Jeff Danziger on Psychology Majors, Cruel Cartoonists, and the Hopelessness of Ever Understanding the World

Jeff Danziger

Jeff Danziger is a syndicated political cartoonist. He has worked for the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Daily News, and has twice been a Pulitzer finalist. In addition to regular political cartoons, his illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, the London Times, and The American Prospect. His new book, Wreckage Begins With “W”, was published in June.

Zachary Roth: I’ve heard political cartoonists say that their intention is not to make people laugh, but more to make them think, or to offer them a new perspective on something. What do you feel like you’re trying to do in your cartooning?

Jeff Danziger: Who said they didn’t want to make anybody laugh?

ZR: Nick Garland [cartoonist for The Daily Telegraph of London and relative of this reporter].

JD: I think he does take a more serious view than most. I would say he’s in a minority because … it’s just much more welcome if you can have something that, even if it is a dumb gag, which most of the American cartoons are, it’s kind of refreshing to have something that’s legitimately witty or humorous.

I mean even the British cartoonists, for the most part, even when they’re at their cruelest — and they are probably the cruelest on the planet — people like … Steve Bell [cartoonist for The Guardianof London] — I mean Bell is just hysterical … and relentless. There are very few American cartoonists that bear down.

ZR: Do you think it’s become harder to do that sort of cartooning, where you’re really sort of bearing down in a political way?

JD: Americans have an ethic of being nice. And it’s probably because of the way this country is constituted that we, in our government and even in our daily life, strive for … comity. So to really be extraordinarily mean in a cartoon — I don’t think a lot of editors think it’s welcomed by their readers. Whereas in other parts of the world, it is welcomed. In England it certainly is, in Australia it certainly is.

ZR: Would you say that phenomenon applies to the press in general in America?

JD: Well, at the local level where you have a monopoly town, the newspaper can’t really add readers without losing readers, [so it never] takes a strong position one way or the other. As corporations, they’re concentrating on building revenue, and building readership and advertising dollars, so they don’t see themselves as so much a part of the political process as a part of the media process.

ZR: What do you think of how the media has done its job so far in the campaign?

JD: Well I think that they [may] want to be even-handed, but it’s almost impossible, because unfortunately it’s still human beings being human beings, and either they get screamed at for being on one side or the other, or they get screamed at for being on neither side. So you might as well take a stand.

ZR: And you think they’re not able to prevent their personal biases from slipping in?

No, of course they can’t. Even if it’s the policy of a newspaper or a television station to not have a personal bias slip in, we’re human beings, we have personal biases, we’re contentious.

ZR: I know in Europe that’s more accepted, and newspapers are often much more open about the fact that they do have a bias.

JD: And they’re largely ignored for the same reason. If a paper has a reputation for being on the left or the right, you know, in some cases, what position it’s going to take, even before it begins.

ZR: Talk a bit about how you come up with your ideas, and how you go about the process of drawing a cartoon.

JD: It’s pretty now. I mean some mornings you wake up and it’s just too easy. The difficult thing is to get off the main subject. I’m working on one now about what kids are majoring in in college, which is really quite a ways off from the main news.

There was a BBC report the other day that — at least in England, and I think it’s true in this country too — they couldn’t get people to major in chemistry or physics, or even in computer science, because there weren’t any jobs doing those things in England, that they were all being shipped out.

I’ve talked to some college professors and they say … that’s quite true. Because let’s say you wanted to go into computer science, sooner or later you’d be working in Bangalore. So we’ve got a lot of people going to college and they’re majoring in psychology. Did you major in psychology by any chance?

ZR: No I didn’t.

JD: Well, you might as well major in talking about each other. So I was trying to do something on that because I think it’s off the subject, and I’ve just done too many political ones of late, too much bullshit.

And I’m trying to do things about the parallelism between our situation and Russian terrorism, and what Putin will do, what his options are.

ZR: I don’t want to put words in your mouth here, but is there a sense, with everything going on in the world, that that creates a problem for cartoonists, because how can you caricature …

JD: I just got back about two months ago from living for two years in Germany, and largely because of 9/11, because my wife works for a German bank, so as a consequence of 9/11 she didn’t want to fly anymore, so they gave her a two year [position in Germany].

And in Germany everybody has a passport. In this country, I think 16 percent of Americans have passports. And they just don’t go anywhere, and they don’t know anything. But I think they are now starting to figure out that there’s something over there besides Paris. And they’re aware of all of these other cultures.

So I’ve been trying to do things about these countries that we can’t even pronounce the names of and don’t even know anything about. I think Americans who have traveled a lot have a different political view.

ZR: What do you think cartoons can do that other media can’t?

JD: They can be funny. Americans expect them to be funny, that’s an expectation from childhood. But they can also be provocative, and they can come up with a visual metaphor that will stick with you.

One of my favorite cartoonists is Paul Conrad, who’s quite on in years now, I think. He worked for years for the Los Angeles Times, and he had a cartoon of Nixon nailing himself to the cross … and with his free hand he was hammering in his other hand, and that stuck with me for years. But a lot of times they can be unfair and very unforgiving and very unarguable.

ZR: From an artistic perspective, who are you hoping will be the nominees for both parties in 2008? Anyone you’d particularly like to draw?

JD: My latest theory is that … the country is screwed no matter who wins, because this dispute will go on …

ZR: You mean this partisanship that exists?

JD: Yeah, I mean if Kerry wins and doesn’t have … some support in Congress, he’s not going to be able to do anything … the people on the other side are unassuageable. And if Bush wins, well everything will then be guaranteed to be his fault.

It is literally the triumph of politics — somebody said that, it wasn’t me — but it is the triumph of politics as a thing unto itself, where it’s the dispute that is important.

ZR: Well just from an artistic perspective then?

JD: From an artistic standpoint I don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference.

ZR: Condi Rice could be fun to draw …

JD: [sighs] I know what you’re trying to say, but I’ve already been through this. I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I’ve already been thru this shit once on the level of what does it mean to me, and now I sort of think … it just points to the … hopelessness of us ever understanding the world, and whether or not democracy is actually a good idea. You know, you’d think that you get the best person, but the last 5 or 6 presidents of this country — put them in a room together and you wouldn’t hire them to sell shoes.

ZR: Well, I still think democracy’s a good idea.

JD: You’re absolutely right, in that it does tend to keep people from embarking on wholesale revolts, because it’s a pressure valve. Because [if you] hate this government, [you can] wait until the next election.

ZR: Well, don’t lose hope.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.