This week’s guest on Real Politik is political cartoonist Ben Garrison. In a sea of largely homogeneous editorial cartooning, Mr. Garrison brings a truly unique voice and vision. Presently a freelance commercial artist, Garrison’s first cartoons appeared in The San Angelo Standard Times in the early 1980s. He was also a graphic artist at the The San Antonio Express News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
In 2008, the big banks were bailed out, which served as Garrison’s wake-up call. Like many other outraged Americans, he wrote his senators and congressman, urging them vote against the bailout, but he was ignored. The bailout marked the point where Mr. Garrison felt he had to do something. He wanted to ring alarm bells and so he became a citizen muckraker. In 2009 he began drawing editorial cartoons that skewered the Federal Reserve and the growing police state in America. The Internet made it possible for his cartoons to be seen by millions all over the world. The Internet also made it possible for anonymous entities to deface his work, libel his name and make him into the most trolled cartoonist in the world.
Mr. Garrison’s wife, Tina Garrison, is also a cartoonist and together they began a web site in 2010 named “GrrrGraphics.com.” It features a growling bulldog named “GRRR” who takes a bite out of tyranny. Their dog is doing the job as watchdog that the mainstream media now seems reluctant to do.
Ben has completed his first book titled, Rogue Cartoonist: The Internet Perils of a Citizen Muckraker, due to be release later in 2015. More information is available at GrrrGraphics.com.
As noted above, Ben Garrison began to do editorial cartooning after a long hiatus. His main impetus for doing so was the outrage he shared with most Americans following the US government’s “too big to fail” bailout of investment banks. “When the bankers were bailed out in 2008,” he recalls searching for something to raise awareness about the country’s political atrophy. “‘The politicians aren’t listening to us.’ I think it was like 98% of the Americans who complained about this bailout and contacted their senators and congresspeople were against it, but we still got it anyway.”
That got me to thinking, “Well, what can I do besides voting–because voting is not working.” My father was a World War Two veteran, and he fought for his country. What did I ever do for my country? I’ve never done anything, except for voting and paying taxes. So, that’s when I decided I’m going to do something for my country, and I’m going to start drawing cartoons again. I had a crystallization of my political ideology, which I realized was libertarian. Also, I had my target. I was mad. I wanted to go to the source of a lot of the problems with big government, and that goes toward the Federal Reserve.”
What I realized also was that a lot of cartoonists were not touching that subject. It’s almost like it was a sacred cow. And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to go after the Federal Reserve, and I’m going to support Ron Paul, and draw pro-Ron Paul cartoons because he was running for president. That’s when it all sort of came together for me. And I realized how there’s the internet. I don’t have to have a publisher. I don’t have to an editor telling me this isn’t appropriate for the newspaper. So I had my forum, I had a free internet. There’s nothing to stop me, right?
While Garrison’s cartoons have earned substantial notoriety and even some acclaim on the internet, he believes that editorial cartoons, particularly those that truly skewer the powerful, are becoming a thing of the past. There were at one time thousands of newspapers cross the country, with major cities like New York and Chicago having a half dozen or more dailies. “In the golden age of newspapers,” he notes, “there were around 2,000 paid editorial cartoonists. Every newspaper had to have a cartoonist. They knew that was very effective for people who didn’t want to read all the grey on the editorial pages, they will look at the cartoons. That had a magnet-like effect for readership.”
Today, however, declining readerships combined with competition from the internet “I think there are 36 paid editorial cartoonists out there today,” Garrison points out.
We’ve gone from 2,000 to 36, and those are all old, and once they retire they’re not going to be replaced. Newspapers are going away and are being replaced by the internet. There’s also a decline in the content. I think cartoons sort of end up getting a homogeneity, and they ended up going for cheap gags and comedy. That’s one thing that turned me off, because I’m not a comedian. I don’t pretend to be funny. My cartoons for the most part aren’t funny. I don’t want to get little giggles for my cartoons. I want for them to be hard-hitting. A lot of that homogeneity in the cartoons was reinforced by Pulitzer Prize committees and just the general blandness of newspapers where editors did not want to take risks. They did not want to offend readers. They didn’t want to offend advertisers. So what’s [the safest route]? Just make a little cheap joke about something. So cartoons end up losing their steam. They’ve lost their punch. There are a great many exceptions, but generally speaking that’s what I think has happened.
The success of Garrison’s online political cartooning has not come without its drawbacks. In fact, he regards himself as being “the most trolled cartoonist in the world” and has had to battle a malicious campaign to deface his work and make the public believe that he is radical right wing white supremacist. “This trolling business started almost immediately” following his initial foray into online political cartooning in 2009. “My cartoons were being put on some respectable blogs–a lot of economic blogs–such as Judge Andew Napolitano. I was getting some notoriety and acclaim. Almost immediately, I started getting on my personal blog … this influx of Nazi messages talking about Jews. I was just overwhelmed by this. I didn’t have time to moderate all this so I ended public comments altogether. I thought, ‘Well, that’s that. I shut them up.’ But what I did was really made them mad, because then they said I was against free speech. This is a meme they say, because I don’t enjoy seeing my cartoons hacked up and turned into hate images, that I’m somehow against free speech. That’s a meme that started at 4-Chan back in 2009. I never heard of these sites–4-Chan and the Daily Stormer–I didn’t pay attention to the dark side of the internet.”
Despite his efforts to quell the attacks on his work and public persona, the trolls’ abuse only intensified.
Apparently they had threads running on me where they would deface my cartoons, and then they invented this meme of me as being this dark figure–this Nazi white supremacist. There’s this other artist–this anonymous artist in the 1990s–who created extremely repulsive racist and anti-semitic cartoons. He was too cowardly to put his real name on them, so he called himself “A. Wyatt Mann.” So what they would do is hack up these A. Wyatt Mann cartoons–or they’d take pieces of them–and then put them on my cartoons. They would then say, “This is the Ben Garrison original. The other Ben Garrison–the libertarian Ben Garrison–he’s fake. These are the real things.” They’re able to get away with this because I’m not a public figure. Nobody’s heard the name of Ben Garrison. Nobody’s knows who I am. But my cartoons started getting popular, and so they saw an opportunity [along the lines of], ‘Hey, we can trick the public into thinking the real Ben Garrison is this mass-murdering Nazi.
Garrison is the resident cartoonist for the Australia-based Online Hate Prevention Institute.