull Clanton, tolerated genocide in Africa and bombed plenty of civilian targets in Serbia and Sudan.  Furthermore, my dad, when he was president, killed lots of Panamanian and Iraqi civilians (albeit nowhere near as many Latin American civilians as was killed by my real hero, the Gapper, President Raygun, himself).

Clanton, though (that famous “liberal”) did many of the exact things I got lambasted for:  he practiced a form of rendition, used GITMO as a legal black hole for detainees, and had a number of folks “tortured” (as some like to call it) — only he didn’t make it national policy to use U.S. personnel, including military personnel, in such a hands-on way as I did.

All my administration did was formalize — and make legal — a lot of informal practices that had already been tried by past presidents… and not just “Dicky” Dick Noxin.

Were we hardball-playing partisans?  Hell yes, we were! If you know Washington, D.C. at all, you know that we had to politicize agencies and offices across government… especially those with law enforcement, electoral, or military functions!  Consider the case for war alone:  with CIA analysts, nuclear experts at Energy, and others refusing to support our “mushroom cloud” claims, we had to go with Bud Fayth’s “Special Plans” office in the Pentagon, supplemented with lots of “Swerveball” intelligence (all given front page treatment by the nation’s biggest media outlets, I’d like to point out).

Did we persecute members of a minority group in the wake of a terrorist act of war?  Hell yes, we did! We lumped together all manner of Muslim-, Middle Eastern-, and Arab- troublemakers (and charities) into one big group we called “Islamic terrorists” (giving some of them common cause with al Qaeda, it turns out) and we became the world’s policeman — nudging the world toward becoming a police state:  biometrics on everybody; borderless, endless war; ubiquitous cameras and checkpoints; unmanned drones; mercenaries; blast walls — you know, “democracy”).

Did we take the country into war on a load of half-baked nonsense?  Well, that’s for History to decide.  Personally, at the time, I believed most of the things we were saying were either true, essentially true, or true enough, following a certain logic (close enough to “true” to put in a State of the Union Address, anyway).

This book reveals that, whatever mistakes were made (search me), I have always done my best to serve this country and defend Freedom… even here in America.

George W. Brash, Jr., Thorty-Fird Presidnet of the United States

Recently returned from the exhilarating experience of a weeklong seminar in Monterey, studying and critically reading Ovid’s two-thousand year-old Metamorphoses with the University of Redlands’ (Johnston Center’s) fantastic Professor William McDonald and a roomful of truly impressive scholars and academics — with whom I can barely keep pace, truth be told — I am just now beginning to feel that I have both feet firmly planted in my normal life and routines.

While working on a small art project commissioned by that seminar group, I’ve caught up on the DemocracyNow! and Daily Show/Colbert Report episodes I missed while I was away.  I’ve also been steadily moseying through a week’s worth of missed newspaper articles (and snagging some new ones, of course) trying to get a handle on: the SCOTUS’ healthcare ruling, the LIBOR scandal, the Euro crisis, the Syria situation, Pakistan-U.S. relations, Mexico’s and Egypt’s respective elections, Iraq’s uptick in violence, et cetera, et cetera…

And while I feel I have some perspective to offer on a number of the above-listed topics, I’ve been wondering if I can do so in a way that reflects my learning about Ovid’s epic poem and honors the extraordinary seminar experience that concluded my 2012 June.  But here’s the unfortunate (and, to me, surprising) answer: I can’t… or at least I’ve failed to do so, thus far.

So here, instead, is my best attempt at explaining this failure, which in the process will hopefully elucidate some of Ovid’s world and ours…

First, some background: For those who are unfamiliar (or think you are) with Ovid’s most seminal work, it may surprise you to learn that this Roman citizen’s epic poem (Metamorphoses, completed around 8 C.E.) has been referenced in other art more often than any other work in history, with the sole exception of the Bible.  The Metamorphoses has inspired poets from Dante to Shakespeare to Walt Whitman, and artists from Botticelli to Caravaggio to Waterhouse, as well as music composers and opera librettists, and now, Hollywood filmmakers, borrowing from/ripping off his creative genius (without which we wouldn’t have those “Crap of the Titans” movies — but schlock isn’t all that Ovid inspired; far from it — please refer back to the mention of Shakespeare and Dante, etc.).

If you’re familiar with names like Hercules, Juno/Hera, Theseus, Persephone, Medea, Perseus, and Venus/Aphrodite, there’s a good chance that your ideas about these mythological figures are deeply informed by Ovid’s unique treatment of them.  As his poem tracks the movement of the gods and stories from Greece to Rome, Ovid develops (concurrently) a few other narrative arcs and expounds on themes from War’s folly to Love’s power, with a surprising privileging of women’s voices.  By the time he’s finished, the reader/audience (for his poems were primarily written to be read aloud and performed before audiences) has taken an epic journey from the beginning of the world — Chaos reordered by Nature/God — to the founding of Rome and apotheosis of Caesar and Octavian… and of the poet himself, who self-deifies at the poem’s conclusion (Ovid’s testimony to the transformational/transcendent power of ART).

So what accounts for my difficulties relating Ovid to our modern world (in the context of this blog entry)?  It’s tough to say.  The poem is definitely concerned with matters that are timeless and universal (death, love, war, change, sex, mystery…).  Also, the poet arrives late in the Roman empire — roughly three-quarters of the way through — so he’s actually a bit of a post-modernist, deconstructing and building on (and riffing on) the works of the great poets who preceded him, especially the stodgy, heroic Virgil.  Ovid is highly educated and brilliant, humorous, bawdy, subversive, and in many ways modern.

So what’s my problem relating this sophisticated poem to my own post-modern milieu?  What’s the primary obstacle that’s been hindering my progress?

At last, I think I’ve boiled it down to one thing: Ovid was writing from the perspective of a WINNER, flourishing in his career (after three decades at the top of his highly esteemed profession) and living in Rome, the capital of the world, for all intents and purposes: WINNER-LAND (all-conquering Rome… with all foes already all-conquered).  Ovid is living in a land without any serious existential challenges and clearly expects his Rome to endure well into the future.

And that’s the principle area where we differ, Ovid and I. Unlike Ovid, I am writing during the time of the COLLAPSE of the empire founded by my homeland, without a single realistic hope for the future of that empire (not that I’m particularly attached to it in anything resembling its current form, mind you):

– Where Ovid saw the preeminence of Roman civic life and culture (which he valued) stretching out as far into time as he could imagine, I am witnessing the hollowing out of my homeland — with our infrastructure and population suffering from decades of neglect — and the withering of America’s power in the world, as Americans relinquish virtually all that we once cherished (starting with our Constitution and professed moral values in the years following the 9/11 attacks);

– Where Ovid valued Roman culture and civic virtues, I recognize that the culture and civic values of my homeland have been seriously degraded, to the extent that the entire nation has been intellectually and spiritually stunted and our institutions have been corrupted almost beyond recognition;

– Where Ovid clearly felt secure enough to poke fun at the leaders of his time and skewer more than a few “sacred cows,” I know that I’m living in a precarious and possibly more oppressive time (with more human beings enslaved than any previous period in history), where the government monitors essentially all communications and the vast majority of commercially successful artists are those who either self-censor or simply have nothing to say (or rather nothing to say that doesn’t celebrate power, banality, violence, sadism, and empty triumphalism); and finally,

– Where Ovid felt that his nation, people, and culture would endure indefinitely and flourish, I am unfortunate enough to know that the world in which I’m living may not exist in a mere century or two, once Earth’s climate goes from crisis to catastrophe (an outcome predicted by virtually all of the existing climate science, yet which is practically ignored by the world’s powerful leaders and institutions).

So, there you have it: I can’t quite fit an Ovidian lens over my eyes and see my world as strongly analogous to the poet’s for one simple, inescapable reason: Publius Ovidius Naso was certain that his nation and world had a future, whereas I am not.

Today I thought I’d feature a few more examples of an excellent cartoon series I’ve discovered called “American Extremists”.  I’ve created a little panel featuring some of my favorites from recent weeks (see below), which I hope you will enjoy as I do (though I admit these cartoons sometimes make me lament the sometimes unwieldy complexity and busyness of my own efforts in the realm of political cartooning).

I also want to take advantage of this opportunity to clarify that Vast Left’s blog actually invites visitors to put these (“American Extremists”) cartoons up on their own websites — as I’ve done twice now — as long as they link back to their site (which I’ve done).  I’d also like to invite my readers to do the same with my political cartoons (the cartoons only, please, and not the other artwork) and please give attribution and link back to this site if you opt to borrow my cartoons for your website.

And now for some keen cartoons!

Succinct and incisive: "American Extremists"

This year I’ve taken on a couple of sizeable reading commitments — Tolstoy’s War And Peace and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (one with a small group of friends, the other for a seminar) — in addition to my normal non-fiction (news/current events) book reading and occasional fiction-for-fun… both of which have been scaled back in recent months in order to accommodate Tolstoy’s everlasting gobstopper of a novel and Ovid’s epic poem of transformation (my classics, in addition to being rather challenging, now come with deadlines).

Anyone who’s been reading this blog over the last year might recall that my non-fiction reading in 2011 included Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s indispensable Thirteen Bankers. But today, just for a change of pace, I’ll also share that my just-for-fun fiction reading last year included the page-turning The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Raymond Carver’s exquisite Cathedral, Margaret Atwood’s excellent The Blind Assassin, and a smattering of science-fiction novels from Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Gene Wolfe (Book of the New Sun series), and Ursula le Guin — GREAT stuff, all.  (Last year’s classics included Lord of the Flies, some Oscar Wilde, and finally getting around to Jane Eyre, which I confess I loved… and then there’s the occasional comic book reading I do — wait, am I still on classics?  Never mind.)

I also do a fair amount of drawing, including political cartoons, and spend a few hours a day “newsing” (a verb we’ve coined in this house, meaning “to relentlessly scour the internet for substantive news content”) — starting at DemocracyNow!, HuffingtonPost,, NYT, and… and then I go wherever that leads.  Often when I’m reading articles (editorials, transcripts, etc.) at those sites, I decide to peruse the Comments sections (where applicable) and post a comment or two of my own… including pithy/polite/informative responses to the posts of others.

And that’s what I was just about to do (post a comment at HuffPo) when I decided to do this post my commentary about Wisconsin’s election result here, on MY site, instead (see italicized section below).  I figure I’ve given these other sites hundreds of hours of my time and thousands of my most carefully-considered words — and HuffPo already does just fine on other people’s efforts, no?  So, sorry HuffPo, but this blog’s for me…

But first, some quick context: Last night I was very disappointed to see that Wisconsin’s governor (some sort of imperial, all-terrain Walker) survived the ambitious recall effort in the Badger State (all it took was outspending his all-but-abandoned Democratic opponent by an 8:1 margin).  Then I saw an article on HuffingtonPost that cheered me up a bit, reporting that the Wisconsin State Senate shifted back to Democrats, yesterday — so it was a mixed result for the night.  I decided to wade into the comments section and see what folks were saying about this development, when I came across the post of an individual who — though pleased to see the Wisconsin Senate flip to the Dems — complained that the whole recall process had created a “disorderly uproar.”  I marked the comment as a “Favorite,” but immediately had second thoughts.  I wondered if I could articulate them in a comment reply…

Hi — I just “Favorited” your comment, as I strongly agree with the sentiment you expressed (re: the “silver lining” on yesterday’s “dark cloud” election result), but then I wondered if I should have. It’s not that I DEEPLY REGRET that click of the mouse, mind you, but I think I have a quibble with “disorderly uproar.”

While I know the phrase is technically apt — Wisconsin has been disorderly, indeed (with reports of phone-jamming and some thuggish behavior on the part of some supporters of the Governor) — I personally am VERY grateful that Wisconsin progressives in 2011 PUSHED BACK when a naked power grab (and sucker-punch to organized labor) was asserted by an anti-democratic ideologue bent on crushing the opposition for good (“divide and conquer,” he said) and giving away as many state resources as possible to his corporate buddies.

Thanks to the RESISTANCE to the Governor (including a very funny and revealing prank call from “David Koch”) Walker’s obsequious toadying to the Koch brothers was exposed nationally, as was their radical agenda: AUSTERITY, PRIVATIZATION, CO-OPTION OF ELECTED OFFICES… and plenty of CORPORATE WELFARE, of course.

The truth is I don’t mind that things got a bit messy in Wisconsin last year.  In fact, I think some good was accomplished, and I feel truly indebted to those brave state senators who denied Walker a quorum for a while and made Wisconsin (and the world) aware of the radical moves their government was making. I’m also grateful to the thousands of protesters who occupied Madison for weeks and the dedicated folks who made the recall happen.

YES, IT’S UNFORTUNATE THAT WALKER WASN’T REMOVED FROM OFFICE… but many good things have come out of the opposition that thousands of Wisconsinites mounted against this brazen power play. Wisconsin’s progressives have done a lot to improve their organization and resources over the last year. If they ever get some help from the national Democratic Party, who knows what they can accomplish?

James O’Donnell — Invitation2Artivism

Having recently concluded my five-part series on identity politics (“Black Face/Identity Politics Is for Suckers”), I admit I’ve been feeling the tiniest bit pleased with myself.  With this effort, I have offered the most detailed, measured (I think) accounting yet for my displeasure with the President, my best attempt yet to reach out to self-identified liberals who, near as I can tell, do not understand the substance of many progressives’ criticisms of President Obama.

Will that series end up changing a lot of minds?  I suppose not, but I wanted to present my case that the rise of identity politics has proven disastrous for America, especially when it comes to the last two presidents, and also let people know that I can understand voting for President Obama this November.  (It’s not something I’m planning on doing, but I can see how someone could do so, especially when I remind myself of our hyper-partisan atmosphere and the dearth of policy-based discussion regarding this presidency.)  For many such voters — liberal, somewhat reluctant/unenthusiastic Obama voters — I know they’ll be casting their votes against Republicans this fall, as much as anything else… and I can understand that, too.

That said, I have one little addendum to add, one more rhetorical flourish which I think might further help people see where I’m coming from — and here it is, my general point, nicely illustrated in a political cartoon NOT of my making (from the brilliant series “American Extremists”).

And now for my Colombo impression -- “Just one more thing...”

Eloquent, no?

Well, for eight years I watched in horror as George W. Bush and his wrecking crew (decidedly not “politicians I’d always known were objectively good”) did things I’d “always considered objectively bad”: torture, mass murder, massive spying on citizens, deliberately targeting and killing troublesome journalists, and more.  When liberals protested Bush’s appalling crimes, the right was quick to accuse us of “HATING” their president on personal grounds (a charge I thought cheap).

Did I like Bush’s faux-Christian, faux-folksy brand of demagoguery and his Texas twang?  Not particularly (in large part because I recognized it as a cynical sham).  Regardless, this twangy, faux-Texan would have received ZERO criticism from this quarter had he not turned out to be a pawn of DANGEROUS RADICALS aggressively advancing an agenda of world domination (literally, that’s how nutty these jokers are – begin at the 8min.,13sec. mark of the linked video).

What I’m saying is I knew precisely what I was opposing when I spent eight years trying to rally my fellow Americans against George W. Bush and his neoconservative cabal: an expensive, immoral, homicidal/suicidal/counterproductive, GREEDY establishment that oppresses liberty everywhere in the world (Orwellian-style, in the name of “freedom”) — and has NO long-term plan for… anything, really, except preserving the luxuries and prerogatives of a few thousand extraordinarily privileged individuals.

(Why, Mr. President, when their whole stinking agenda was going down in flames, did you take such extreme measures to rescue it?)

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When President Obama decided to expand Bush’s global terror war (after unexpectedly cementing all of its legal grounds, previously considered outlandish and un-American), the nation of Yemen became one of the principle new fronts in the neocons’ global battleground.  How’s that working out? Well, aside from the hundreds of people recently killed in less than two weeks (the result of an escalating clash between rebels and the Aden-based dictatorship), the number of “hardcore” al Qaeda extremists in Yemen has well more than doubled over the last year or so, with several thousand more Yemenis hating America today than hated us before Mr. Obama began bombing wedding parties and funeral gatherings in their country (his first drone strike in Yemen killed 14 women and 21 children, setting the tone for the violence to come).  That’s the way the neocons’ policies work in practice: they’re terrorist factories; blowback creators; busy little, ever-forward-looking “Dr. Frankensteins,” far too engaged in birthing innumerable new “monsters” to acknowledge their roles in creating the last batch.

You see, I don’t object to the establishment’s agenda “just” because it’s immoral (though it is).  I object because, after many years of close observation, it is my firm conclusion that basically all its outcomes are destructive, producing the exact opposite effect of the flacks’ claims: increasing the frequency of terrorism, violence, and death; and decreasing both personal liberty and economic security (in addition to the available amount of potable water, tillable soil, fishable waters, and nourishing food — you know, the little things).

Reelect Obama, my friends.  That’s fine with me, especially now that it looks like 2012 will be yet another establishment-dominated election, with no insurgent third party rising — following a 2011 that featured no meaningful primary in either main party.  But whatever the outcome in November, we absolutely MUST continue working to replace this terrible system with something humane and rational; there’s simply too much at stake.  That is the point I keep coming back to (and I have a few thoughts on just how we should go about that task, so stick around…).