Interview with Ben Heine
for 'The New American Dream'
Mike Palecek: Where do you think your passion came from? What are your personal experiences of oppression, militarism, imperialism?

Ben Heine: My passion started a long time ago when I was a little boy. I didn’t live in an oppressed country, I read about it in books and news articles. And I do my best to denounce all kinds of social injustices, crimes against humanity, human rights infringements, racism and oppression with my pencils and brushes.

M P: How long have you been making a living as an artist? You don't have a day job, do you? Did you use to?

Ben Heine: Are you joking? Do you really think I make a living as a political artist? Ha ha, no, I don’t. I do have a full time day job. I teach French, English and History in a Belgian high school. This is very challenging and time consuming. A few months ago, I was working in a communication agency. I didn’t really like it. I think we, artists, must accept making jobs that have nothing related to our passion. That’s stupid, I know, but that’s what society obliges us to do. A good friend of mine and a very talented Spanish artist, Juan Kalvellido, used to work many years at Burger King and make his revolutionary political creations beside!

Mike Palecek: Would you like to choose one of these to answer, elaborate on? I don't ask this to make fun. I ask because I really seek the answers.

Are UFOs real? - Did we land on the moon in 1968? - Did Bush knock down the towers? - Was Paul Wellstone's death an accident? - The Oklahoma City bombing? Wasn't that just another U.S. government terrorist exercise? Or not. - Waco. We burned kids, right? You can see flames shooting out of the tanks. Or not. - Is Bigfoot real? - Is there a God? ... What makes you think that?

Ben Heine: Ok, I go for "Is there a God?". Yes, I think so. God is to be found in as many entities as there are human beings. This is just a personal opinion. (Mike, I’m not a crazy philosopher, you are. ☺)

Mike Palecek: Let me see, how do I want to put this... Do Europeans give a shit about America? Do we really affect your lives? How about our wars, our government? Our movies, entertainers? Or, do you have your own culture, exclusive of us. I have never been to Europe, you understand.

Ben Heine: Very good question you ask here. Yes, in my opinion, all European countries and people are very concerned about America’s decisions. Many European countries are involved in the same wars (sad to say, but for instance, the Belgian government sent some troops in Afghanistan too…) Many Americans used to be Europeans in the past. American culture affects us in a strong way too. We have all your big Hollywood movies in our cinemas. I’m not sure that this is positive because this is somehow a “brain colonization”. And we actually don’t have much choice. And yes, we have our own culture. We have our own movies too, ha ha! Each country in Europe has rich traditions. Belgium is in the middle of Europe. From Brussels, I can travel to Amsterdam, Paris, London or Berlin in just a few hours. We all have different languages. Although we all have different customs and standards of living, we still feel Europeans.

Mike Palecek: Do you have hope in Obama? Why? Why not? Do you spend time thinking about Obama? Bush?

Ben Heine: Yes, I have many hopes. Barack Obama has won the presidential elections and I believe an important change is happening in America. There is a new positive hope for Americans and for the citizens of other foreign nations. I foresee a better future for America hence for the world. There are a lot of expectations. And Obama might disappoint us in many ways. But he will act differently than his predecessors and if he follows only 50% of his promises this will have positive consequences. This election changed in many ways my views about America. America is able to renew itself as no other country can do.

Mike Palecek: Does your favorite coffee cup have words on it? What are they? What did you absolutely have to get done by noon today?

Ben Heine: My favourite coffee cup has a big heart on it. I’m a lover and I drink litters of coffee everyday. I must prepare the lessons I’ll give to my students tomorrow and answer to a bunch of emails.

Mike Palecek: What else would you like to add? What else should I have asked?

Ben Heine: I would like to put here some questions that were recently asked to me by Joe Szabo (Joe Szabo is an American cartoonist, author, editor, public speaker and founder of WittyWorld International Cartoon Magazine. He is currently making a worldwide survey for his upcoming book on “The Image of America”.


Joe Szabo: If you could think of one word that could describe the United States best, what would that be?

Ben Heine: The US, as everybody knows, is a multicultural country. It is the fruit of the old European colonization. The practice of intense slavery gave the US African people. Now, people from all around the world (especially from South American coutries)are coming to live in the US, because they consider it as an "El Dorado". The US is a mix of nationalities, of origins and roots, that's, according to me, an explanation of it's cultural wealth, but also of the growing xenophobia, and the fear of the foreigner…

Joe Szabo: In its relation to other countries, do you see the U.S. as a partner, leader, or dictator?

Ben Heine: The US is definitely a worldwide leader. It is a strong democracy, thus not a dictatorship. Since the "Monroe Statement", the US has decided to lead and not to be lead. The US is a partner for some countries (mostly European) but also has many enemies (mostly in the Middle East and in South America).

Joe Szabo: Many countries took the model for their own constitution, legislative system as well as economic and cultural development from the United States. Do you see this as an equalizer, a threat to national and cultural independence or do you view this as a common sense, forward-propelling factor for the rest of the world hoping to catch up?

Ben Heine: I see this as "a common sense, forward-propelling factor for the rest of the world hoping to catch up." I am from Belgium. Belgium got its independence from the bigger nations surrounding it (Germany, France, Nederland...) in 1831. It got its own Constitution, which was inspired from the US Constitution. We can criticize the use of this Constitution by the Bush administration, but I think that the US Constitution in itself is a true and beautiful example of real democracy.

Joe Szabo: Is there still such a thing as "the American dream?" And if so what is it for you?

Ben Heine: The American dream is the search of material possessions as a way of finding happyness. The American dream is different for each American, though I think it's always related to material wealth and financial success. The famous "American dream" has evolved throughout American history. It has become a symbol and an ideal.

The American dream is different nowadays and is more related to egoism, making money and pure consumerism. I find it a bad choice. In some ways and for some people, it has become the "American nightmare".

Mike Palecek (an American writer living in Iowa for whom I made several illustrations in his recent book "Iowa Terror") has just launched a new website called "The New American Dream" where he gives a new definition of it, affirming that one of the obstacles Americans need to overcome is the lack of curiosity about the rest of the world... I can't agree more with him.

Joe Szabo: Why do people hate America?

Ben Heine: May be because of it's arrogance though its a young democratic State in mankind history, because of it's violent way of solving conflicts abroad (Iraq, Afghanistan...), because many Americans just ignore what's happenning outside the borders of their country, because big US multinationals (Coca Cola, Nike, Mc Donalds...)invade and destroy the economy of several other nations.

In the Middle East, many Arab countries hate America because it backs Israel by giving money to the Israeli government and weapons to Tsahal (the Israeli army).

Europeans usually criticize specifically the Bush administration (not the US in general). They usually dislike Bush because they believe he is stupid and doesn't understand the consequences of his acts.

But the US and European countries still have a lot in common (same judeo-christian roots, similar culture, same way of living, similar political systems...)

I think the question is wrong. It shouldn't be "Why people...", but "Why some people...". Americans are sometimes "paranoiac" and believe all the world hates them, which is of course wrong. People know North America is able to change fast.

Joe Szabo: About 59 million immigrants, including 11 million illegal aliens, live in the U.S. today. Why do so many people - some even risking their lives - keep migrating to the U.S.?

Ben Heine: As I said in a previous answer, I think the main reason to that is the "El Dorado" ideal. We have roughly the same situation in Europe (many Africans try to migrate to European industrialized countries, most of them die on their way. It's a terrible situation.)

The immigrants (Mexicans...) coming in the US dream to earn more money, to have a great job, to live in a nice house, and to enjoy social/financial help. Some immigrants also seek asylum and consider the US as a better democracy, they are political refugees.

This is a totally wrong conception. What they get instead is social exclusion, ghettos... America is considered as the richest and most powerful, technologically advanced country but many Americans do not earn a lot and live as "poor people". All the world saw the growing poverty some American citizens after the Katrina disaster last summer.

Joe Szabo: Tell a story you heard about or experienced in the United States and of which you could say it can happen "only in America."

Ben Heine: Well, a few years ago I visited all the Western coast of the US (and only Washington in the East). The landscapes, towns (Canyons, Yosemite village, salt desert, amazing hotels in Las Vegas, business in Holywood, Indians in Arizona...) hotels, food and people were great. I can't quote all the great things I saw.

But I was struck by the Indian tribes reserves in Arizona. This was quite shocking. Most of the Indians have no social help and live in total poverty. They become depressed and alcoholic and they die very young. They are treated like animals in a zoo by the "modern Americans" (because the Indians only shoud be called "Americans", as it's their land originally...). That can only happen in America. I liked a lot visiting the US, but I was deeply shocked by this.

I was also amazed by the "big dimension" of everything. Las Vegas is a particularly good example: Huge hotels with so many casinos... In one of the hotels, there is even a reconstitution of Paris! Along the streets, there are lakes with shows and spectacles to attract the tourists and visitors in the casinos... All the advertising lights, the smart limousines, the famous people. Actually Las Vegas is an artificial town in the middle of the desert! This was beautiful to see. That can only happen in North America.

Joe Szabo: Why did 9/11 (the terror attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon) happen?

Ben Heine: That's very complicated. The September 11 attacks were a tragic event in American history. It was also tragic for the world. The so called "War on terrorism" launched by the Bush administration generated more dramatic tensions between leading countries. Instead of appeasing the world, it increased terrorist attacks worldwide. I think it happened because Al-Qaeda wanted to show the world that American supremacist behaviour had come to an end. America was vulnerable as any other country. I believe it was also a revenge by the attackers and all their supporters against American imperialism.

Joe Szabo: How would you describe the American culture?

Ben Heine: I would say the American culture is rich and fertile. The only problem is that it’s too “self-centered”

Joe Szabo: What is America's greatest shortcoming?

Ben Heine: It's too "self-centered", blind to all the disasters that are happening outside its borders...

Joe Szabo: How is America different from your country?

Ben Heine: My country is really tiny :) The USA is huge. We, as Belgians do not really consider that being Belgian is a “top quality” in itself. At least that's my belief. I consider myself more as a “citizen of the world” or a “European”. I was born and lived 7 years in another country (Ivory Coast, Africa). So I might be somehow an "exception". I have the feeling that some Americans are so proud of their nationality that they don’t pay attention to what’s happening “outside”. This is an important difference.

Joe Szabo: Would the world be a better or worse place without America? Why?

Ben Heine: I don't know. What I know is that any other huge nation could make the same mistakes.

Joe Szabo: Describe your feelings, and emotion when you see an American flag.

Ben Heine: I see a lot of colored and complex symbols…

Now the fact that it is so frequently displayed in public and private places (more I think than in other European nations) proves a certain fear of the American people to lose what they have had with great difficulty: independence, unity, freedom, democracy and power.

Although American people do certainly not interpret it this way, I think many foreign observers see this as a hostile and arrogant demonstration of authority, control, supremacy…

A flag should have a rational meaning, but the American flag brings a lot, may be too much emotion, pride and passion.

Joe Szabo: In your view what are the main goals of U.S. foreign policy?

Ben Heine: I think the main goal of the U.S. foreign policy is to preserve national interests. This is rather logical. But I’m convinced that this shouldn’t be the purpose of a leading nation worldwide. A good leader normally helps as much as they can the weakest the poorest and the oppressed ones and do not fight only for their own interests. A good leader promotes Peace and defends democracy and justice in its land but also in other lands. But it’s always easier to play with people’s fear.

Joe Szabo: How do you see the foreseeable future of America?

Ben Heine: Barack Obama has won the presidential elections and an important change is happening in America. There is a new positive hope for Americans and for the citizens of other foreign nations. I foresee something good for America.

Joe Szabo: What are America's greatest contributions to the world? You may give more examples starting with the most important.

Ben Heine: There have been many contributions. Here are a few ones that I have in mind:

1) The progress and spreading of new technologies and applied sciences.
2) The proof that a country can have citizens of all origins, of all races, of all colours living in an apparent peaceful harmony.
3) The demonstration of the importance and effectiveness of the Constitutional democracy and the safe development of universal suffrage.
4) Freedom of the will for the individual.
5) Universal access to education and information

But all these positive contributions have been achieved with tremendous difficulties and after centuries. And I could evoke a negative aspect for each one of them. 1) weapons’ business, 2) Xenophobia, racism, 3) 8 years of almost “dictatorship” under the Bush administration…
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