A Collapse of the Caricature: Digital Age Tests Political Cartoon Resilience

We’ve all seen them. I’m talking about the political cartoons that occasionally pop up in our history textbooks and give us a break from ‘reading.’ On Monday, Ted Rall, an award-winning professional political cartoonist, shared his insight on the changing game of political cartoons at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum.

Like other jobs in the field of journalism, political cartooning is hard to break into professionally.

“It changed my life and approach to the job, when I could finally make a living off of just cartooning,” he said. “I was able to focus on cartooning and think about it all day.” 

After picking up just 12 clients in three years, he was hired in 1991 by the San Francisco Chronicle Features, picking up his first big gig after four years of various day jobs to pay the bills.

Political cartooning has always been a humorous way for society to reflect on current controversial issues, but the field has drastically changed in the current age of digitalization from what it was a few decades ago. Paper newspapers as a whole have declined greatly, and instead of political cartoons in the daily paper, they are more prevalent online. Although online publications allow a more diverse group of people to express their opinions on controversial subjects, it does not allow them to make a full career out of political cartooning.

“The print dollar has been replaced by the digital penny,” Rall said.

He is the fifth-youngest full-time professional cartoonist in the U.S, which proves that a new generation of political cartoonists may never arise. He claimed that the “only way to survive as a cartoonist today is to be a business person—someone who can market his or herself.”

Today, television satirists are more prevalent than political cartoonists. Rall’s latest book, a biography of Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee that leaked the NSA’s programs used to obtain private information, sends a powerful message using satirical cartoon and text to convey the concept of how modern society is similar to George Orwell’s Oceana society predicted in “1984.”

His commentary on the access the NSA has to our information about our personal lives raised brows in the audience.

“It was eye-opening to hear that the government could hear what you say even when your phone is off,” said Isabel Chavez CM ’19. “I think it’s something that is quieted down and people don’t want to address since it’s coming from the government.” 

In response to a question on whether he ever feels limited to what he should say, Rall shared his belief that there is no limit to an individual’s speech. He thinks that once an artist starts thinking of who they could possibly offend with an opinion, the notion of free speech is abandoned.

Elliot Behling CM ’19 agrees with Rall’s literal interpretation of the first amendment, and believes that “there is definitely a point when political correctness becomes so slight that it doesn’t really become possible to freely express yourself.” 

Political cartooning is surely an important way for people to share their beliefs, and with the technological era slowly shutting the field out, people may not be able to freely express their opinions through cartooning much longer. Rall’s comedic speech was definitely more than just about political satire. It was a talk that made the audience think about the growing and dominating role technology plays in our society. 

Rall’s speech brought together the comedic and the political. These twin tendencies are perhaps best exemplified by the concern Rall has at the forefront of his mind: Could Donald Trump could be our first orange president?

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