David Fitzsimmons must be one of the few moderate liberals in the United States who spends a whole lot of his time listening to right wing radio and Fox News. Although his personal preferences lean more toward what he called, "the warm dulcet tones of NPR, where I actually have a sense I'm learning something," listening to the other side comes with the job. "I can't resist Fox News," he said with a wicked smile, "it's cartoonist food."
David Fitzsimmons is a political cartoonist with the Arizona Daily Star, and as such occupies a position that has become increasingly unique across the American journalistic landscape. Fitzsimmons' cartoons are in syndication in over 700 newspapers in the United States and around the world, but he estimated that there are less than 70 active political cartoonists in the U.S. today. To put that number in perspective, during our interview Fitzsimmons gave me some political cartooning history: "In 1900, there were 2,000 political cartoonists, almost every small town newspaper had one. And in the early days of this country people noticed what those cartoonists wrote; an author of a political cartoon could be branded treasonous for a simple doodle." Fitzsimmons compared looking at political cartooning through the years to "looking at freeze-frames, windows into another time; they capture the sentiments of a period, the atmosphere of a time." Sometimes those sentiments were abhorrent, such as the vile portrayal of Jews in political cartoons across Germany in the 1930's. Often they were harsh and unforgiving; Fitzsimmons spoke of a collection of shockingly vehement anti-Lincoln cartoons on display in the Old Statehouse in Springfield, Illinois. And while he doesn't know how his own cartoons will be viewed in the future, he feels the job is basically the same as it ever was. "I'm here to express an opinion in a way that is arresting and interesting. And I'm partisan, and that's OK." He smiled while adding cheerily: "I'm here to provoke."
And provoke he does. When a Fitzsimmons cartoon appears in his home paper, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, Arizona (titled simply "My View: David Fitzsimmons," archived by the Star as the "Daily Fitz Fix"), Letters to the Editor often follow, sometimes complaining loudly about the opinion expressed by the cartoonist. Fitzsimmons not only welcomes those letters, he loves them; when asked by a student what he liked about his job, one item on his list was "reading inventive clever hate mail from pissed off readers." During our interview, Fitzsimmons enthusiastically confirmed that:
It's so much fun to see the familiar names of people who follow my work and hate me so. I love the words they use to describe me: I'm predictable, I'm a Communist-that's always a good one. Oh, and I'm anti-American, which is as good as saying I pal around with terrorists.
When asked how he would describe his political views, he replied "liberal moderate," adding: "I don't think extremists are constructive. I think the average citizen shares that perspective, and so does our current president."
On the subject of right wing extremism in particular, David Fitzsimmons doesn't hesitate to express some of the partisan views that have moved readers to write to the Daily Star. Saying he tunes in to right wing radio and Fox News "a lot," he felt he knew who their audience was: "Fox News appeals to those who are hungry for simplification, who want everything in black and white, it appeals to the illiterate and the deeply superstitious." When watching Fox News commentators engage in what he characterized as their "humorless monologue," Fitzsimmons said he often wonders:
Can they really be that consistently dumb? It's like all learning has stopped. They're so certain, so clear in their view of angels and demons. It's like a throwback to before the age of enlightenment, like people from a world lit only by fire, where the most advanced machinery was the wheelbarrow.
He labeled right wing talk radio "corrosive and dehumanizing, and not persuasive. There's rarely any actual dialog, all they do is feed anger. They're so hateful." And while admitting it held some entertainment value (smiling again as he said, "Fox News is deliciously evil"), he decried the political viewpoint trumpeted by those media outlets: "I can't think of a more destructive political force than the current conservative right wing ideology. They have nothing constructive to propose, only destructive." By way of example, we discussed an issue that Fitzsimmons, a long-time Tucsonan, knows well: immigration.
It's a complex issue that will take complex solutions, not the generalities spouted by the right. The immigration policies they support are cruel, un-American, and intellectually shallow, like the incredibly immoral idea of punishing children for something they were not responsible for and cannot control.
But of course, these same right wing ideologues also make for great cartoons, and that was especially true of the previous administration. Fitzsimmons gestured toward the heavens as he said with a laugh: "I never expected such a gift from the satirist gods as a Texas cowboy born-again baseball owner as president."
Watching the newspaper world rapidly dissipate is troubling to Fitzsimmons: "When I was young, I always assumed citizens would grow into becoming newspaper consumers; you get a job, buy a home, subscribe to the local newspaper. It was one of those symbols of arriving in society." As the world of journalism changes he expressed the hope that there would always be a place for political cartoonists:
What I do is such a specialized art form, an art form appreciated by news junkies. And it requires a specialized set of skills: an ability to render pen and ink drawings and express lucid and entertaining opinions. I worry about colleagues who have lost their jobs. We're like gargoyle carvers; if that goes away, what else can we do?
One thing that doesn't worry him: running out of things to write about. While he freely expressed his admiration for the current president, Fitzsimmons added: "it's still a human occupying the office, and we are frail creatures."
And there's always the Letters to the Editor to look forward to. The thought of those letters made David Fitzsimmons grin once more, as he said: "Those who agree with you think you're hilarious. And those that who don't...well, it's a small price to pay for the freedom to carp daily."