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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tom Tomorrow's Hell in a Handbasket

I knew very little about Tom Tomorrow's Hell in a Handbasket when I began reading it. I was given a copy during my own book tour, during a time when I was unable to concentrate on much else besides the starting time for my next event, and so all I knew was what I could see from flipping through the book -- that it contained a series of Tomorrow's political cartoons.

I began reading the cartoons from the beginning and was immediately struck by how perfectly they capture the absurdities that lie at the heart of our political dialogue. The focus of the first part of the book is the propaganda techniques used by the Bush administration and its followers not only to "justify" the war in Iraq, but also to mock and bully war opponents by depicting them as weak, cowardly losers who want to snivel and cower when confronted by the Terrorists.

There are few topics more important than the methods used to lead this country to invade Iraq on such blatantly false pretenses. We still have not, in my view, had a full accounting of all of the deceitful techniques used to accomplish that and the profound institutional failures which permitted and enabled it. But Tomorrow's cartoons -- for reasons that are difficult to discern with exactitude -- really do illustrate those propaganda methods as effectively as any written analysis I've read.

It was only after reading 25% or so of the book did I realize that the book was not (as I had assumed when I began reading) composed of new cartoons created recently for the book. Instead, the book is a compilation of cartoons Tomorrow has written over the years, and the beginning cartoons -- the ones whose prescience and insight I found so impressive -- were actually first published back in 2002, at a time when very few people were truly aware of the depths of the Bush movement's capacity for deceit and manipulation. Tom Tomorrow saw exactly what the administration was up to as early as 2002, when President Bush enjoyed approval ratings in the high 60s and even 70s and most of the country was easily manipulated by appeals to the Strong, Moral Warrior-President protecting us all from the grave Terrorist menace.

That is one of the most striking and valuable contributions of this book. In the aftermath of 9/11 -- not just the immediate aftermath, but for at least the next couple of years -- people who were saying the things Tom Tomorrow was saying were viciously stigmatized. Virtually nobody of any real political prominence was voicing any serious criticisms of President Bush -- particularly when it came to matters of war and terrorism -- and the few who were doing so were widely scorned as far leftist, pacifist crazies who were too weak to confront the Terrorist threat, if not subversively sympathetic to it. Support for President Bush's policies -- and, most of all, his desire to invade Iraq -- was not only viewed as the only reasonable position, but was also seen as the hallmark of patriotism, courage and even mental health.

The prevailing political climate in 2002 was such that the previously unknown Howard Dean almost instantaneously became the Democratic front-runner for President not because he espoused some far left ideology (he didn't) or because he had created some innovative political strategy (he hadn't). Dean's candidacy was propelled in the first instance by the fact that he was one of the very few prominent political figures who was willing to stand up and criticize President Bush and his war policies in an unapologetic, non-defensive, and unafraid manner.

At a time of tense, even fearful reverence for the President, Dean disregarded all of the rhetorical manipulation and bullying tactics and insisted on his right to criticize the President and his policies as loudly, aggressively and clearly as he thought was warranted. That previously common act was so notable in the aftermath of 9/11 because anything other than the most respectful praise for the President was viewed as suspect, even subversive. More than anything else, that is what differentiated Dean and made him such a heroic figure to so many people -- he was clearly un-intimidated by the President, his followers and their tactics, and that is what distinguished him not just from other politicians in both parties, but also from the equally reverent and intimidated 2002 national media.

It was in that climate that Tom Tomorrow created many of the cartoons featured in his book, and that is one of the book's most impressive and valuable features. It is worth remembering that the people who were most ostracized and demonized back then turned out to be right about most of the critical issues of the day -- in particular, the true nature of the Bush presidency, the endless, naked manipulation of the terrorist threat for political gain, and the corrupt rationale used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Hell in a Handbasket is a vivid testament to the fact that there were people who recognized what was really going on back in 2002 and, at a time when it meant being scorned and relegated to a small and hated minority, nonetheless were voicing those insights.

The cartoons insightfully illustrate the false warrior poses struck by Bush followers and the cheap bullying tactics they used to obscure their deceit and ineptitude; the giddy, mindless dissemination of that propaganda by a media desperate to be liked by the prevailing powers and bullied into an eager submission; and the meek and naive (and, in some instances, ongoing) cooperation in all of this by the so-called "liberal hawks," who happily took the lead in bashing and demonizing opponents of Bush and/or the war in order to convince Bush followers that they were good, sensible and fair (along those lines, Elton Beard makes a convincing, if not conclusive, argument that the very concept of "liberal hawk" is oxymoronic and cannot really exist).

What is most striking and accomplished about Tom Tomorrow's cartoons is that they convey how ludicrous and extreme our political dialogue has become without veering much at all from what that dialogue actually is. He is able to incisively capture the idiocy and deceit that lies at the heart of our political debates without distorting what is being said. Unlike most cartoonists, he relies very little on hyperbole, unstated inferences or cheap insult in order to mock his subjects because his subjects are sufficiently ludicrous and corrupt on their own and do not need to be exaggerated in order to be exposed.

The format of the cartoon can make anything seem somewhat frivolous and absurd. For exactly that reason, it is an ideal format for examining the political events and political debates of the last five years. Our political dialogue has degenerated well into the realm of the absurd, and the cartoons in Hell in a Handbasket convey that absurdity in a visceral though highly accurate way.

UPDATE: See this recent Tom Tomorrow cartoon for an excellent illustration of his ability to capture how our political dialogue works.

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