How does humor help democracy?

Matt Wuerker (left), Derek Mitchell (right)

In this DemWorks podcast we explore humor, arguably the most democratic form of speech. We talk to Matt Wuerker, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist for Politico, one of the leading news organizations in the United States dedicated to American politics. 

Matt’s cartoons pull no punches, skewering Democrats, Republicans and all types of political absurdity. Matt also serves on the board of Cartoonists Rights Network International, an organization that has worked to defend the rights and security of political cartoonists worldwide.

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Derek Mitchell (DM): Hello, my name is Derek Mitchell and I'm President of the National Democratic Institute. In this DemWorks episode we will look at the perhaps underappreciated role of humor in a democracy. Now, no one likes to be the object of humor, certainly no politician, but this is particularly true for authoritarians. Humor by definition is irreverent. Irreverence is the nassima to autocracy and the autocrat. Irreverence strikes at the heart of their power, their power to intimidate and ultimately control through fear, which is why I like to say that humor is arguably the most democratic form of speech. Political cartoons can be one of the most powerful forms of such comic irreverence so with me today is Matt Weurker, the editorial cartoonist for Politico, a leading U.S. news organization dedicated to American and international policy in politics. For his great work, Matt won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Given this is a podcast, you all out there will have to look them up yourself, but those who have seen Matt's cartoons will agree - he pulls no punches and skewers Democrats, Republicans, and all types of political absurdity with equal abandon, which is as it should be. But even more relevant to NDI work, Matt also serves on the board of Cartoonists Rights Network International, an organization that has worked over the last decade in more than 50 countries to defend the rights and security of political cartoonists worldwide. So, thank you Matt, for being here and taking part in this DemWorks conversation.

Matt Wuerker (MW): My pleasure. Happy to be here.

DM: First a little background. I think for those listening and for me it seems like a really cool job that you have. Probably not an easy field to get into and excel in, so tell us, tell me, what drew you to this field, and what it took to get you where you are.

MW: I'm a child of the 1960's in the United States. It was a very political time when I was growing up and I happened to live in Los Angeles where there was a great cartoonist named Paul Conrad who was drawing for the LA Times. Conrad was famous for winning three Pulitzer Prizes but his proudest accomplishment if you asked him was making Nixon's enemies list. So, when I was in the sixth or seventh grade-

DM: Nixon was the president of the United States.

MW: He was President of the United States and the idea that this guy who's sitting around drawing these cartoons got the attention of the President of the United States got my attention. I was interested in politics and I also loved to draw. It turned out that my mother was in the same chapter of the League of Women Voters as Paul Conrad's wife, Kay. So, my dear old mom took some of my seventh grade drawings to Kay and she showed him to Paul and Paul said, “ you got something there, kid, keep trying,” and he became a lifelong friend and a mentor and sort of prodded me and encouraged me down this very odd career path.

DM: Well then how do you conceive a cartoon? How do you get ideas?

MW: This is the question you always get as a cartoonist and I can't really answer that. I mean, you sort of train yourself- it's sort of, like, where does the composer get a tune? You train yourself to think in terms of puns and punchlines and metaphors and sometimes it comes easily and sometimes it's a horrible, horrible belaboured process.

DM: What makes for a good political cartoon? Humor is very difficult to dissect. Trying to explain humor is an oxymoron, but maybe a political cartoon is a little bit different. Do you think about composition?

MW: My favorite are actually the purely visual ones, or some cartoonists call them the silent cartoons. There was a period of time in the 90’s or so when the altie cartoonists were coming out and they were doing these very wordy twelve frame cartoons and that was the new wave. I’ve always been kind of a contrarian, I liked the cartoons that have a simple visual image that conveys humor at political point without using a single word. So, a couple months ago when Mueller finished his Mueller report, and everybody was shocked and somewhat disappointed that nothing really changed in American politics, I drew a cartoon of, like, an old Western, and Bob Mueller is the sheriff riding out of town, and he's leaving behind Trump and William Barr and he's dropping his sheriff's badge. In the background you can see all the scared Democrats sort of kind of going, “wait, wait, wait, don’t leave town now.” So, it works much better visually.

DM: This is a visual medium, of course.

MW: It’s interesting because those I think convey the idea the most quickly and they also can leave language barriers and cultural barriers and stuff like that. So... a purely visual cartoon has a certain magic.

DM: We’ll talk in a bit about this international network, but, as you look at work around the world, is it the same everywhere? What works in a political cartoon? Do you see variations?

MW: There's lots of cultural variations and one of the strange things about working in 2019 as a cartoonist - I've been doing this since Jimmy Carter was president - and back then, like, my first gig was with The Little Weekly in Portland, Oregon. I was drawing for the audience in Portland, Oregon and it could appeal to only the sensibilities of people in Portland, Oregon and then as things have gone online, now, you have this strange phenomenon where you do a cartoon, say in Washington, D.C., and its global at the moment you post it at Politico. There are big differences in senses of humor. I mean, to bring up the really obvious extreme example is the Charlie Hebdo thing in Paris where, you know, a bunch of pretty free thinking irascible Parisians had a certain sense of humor that didn't communicate very well to the Muslim world. It doesn't convey and so it's a very strange new environment for a cartoonist to work in where many of us are sort of cartooning for niches, but nothing stays in the niche.

DM: Did that incident just send a chill to everybody, or did you see that as kind of very isolated kind of thing?

MW: It definitely sent a chill. It was actually the Charlie Hebdo massacre, that was about five years ago now, was a follow on to a Danish cartoon controversy that was maybe 12 years ago. It was a very strange episode that certainly put a chill through cartoonists where, basically, Islamic fundamentalist weaponized political cartoons as a way, as a political tool to stir up their followers and rail against the West. We became a football on that.

DM: Well, let me ask about that. I mean, humor is in the eye of the beholder and some people today sort of went in to mask intolerance, or hey, they'll say, “well I'm just making a joke.” It’s just humor.

MW: Right.

DM: How do you distinguish, in your sense, of what is the humor that you would like to convey versus the humor of jokes that more than sting, but actually hurt?

MW: You know, this is the debate that came out of the Charlie Hebdo thing. I believe in sort of a fundamental absolute freedom of speech and people have the right to be offended. The problem with the hate speech stuff is that it’s really up to the individual cartoonist. There are certainly odious cartoons drawn by people who have sort of odious ends but they have every right to draw those. You can't get into a thing where you start having sedition laws or blasphemy laws because somebody's feelings are hurt. Ideally, civil society and a free society can respond and go yeah, “that's a horrible cartoon” and people denounce it but the person doesn't need to get shot like the cartoonists in Paris or thrown in jail like a lot of cartoonists around the world because some people got offended. So, it's a strange time to be working as a cartoonist. We have the ability to publish anything we want and put it online and then the world sort of responds immediately and there's no sense of cultural context or, “oh, those silly Danish nativists, just leave them alone.” Instead, you get riots across the Muslim world and people get killed all over silly cartoons.

DM: Are you getting more pushback nowadays?

MW: Way, way, way more. It's really a product of the social media age. You know, once upon a time if you did a cartoon for the local paper, you waited like three, four days, and then a few letters to the editor would trickle in. And now, you do a cartoon, you post it and immediately on Twitter or Facebook, or other social media platforms you get push back. A lot of it's actually organized politically too, so, and it can run the gambit from people calling you bad names to death threats and the like.

DM: And that’s from the left and right, or?

MW: Left, right, yeah, depending on what your individual point of view is, yeah.

DM: You're on the board of the Cartoonists Rights Network International. Can you tell us about that group?

MW: It's about 20 years old. It was started by Dr. Robert Russell and it has a board that's made up of mostly cartoonists but other sort of human rights activists and we basically function like Amnesty International for cartoonists. When a cartoonist gets in trouble for stepping over the line or tweaking the nose of a leader who doesn't have either a sense of humor or a sense of the wisdom of free speech in his society. We sometimes help them get out of the country if it's a really dire situation, which happens actually quite a bit. In other situations if somebody is thrown in jail it's sort of, like, an amnesty call to action letting the government know that we know that they're holding that individual can keep worse things from happening.

DM: Ever gotten yourself into trouble?

MW: Many times in small ways. Perhaps the worst example of that was a couple years ago I did a cartoon making fun of Texas secessionists being very happy to see the National Guard and the Coast Guard show up after the hurricane in Houston and a lot of people misconstrued that. Again, it’s an example, actually, of how people can weaponize a cartoon and then use it for political ends. There were a lot of people who don't like my cartoons personally, and also maybe don't like Politico, and so they decided that I was a horrible, heartless person making fun of people drowning in the floods in Houston, when I was really making a point about the irony of people who hate the federal government being very happy to have them show up with their helicopters when they're literally under water. That blew up for like a week on Twitter and when you make Texans mad they let you know it, and so I had to sort of keep my head down for a while over that sort of thing. But, you know, that comes with the territory now, it's not a big deal. I'm so fortunate to work in an environment where: a.) I work for a publication where I've got solid editors that stand behind me and give me a lot of editorial freedom, and they didn't waver at all during that whole incident, and b.) I work in the United States where there's a long tradition of political cartooning. People kind of get that, you know, if you're in the political arena, people are going to draw silly pictures of you and give you a big nose and make fun of you and, you know, a lot of compatriots who work in other countries aren't so lucky.

DM: This month a Turkish cartoonist named Musa Kart was released from prison after being held on what your organization noted was a broader crackdown on media freedom in Turkey. Can you explain what happened in his case?

MW: Yes, oh yes. Musa Kart - again a very prominent, nationally loved Turkish cartoonist who worked for a prominent newspaper in Turkey - started tangling with the now president of Turkey, [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan. I think it started in about 2004-2005 - was the first time we became aware of it and he had gotten in trouble because he drew a cartoon. This is a good example of how silly, really simple little ridicule can get under someone's skin. He drew Erdoğan as a kitten getting tangled up in some yarn and Erdoğan took great offense at this and he sued him for - I can't remember exactly what it was - it was for insubordination or emotional distress, or something like that. Erdoğan won the first case but then on appeal it was thrown out. Musa Kart, you know, kept cartooning and then he did another cartoon maybe five or six years later. Again, by our standards pretty gentle stuff that again got under aired once again and this time they went after him again through the courts, and he was arrested and then it wasn't until he got back out. He's been in and out a bunch but then after the coup - I believe it was 2016 - Musa Kart, along with about twenty of his compatriots from the newspaper were rounded up with, I believe it was twelve hundred journalists across Turkey who all got thrown in jail.

DM: The most journalists that are in prison.

MW: Yeah and also the sort of the accusations were ratcheted up and instead of just insubordination they were charged with being unintentionally and intentionally aiding a terrorist organization or virtually being members of terrorist organizations just because they were working as journalists. It has a happy ending in that he spent the last year in jail, but just last month, this month even [September], was released. So, he may end up back in jail, I don't know, but right now he's out.

DM: He's continuing his work, or what is he-

MW: I think he's hung up his pen. Yeah, it was interesting the second time he got arrested and he was in jail and he couldn't draw there was an international drive to fill his space in the newspaper. So, cartoonists from around the world were drawing cartoons that were filling his spot in the Turkish newspaper.

DM: But probably holding their tongue in quite the same edge.

MW: Yes, I think that's probably true.

DM: Well, you once said, “cartoonists are the canary in the coal mine” when it comes to authoritarian regimes. How so?

MW: You know, if you just think about an authoritarian, I mean, what they want is they want a command authority and the simplest way to undermine that is to ridicule that authority figure. They don't mind if you draw them as, like, a big superhero or a big terrible fearsome monster, but if you reduce them to the point where people are laughing at them - they can't stand that. You know, a good example of that is back about, oh eight years or so ago during the Arab Spring, Ali Ferzat, who was a very prominent cartoonist in Syria, and had been drawing in Syrian publications for years and years, for decades, started getting a little more aggressive with his humor, making fun of Assad. This is at the very beginning of the crackdown in Syria and he sent his thugs out and they picked up Ali and beat him up horribly and broke both his hands so that he couldn't draw and send a message, basically, that you’ve got to knock that off. That was the beginning of what became the horrible crackdown in Syria but like an annoying canary in the coalmine, it was a sign that things were about to get really, really bad.

DM: So, I mean, that raises a broader question of the main dangers that you see international cartoonists face in their work and is it any different than what you might see normal journalists face?

MW: No, it's no different than what a lot of, I mean, journalists in general are under fire. I think investigative journalists probably are in far greater danger than cartoonists in many ways. There is something about political cartoons that gets under people's skin faster, quicker, and in a more irritating fashion than the written word. I think that's sort of true around the world.

DM: Well you mentioned one reason why. I think you went to the heart of it. Humor is different than maybe just a regular journalist reporting for certain reasons and I want to quote here. I actually did a little research on what we were talking about earlier but Cartoonists Rights International published a manual for political cartoonists who work in dangerous political environments and I like the way it describes the power of humor and why tyrants fear it. Here's the quote: “For the tyrant, the most dangerous result of the cartoonist toolbox is laughter. Insecure heads of state, leaders of failing regimes, political parties that cannot manage their countries, and very often corrupt religious leaders do not normally tolerate people laughing at them. A nation of people laughing is a dangerous condition for the tyrant demonstrating to the world that the people do not fear their leader.”

MW: Exactly, yeah.

DM: Can you think of an instance where a cartoon and the laughter it caused presented a particularly effective challenge to an autocrat?

MW: I can't say that, you know, some cartoonist has managed to topple a tyrant, and yet individually, you know we all sort of would dream that someday our cartoons would matter that much but it would certainly contribute to it. Another aspect of cartooning that is, I think, unique to the form is the ambiguity that humor, and visual humor in particular, let’s you play with. There was a cartoonist in Egypt during the Mubarak years, and now I'm forgetting his name, but he did a cartoon. It was all a metaphor for the corruption within the Egyptian government but it wasn't direct. There was a cartoon character that everybody got. It's like, okay, you can't do a cartoon directly making fun of Mubarak, but there was a goofy silly corrupt Sultan sort of character and everybody got the joke including people in the government. But there was plausible deniability in the joke in it, like, “no, no, no, it's just a silly cartoon about a silly Sultan or something.”

DM: The best humor is in those environments.

MW: Exactly.

DM: In the old Soviet Union they’d find ways to litter it through their speech but it was deniable. In China, for instance, after Tiananmen Square, people would leave small bottles around, and small bottle is a homonym in Chinese for Deng Xiaoping. So they wouldn't say tribute, they smashed small bottles but they put little bottles around. In those environments, people, that's their way to express themselves. Humor is a really effective subversive way.

MW: It’s the subversive way, and you can get around the censors or you can you can get the message out.

DM: Now, the 2018 recipient of the Cartoonists Rights Network International Courage Award, which is given every year, was to a Nicaraguan this year named Pedro Molina. He was explaining why cartooning is growing more, not less relevant, essential to democracy. Tell us a bit about Molina.

MW: Pedro is a guy, actually I've known Pedro for 20 years. I met him up here in Washington. He's internationally recognized, drew for a syndicate that I was involved with, back in 2000. So his cartoons were published all over the place and he was, over the last four or five years, the Ortega regime in Nicaragua has been cracking down on the media in general, and Pedro was drawing cartoons for, I’m trying to remember the name of the publication, it was a newspaper that was forced to basically just become an online publication. He started getting threats, along with other people who worked for it the outfit, those editors and whatnot, and, you know, sometimes it's overt, and sometimes it's subtle. I think in his case, it was more like people standing outside his house and letting him know that he and his family are being watched, and he kept drawing. It’s interesting working in the current environment, even when governments are trying to shut you down, you can, in a lot of cases have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and still reach your audience. Just as an aside, I was in Bangladesh a few years ago and I was amazed. There's this very vibrant cartoon community in Bangladesh and it almost totally exists on social media. Facebook is huge in Dhaka and everybody, well not everybody, but a lot of people have smartphones, and they look at cartoons on their smartphones. So, in the case of Bangladesh, they're fighting back against fundamentalist Islamic moves to institute blasphemy laws so you can't make fun of anything involving Islam. The cartoonists and other bloggers are pushing back but it's a struggle these days in Bangladesh.

DM: Yeah.

MW: Sorry just as an aside to the other side of the world there.

DM: No, that's very useful and it just shows. I mean, every context is different but it is universal. This desire to draw and to be humorous and to have your voice heard. And as you say, it's a canary in a coal mine, we folks accept it, you get a sense that they will accept all kinds of speech, and therefore it's a more democratic open environment, even the speech they don't like, which is really the definition of democracy.

MW: It is.

DM: Free speech is accepting the speech that you don't like.

MW: It's funny working in Washington, D.C. as a cartoonist. You know, I'll do a cartoon of say, of somebody in the Senate that I think is devastating criticism or something and often the next day I'll get a call from the Senate office saying, “oh the senator really thought that was funny, can we get the original?” A lot of senators and members of Congress and other people will collect cartoons, the negative ones as well. I think it actually speaks really well to sort of how mature a democracy we have when people kind of go, “yeah, yeah, that's fair play,” and besides that it was a funny caricature and my wife laughed at it.

DM: And how secure you are as a human being, which is also very appealing.

MW: It is.

DM: It exudes if you're insecure. I mean how thin-skinned autocrats are when they can't handle -

MW: Being drawn as a kitten.

DM: Yeah, how is that really affecting, though. I guess if you want to control everything, yes.

MW: Right.

DM: If you don't want people to think freely, I suppose it's a challenge in that way. Another one I think of, again, on China is, you know, Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh. You know about that, right? They had caricatures on their social media characterized a caricature Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh, because he's a big, doughy looking guy, and so they banned Winnie the Pooh, or any version of Winnie the Pooh or the term Winnie the Pooh or Winnie. I mean, so it basically invites you as a challenge to the regime to have Winnie the Pooh.

MW: It invites the challenge and then it also sort of portrays this incredible thin skin. I mean it'd be much better just sort of laugh it off.

DM: But also the brittleness, they’re not secure. There’s something wrong in a society and in your leadership if you can't handle that.

MW: Right.

DM: What do you think is the most effective way to protect cartoonists who feel threatened?

MW: Well, you know, that just varies from country to country, and you know the ball bounces in surprising ways. One of the clients for Cartoonist Rights Network International, Zunar, who's been working in Malaysia for his whole life, has spent fifteen years battling lawsuits and physical intimidation. He's been thrown in jail a couple of times and he's just, he's tough, and doesn't back down and keeps drawing, and unlike a lot of cartoonists who end up leaving their countries, Zunar has pretty much stayed in Malaysia. In fact, a couple years ago, they took his passport as part of the punishment and he was stuck and he was facing, I believe forty years in prison for sedition for making fun of the president, and the Prime Minister and then they had an election and the Prime Minister was ousted and Zunar got his passport back. And now the Prime Minister who was the target of many of his cartoons is facing criminal investigations and may find himself in Zunar’s old jail cell, so in that case it's a happy ending. In a lot of cases the clients that we've had over the years it's not such a happy ending and we have to get people out of their countries. Norway is actually a country that's really great with political asylum and there's a number, there's an Iranian cartoonist who we just got out not too long ago from a horrible situation in a refugee camp in Australia is now living in Norway and learning Norwegian. As well as a cartoonist from Bangladesh who we got out maybe 10 years ago and has now become a Norwegian citizen. So, you know, in those individual cases you're trying to keep people alive and in other cases you're trying to sort of help people fight to create openings for free speech if they're brave like Zunar and hold their ground. So in Pedro Molina's case, we got him out of Nicaragua this last year and he has now got asylum here in the U.S. and he is now living in Ithaca.

DM: Right. So many great stories of cartoonists and brave folks. Let me ask you a final question as we run out of time. What advice would you give to young cartoonists both in the U.S. and internationally who want to follow your footsteps or the footsteps of others in this field.

MW: It's great. It's a wonderful, wonderful job. I have, I think, one of the best, most fun jobs in Washington and I'm sure I'll pay in my next life for this. But, you know, it's a great way to express political opinions. If you like to draw, if you like to engage people politically, it's a great tool and it's also - the barriers for entry have never been so low. If you have talent and you've got a good sense of humor you can start by posting on Facebook and build a community that way. Once upon a time you had to hope that maybe some newspaper publisher would fall in love with you and offer you a job and that competition was pretty fierce. Now you can you can get in there and start drawing and publishing your own stuff right away. If it's good and it's got a good bite, people will come, the readers will come.

DM: I think in this manual, this framework that your organization talks about, it has to be a certain truth behind it.

MW: Yeah.

DM: You agree with that I suppose. There's something that resonates as a truth. Otherwise it’s -

MW: No, absolutely. I do believe that cartoonists have a certain obligation to civil society to be somewhat civil. If you want to go out there and be pointlessly provocative you can do that and in some ways you get some attention but it's the wrong kind of attention and it doesn't really contribute to the political dialogue. The cartoonists that I really respect are the people that figure out a way to engage real issues with real integrity and ideally some levity that contributes to the political conversation in a positive way.

DM: Right. So, some responsibility even amidst the freedom of speech.

MW: I believe so, yes.

DM: Well thank you, Matt. A great discussion. I’m really pleased you came in and thank you for your great work - not only the cartooning but on behalf of political cartoonists worldwide. We have our gala dinner coming up, our annual gala dinner, and on October 22nd we will feature political cartoonists that, I think you have agreed.

MW: Yes, we have.

DM: I’m going to get you to do it anyway, that’s the price of the podcast. You will, you know, your chair will bring some folks from overseas and some who have come to the states sort of on asylum-

MW: Yes.

M: As an asylum because they are threatened at home to talk about their individual experiences and show solidarity with this, again, very important component of free speech. We're also that night featuring Trevor Noah of The Daily Show

MW: Why are you doing that? He has no drawing skills. I’ve never seen him draw anything worthwhile.

DM: Well he does more than cartooning.

For more than 35 years NDI has been honored to work with thousands of courageous and committed small d democrats around the world to help countries develop the institution's, practices, and skills necessary for democracy’s success. During that time we have conducted programs in more than 150 countries and today operate in over 70 countries and maintain more than 50 offices globally.

I'm Derek Mitchell and this has been DemWorks. Thank you for listening.