Interview with David Baldinger

Note: this interview was made by Ben Heine in the frame an assignment about the "limits of freedom of expression in political cartooning" that he made during his studies in Journalism at IHECS journalism school. His analysis was published in 2006 on this blog). Heine doesn't share the political opinions expressed by others.

David Baldinger is a North American cartoonist. He works for the newspaper People’s Weekly World. He lives in Greensburg, Pennsylvanie, US. He became controversial after participating to the Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest. He gives us his opinion about freedom of expression in the cartoons.

-B. Heine : How did you become a professional cartoonist?

D. Baldinger : I’ve always drawn cartoons but when I went to art school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the school discouraged it. We were all supposed to concentrate on drawing bread toasters and doing mechanical paste-ups for publication (this was a long time before computer graphics). The Art Institute was more a technical training school than a real art school. I regret not having gone to a fine arts college now. I came from a poor family so I didn’t know I had any options.

I became very bored sitting at the drawing boards and when we had a basic photography course, I discovered I liked roaming the streets with a camera much better. I haven’t been able to work as a photographer any longer because of a spinal disability so I started drawing again. Having access to the world through the Internet has made a huge difference.

-Which papers, magazines or websites do you work for?

Apart from my personal cartoons that I send out to anyone who is interested, I do a weekly political cartoon for the People’s Weekly World newspaper. This is the official newspaper of the Communist Party USA. I also do little illustrations for various articles, as they need them. I don’t get paid much for this--just enough to maintain my computer on high speed Internet. I send my cartoons regularly to Don Quichotte, Yeni-Akrep, Syria Cartoon and Iran Cartoon. Last year, a cartoon of mine was included in a book called “America in the Twenty-First Century—Opposing Viewpoints.”

-What elements usually strike you and inspire you in the political news?

I usually look for whatever is sending me into sputtering fits of outrage. Of course, being a citizen of the evil empire, the USA, I have no shortage of outrage. It is a demented Disney World with no escape. I am amazed daily at the monumental ignorance my fellow citizens show towards other cultures and history. I really believe that they think that the USA is the greatest and most important place on the world. They are also completely ignorant of the US’s imperialist nature. This would include the historical events that have caused much of the world to despise it. These things aren’t taught in school, certainly, but there is nothing stopping self-education.

I am suffering what I call “Bush burnout.” I’m not sure how many more ways I can make the statement that GW Bush is a dangerous idiot. He is truly the most unintelligent President the USA ever had. He is an embarrassment to thinking people everywhere. What I find even worse are the millions of imbeciles who support him.

Other subjects that interest me are abuses by the Capitalist system, oppression of people by governments and social injustice.

-Do you think there should be limits to the cartoonist’s freedom of expression? If so, what are the « redlines » according to you?

I don’t believe in limits to a cartoonist’s freedom of expression any way. Political cartoons must, by their nature, provoke in some manner. A political cartoon that doesn’t offend someone is just page decoration in newspapers. Political cartoons in the USA, it seems, all must have a humorous intent. Newspaper editors are afraid to offend advertisers or readers. Before the 1970’s, cartoons were a bit more belligerent with their opinion. Now, it seems most are just gag cartoons. The drawing skills I see are fantastic but seldom do I see a cartoon that really provokes a real response. The only thing I wouldn’t do is purposely insult someone with a cartoon. Cartoons should convey ideas.

-Is there only one freedom of expression or are there several ones? (Regarding the cultural differences from one country to another)

I am sure there are differences. Some are brought on by fear of government persecution or social standards. In the USA, sex is a terrifying subject to most. Nudity can usually guarantee outrage. Criticism of the government might get you called a traitor or some other ridiculous label by readers but the government doesn’t really bother anyone unless there is a threat to someone—especially the President. Portraying sex or drawing genitalia will always be censored in the mainstream media. I’m not sure if the public really cares. It is more likely politicians are using religion and morality as a springboard and are exploiting the subject. If sex were so abhorrent to the public, pornography would not be such a huge business! Nor would prostitution. This is why I feel the USA is hypocritical. People all shout their disapproval and then sneak off into the night to abuse children, pick up prostitutes and sex magazines. By day, they are all self-righteous and full of finger pointing.

-What do you think about the Holocaust cartoon contest organized by the Iranian newspaper Hamshari, in response to the caricatures of Muhammad published in several Europeans papers?

I am of two opinions. First, I can understand the idea of responding to the West but on the other hand, picking the Holocaust as a subject was a bit tasteless, really. I was disappointed so many entries made use of racial stereotypes to portray Jews. It must always be pointed out that it is not the Jewish people who are pointed but Zionism. I think this defeated the purpose of testing the West’s freedom of expression limits.

The Iranians were correct to assume that even though the West defended the insulting Mohammad drawings as free speech, Israel and the NAZI Holocaust were not subjects for free speech. This I agree with. I also agree that the Holocaust was horrifying but does not give Israel the right to bulldoze opponents to its expansion policies. The Palestinians most definitely are paying for the Holocaust in many ways. I believe the solution is equal states with the contested cities like Jerusalem made “international “cities that can be shared by all parties. I am an agnostic but I am able to concede that many religions have sacred sites there. I believe everything should be based on equal fairness. Israel must return the occupied territories, abandon settlements and cease its border expansion by squatting!

I can’t even call the Mohammad drawings “cartoons.” I thought they were just pointless and bad. Really artless. I believe Muslims overreacted however. The riots and attacks did nothing to convince people in the West that Islam is peaceful. As far as I know, it hasn’t even been determined if portraying the Prophet violates any direction.

There seems to be a general opinion in the US that Muslims are violent and wish to see the destruction of the West. Of course people in the US aren’t capable of understanding cause and effect. They just can’t imagine why they would be hated. In their minds, the US has given everyone so much. They don’t see the exploitation and violence perpetrated in their name. The continued support of Israeli policies at the expense of Palestine is a case in point.

-Have some of your drawings been censored? In which circumstances?

Many times. My cartoons are usually censored or changes requested because of the fear that they “might offend” someone. I used to comply with making changes but have refused recent requests. The most current incident was over a cartoon I did about the Israeli assault on Lebanon. I depicted Israeli Air Force aircraft with the proper insignia—the Star of David. My editors were concerned about that. My argument that the insignia were correct fell on deaf ears. I was not worried that I might offend Jews with the truth. I refused to make the changes and an alternative cartoon by someone else was published that week. They usually publish some meaningless drivel when they do that to me.

-Do you have any self-censorship? What are the most difficult subjects to represent?

As I wrote earlier, I would not purposely draw a cartoon to insult someone. I don’t know of any subjects that I find difficult to represent. Someone’s death is difficult but I have no problems indicating my derision for a dead Pinochet. When former President Ronald Reagan finally dropped dead, I enjoyed drawing him in a derogatory fashion while the rest of the US press managed to forget what a real bastard he was. Suddenly, he was elevated to near sainthood. There was even a call to place his lumpy head on the US dime replacing Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a President of real stature. Luckily, that wasn’t taken very seriously. The Right Wing in the US is under the delusion it was old Ronnie Raygun who defeated the USSR. He beat the mean, old commies and capitalism reigns supreme proving it the best system! The beginnings of the destruction of the social services under Reagan are also remembered with much nostalgia by the neo-Fascists who believe in social Darwinism. I guess knowing that thousands in the former Soviet Union wish for the old Stalin days over the miracle of Capitalism eludes them.

-Do you think the cartoon is a political force that can make people change their behaviour?

That is a rather heavy burden to place on a cartoon, I think. I think it is just one of many tools to accomplish something of that nature. There was a time before the electronic media that a stirring image could provoke a response but I think that time has passed. I believe video and film are still the best methods of influencing the masses.

-Do you think that the cartoonist is an artist or rather a journalist, or may be both?

I think the political cartoonist is a little of both. To do a good cartoon, one must have a great knowledge of current events, history and other political forces. Take away the drawing materials and I’m sure most would be able to do reportage in the usual manner.

-According to you, does he have to make people laugh or to make them think?

I strive to make people think. I am forced by my limitations and requirements to try and be humorous but I detest this. The early political cartoonists that I admire did powerful drawings and didn’t rely on jokes.

-What is for you the most difficult situation or person to draw?

I can’t think of any situations that are difficult but I struggle to properly caricature real people. I am never satisfied with the results. My cartoon of Bush never seems the same. Drawing to me is never easy. It is a struggle to please myself and I can’t be pleased!

--> Interview by Benjamin Heine
--> See David Baldinger's Website :