By Mr. Fish
G. Gordon Liddy, noted Watergate thief and tournament-level egomaniac, once said that, “The press is like the peculiar uncle you keep in the attic—just one of those unfortunate things.” Of course, such a quote, rather than maligning the press, ultimately serves only to label the quote’s originator as a crackpot. Who else but a crackpot would want to shove another family member into the attic simply because he or she tends to ask a lot of questions about the world and expects a certain logic to be present in the answers?
It’s a common phenomenon, this maligning of the press from the right wing, and it’s what I love about blowhards like Liddy. Like the ancient geocentrists who believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all other heavenly bodies revolved around it, so much of the conservative ideology assumes that its stubborn refusal to tolerate any point of view that doesn’t recognize the values of the GOP as originating from some fixed center at the very core of the moral universe is in adherence to some permanent truth and not merely proof that the GOP is too fearful and too unimaginative and too antiquated to be able to comprehend—let alone keep up with—a reality that, simply by being chemically based, is anything but immovable. That’s why the conservatives perceive any criticism of their principles to be an attack on reality itself, and therefore believe that any disagreement with them is not only mad but also depraved and deliberately pernicious. It is also how they are able to so easily integrate the concept of absolute good and evil into their worldview.
A conservative, for example, would never have the sort of conversation that I remember having with my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife, right after I dropped out of college to become an insufferable know-it-all and condescending braggart.
FISH: All I’m saying is that one way to see if you really like somebody is to ask yourself, Would I still go out with this person if he or she was the opposite sex?
GIRLFRIEND: So, wait a minute, you’d still go out with me if I was a guy?
GIRLFRIEND: A big hairy guy with a beard, testicles, hairy ass—the whole thing?
FISH: My mother has a hairy ass. It’s not that big of a deal to me.
GIRLFRIEND: She doesn’t have a guy’s hairy ass.
FISH: Sure she does.
GIRLFRIEND: No she doesn’t.
FISH: Next time I’m home I’ll take a picture of the soap in her shower, it looks like a baby rabbit.
GIRLFRIEND: She doesn’t have testicles!
FISH: Who knows what she’s got down there? You know how when an Easter basket looks empty that a lot of times it’s not—how there’s always some loose jelly beans hidden at the bottom?
GIRLFRIEND: She wouldn’t be your mom if she had testicles, you jackass! She’d be your dad.
FISH: No she wouldn’t—that’s like saying that if my dad had boobs that he’d be my mom.
GIRLFRIEND: Well, who would he be if he had boobs?
FISH: My grandfather.
GIRLFRIEND: Oh, Jesus …
FISH: It’s true, I swear. The only way to tell my grandparents apart when they’re swimming together in a pool is that when my grandmother goes underwater she comes up without eyebrows.
GIRLFRIEND: You’re an idiot.
FISH: Why am I an idiot?
GIRLFRIEND: I think the more revealing question to ask would be, Would I still go out with this person despite his or her sex?
FISH: (thinking) So wait a minute, you wouldn’t go out with me if I was a girl?
GIRLFRIEND: Are you crazy?
FISH: Why not?
GIRLFRIEND: I can’t imagine you as a girl.
FISH: Why not?
GIRLFRIEND: Well, for one thing, about 85 percent of your personality comes from your complete fascination with your own penis.
FISH: That’s not true—85? 35, maybe 40.
GIRLFRIEND: What are you talking about?! You’re the only guy I know with tennis elbow who’s never even picked up a racket.
FISH: Oh, come on—
GIRLFRIEND: If you wore one of those self-winding watches you could take it off right now and stick it in a drawer someplace and the thing would run into the next century.
FISH: Oh, that’s hilarious.
GIRLFRIEND: Thank you.
FISH: Don’t mention it.
That’s why I could never be a conservative, stomach-churning self-absorption and teeth-rattling paranoia aside, because my understanding of how the world works is based much more on truths that are circumstantial and completely subjective rather than universal and unalterable.
Imagine for a moment that you are a dog or a cat or a horse or a deer or a fox living in Germany in the 1930s. Because the Third Reich has passed the most comprehensive animal rights legislation ever known to man, and because Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess and Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler are all ethical vegetarians, these are the best possible times for you and your family. You might assume that you are living in Paradise and that your future will surely involve a myriad of personal freedoms that your ancestors would’ve never thought possible. And then the Allies show up and ruin everything and you’re right back in the toilet.
The moral: Objectivity means different things to different people.
Which, I guess, brings us to the recent predawn killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan. It has been said that the two things that people don’t ever want to see being made are sausages and legislation. I’d amend that to say that doubly ugly to people is legislation that makes sausage. Wars are perhaps the most obvious example of that. Nobody wanted to look at the Iraq Liberation Act when it was passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton in ’98, for example, nor did they want to look at the Iraq War Resolution or the Bush Doctrine or the Patriot Act that came later, for fear of being revolted by the grotesque notion that America might not be anything more than just a sloppy imperialistic plutocracy held together by a handful of Toby Keith songs and somewhere around 250 million late credit card payments.
In fact, I still find it reprehensible how purposely incurious the general public remained during Colin Powell’s criminal behavior at the U.N. Security Council in 2002, really ground zero for the bloodbath in Iraq in which we ended up drowning. Criminal, because the sincerity of his plea for invasion, with his itty-bitty vial of white powder and hammy, faux-Gregory Peck pomposity, was about as convincing an expression of genuine statesmanship as Danny Partridge’s bass playing was a convincing demonstration of … well, bass playing, yet it still led to the murder of, by some estimates, as many as a million people, and we’re still counting. And we’re still supporting the troops. Wherever we wind them up and turn them loose.
I did a cartoon in 2004 that made use of an iconic 1941 photograph taken by a German soldier of a fellow German soldier throwing a potato masher grenade during the Second World War somewhere in Russia. What struck me about the photograph when I stumbled upon it was how similar, minus the potato masher grenade, a 1941 German soldier and a 21st century U.S. soldier looked, particularly when it came to the shape of their helmets. Looking at the German soldier, who had been photographed on black and white film, his forest green camouflage indistinguishable from desert camouflage, I had to look twice to see that I wasn’t looking at an American soldier crouching in the rubble of Tikrit or in a trash pile in Ghaziabad. The caption I chose for the image was: I can’t tell if this is a German soldier from 1944 or an American soldier from 2005 (and neither can his victims). After posting it on MSNBC.com, I received upward of 300 emails mostly wishing to see my brains yanked out and stomped on by much more wholesome Americans than myself. I quickly followed it up with a cartoon depicting a squad of American Marines, an individual line drawn to each separate soldier labeling him as a good guy. Then I drew a bracket encompassing all of them and labeled the sum total as bad guys. “Dear Shithead,” began the kindest email I received in response. “Since you are such a muslim lover, do the rest of us a favor and move to an arab country and STAY there. Scrawlings like yours have entertained defecators around the world ever since the invention of the rest room stall partition.”
I immediately thought of the Antonin Artaud quote, Where there is a stink of shit there is a smell of being, and I sent a note in reply thanking him for the compliment.
Another email, by a woman named Lindsey, read, “I think your cartoon is a horrible affront to all the men and women serving in our armed forces. Good thing I’m not president—I’d have you tried for treason and hung at sun rise! Why don’t you move to, say, Iran and settle down among those of your ilk?” I responded by saying that I didn’t think the job she was describing was that of president. I guessed that it might instead be ayatollah, emperor, fuhrer, czar or perhaps Caesar. Then I thought of the George Bernard Shaw quote: New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths, and I shuddered at the thought of living long enough to one day be identified as a tireless champion of established truths.
Upon hearing the news that Osama bin Laden had been made to swim with the fishes after taking a bullet to the head, I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the Mafia. The news came to me and a room full of journalists and activists and moneyed liberals during a fairly swank fundraiser at Disney Hall in L.A., probably just as I was being served a crème fraîche garnished by a sprig of mint and dusted with gold infused cocoa talc by servers who, as evidenced by their behavior, had no doubt been instructed not to speak and to remain as invisible as pixies servicing saints. Sickened by the elation on the faces of many of those seated around me at my table, as if the killing was somehow proof that Barack Obama had seen some sort of spooky justice served by targeted assassination and that his re-election would be both a cinch and well-deserved, I set down my fork and looked beyond the ostentation and noticed an airplane moving like a lit match across the black sky outside.
I thought back to the first week of October 2001 and remembered how peculiar I felt lying in bed with my wife in a Boston hotel room on the 26th floor with all the lights out, both of us feeling as vulnerable to targeted assassination by airbus as everybody else in America, the whole of Western civilization having been turned into an elaborate pretension of precarious and brittle dominoes by the 9/11 attacks. It was somewhere around 7 o’clock and our curtains were open to the great purple bruise of twilight, and we were listening to a radio program broadcasting original audio from a videotape that had just been released by Osama bin Laden. First, bin Laden would speak, his Arabic muffled as if spoken through a loaf of bread and then recorded by the crappiest Sanyo answering machine known to man, and then a translator would repeat the al-Qaida leader’s words in a tone better suited to the wide-eyed, flashlight-under-the-chin, retelling of a ghost story.
Most disturbing about bin Laden’s message, bat-shit crazy adherence to a voodoo-addled theocratic justification for mass murder aside, was how closely his disdain for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East mirrored my own, particularly when it came to Washington’s megalomaniacal support of Israel’s merciless occupation and savage mistreatment of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. Then there were the bombings by the Clinton administration of Sudan and Afghanistan and the harrowing sanctions, and occasional missile attacks, against the utterly defenseless Iraqi population. And then there was the construction of all the military bases in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Yemen, Kuwait, Cyprus, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan. It pissed me off that the refusal of my own government to espouse humanitarian concerns for those it so unjustly threatened and brutalized had me reluctantly agreeing with a top-notch crackpot who would have no problem watching while his thugs sawed off my head with a sharp, prehistoric stone because his fucking Santa Claus found my atheism naughty. Worse than that, even, was what I imagined bin Laden’s qualifying the United States as an imperial power would do to the West’s likelihood that it would re-evaluate its hegemonic tendencies and hubristic sense of global privilege. Knowing what Hitler had done to the complete eradication of the square mustache, I could only guess what bin Laden was doing to U.S. introspection.
With practically everybody behaving as if the world had suddenly been made lighter by the elimination of one man murdered at home in his nightgown, I left Disney Hall with the words, “There’s no place like Rome, there’s no place like Rome. …” circling my mood like children dancing around a maypole, the pagan origins of their synchronized movement giving purpose to their muscles while simultaneously stirring nothing but optimism inside the absurdity of their pointless joy.
Mr. Fish’s “Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People” (Akashic Books), a volume of his political cartoons and original essays, will be published this summer. Click here to pre-order.