Interviewing the Heartland

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In the wake of Trump’s upset (and upsetting) win in the 2016 election, the “heartland interview” – in which a newspaper or TV reporter from the evil elite coast travels to what he or she is certain to say east-coasters call the flyover states, to interview Trump supporters – has become a staple of the news. (In the New York Times, David Brooks recently advanced the genre by not actually bothering to interview anyone, instead making up a fictional heartland voter who he named “Flyover Man,” who by an amazing coincidence has opinions that mostly match David Brooks’).

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with interviewing heartland Trump voters. Once. Or a dozen times. But by now there have been countless “coastal reporter dares to visit the heartland” stories, and it’s become clear that they’re specifically seeking out people who match the reporters’ ideas of who heartland voters are.

Black people live in the Heartland. Liberals live in the heartland (we think of states as being red or blue, but truthfully almost all the states are purple – containing significant numbers of both Republicans and Democrats). There are urban areas in the heartland.

But there’s an unwritten rule about who news spotlights when they visit the “real” America. “Real” Americans, in the view of the news, are white, are rural, are conservative, are Christian, do not live on a coast, and are definitely not immigrants.

And yes, those folks are real Americans! But the rest of us are real Americans, too.


This cartoon has four panels, plus a small additional “kicker” panel under the bottom of the cartoon. Each of the four panels shows a very simple TV set; two bucket stools facing each other, a decorative potted plant, a wall in the back with a few horizontal stripes for color, and a boom mic. Also in every panel, there’s a TV interviewer – a white man with carefully blow-dried hair and wearing a red tie and blue pinstripe two-piece suit – and Chris, a Black woman dressed in a casual-but-nice fashion, with a red shirt and blue skirt.


Pinstripe is facing away from Chris, towards an off-panel camera. He is speaking to the camera with a big grin. Behind him, Chris smiles and waves.

PINSTRIPE: I’m here in the real America – the heartland – so I can find out what real Americans are thinking! My first interview is Chris Johnson, of Kansas City.

CHRIS: Hello!


Pinstripe as turned to face Chris and is taken aback. Chris has put one hand on her chest in a “I’m explaining about myself” gesture, and looks surprised; she is no longer smiling.

PINSTRIPE: Er… Sorry. I came here to interview a heartland person.

CHRIS: I am a heartland person! I was born right here in Missouri!


Pinstripe makes a dismissive “stop talking” palm-out gesture towards Chris. He has turned away from Chris and is talking to someone off-panel. Chris looks offended, crossing her arms and frowning.

PINSTRIPE: Sorry, you’re not the type we’re looking for. Send in a real heartland interview, already!


A new character, Aaron, has walked on panel, cheerfully waving. He is wearing jeans and a polo shirt, and a yarmulke (the small round hat worn by observant Jewish men and some observant Jewish women).  Pinstripe, seeing Aaron, reacts with frustration, waving his arms and yelling. Behind Pinstripe, Chris is amused by the situation.

AARON: Shalom! I’m Aaron from Witchita.



Pinstripe is making demands of a fat man with glasses and tied-back hair (i.e., a self-portrait of Barry, the cartoonist.) Pinstripe looks angry, Barry looks a little bewildered.

PINSTRIPE: Just find me a resentful middle-aged white Christian with a MAGA hat who’s sick of media stereotypes about the heartland!

Posted in anti-racism, antiracism, Cartooning & comics, Conservative zaniness, right-wingers, etc., Elections and politics, Immigration, Migrant Rights, etc, Jews and Judaism, People of Color, poc, Society & Culture, white people, White Privilege | 14 Comments  

Thoughts on “Compassionate Simulation”, from PH Lee

Lee and I did have a very intense process while writing this story. There were a lot of craft questions but because the subject matter of this is so intimate and intense -- a child's relationship with abusive and authoritarian parents from whom they're alienated -- that the story is integrally tied into beliefs about family and children and norms and abuse. Lee has a more pessimistic view of some of these things than I do, which sometimes makes me feel like Polyanna, and sometimes feels like just a different background, and which may well be both. I'm also immunized to the artificiality of several literary techniques that are deployed for this subject matter since I've been working for so long. Lee did a good job of calling out contrivances, although some remain because literature is still literature. Like Lee, I enjoy how this fell. It was a rewarding collaboration. You can see the whole thread on Twitter here, and also quoted below.   (paragraphing imposed by Rachel’s evil enter key) "So here's a thought about how difficult it is to balance aesthetics, truth, and humanization when writing about abuse. It's from the experience of writing Compassionate Simulation together with Rachel Swirsky. Link to the story at Uncanny Magazine. We argued a lot while writing it; nearly over every word. One of the big things we argued about was how bad to make the parenting, and how to express that badness. The story came out of Rachel wanting to write something based on my game "Island in a Sea of Solitude," which is part of "Four Ways to Die in the Future."That core idea drifted over time. Rachel took one of the roads not taken and turned it into her own story, Your Face in Clarkesworld. But Compassionate Simulation turned into a story about a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. IIRC, I wrote the first pass that included an abuse narrative, and wrote it in a fairly mimetic fashion (drawing directly from the experiences of people I know who've cut off their parents). Rachel pointed out that, as written, no one would care about this at all, because Joseph was coming off as a one-dimensional monster. And, although it took me a while to understand, she was right about that. The truth of it is that in real people, we excuse and dismiss behavior that, in fictional characters, we correctly see as monstrous. A real person necessarily as more complexity than a fictional character, and of course in most real cases we already know the person and have existing social bonds with them. None of that is present in fiction. So while I was writing behavior that I had seen in person described as "complex" or "there are two sides to this story" in fiction it just came across as cartoonishly evil, to the point where readers would immediately disconnect. Then, in the rewrites, Rachel dialed it back to a single traumatic moment. Which is one of the go-to literary approaches to trauma (and for good reason: it's good in writing not to unnecessarily multiply the themes or the scenes). But that introduced problems of its own. There is a problem, in writing, when you portray an abusive man in a sympathetic light, people will sympathize with him entirely, to the point of dismissing and dehumanizing his victims. And the story was beginning to swerve into that narrative: "It was only the one time." In life, though, it's never only the one time. It was important to us that the story honestly represent family trauma, and I know of almost no one who has cut off their parents over a single traumatic incident. So having the story revolve around a single incident was viscerally uncomfortable to me. So that was another hurdle for us. In the end, through a lot of talking and negotiation and planning and reading analysis of estranged parents' forums on,  we managed to produce the final story. I'm really proud of the final text. I think we managed to thread the needle of being truthful without overbearing, and of portraying a humanized portrait of a dysfunctional parent without making him the center of the reader's sympathy. But that's is a difficult needle to thread. Writing the story gave me an appreciation for exactly how difficult. Writing something truthful isn't just about mimesis and it also can't be straightforward "portray everyone sympathetically." It needs a conscious balance. Also importantly, in a broad sense, it's okay to be thinking about fiction explicitly and directly. Writing doesn't have to entirely be about our first inspiration. Sometimes the right path is to sit down and talk through the goals of the story in an analytical way. Also importantly, in a broad sense, it's okay to be thinking about fiction explicitly and directly. Writing doesn't have to entirely be about our first inspiration. Sometimes the right path is to sit down and talk through the goals of the story in an analytical way."
Posted in Essays | 1 Comment  

“Your Face” in Spanish

It is so cool to see my story in other languages! I can’t read most of them, but it’s still really fun to know the story has a life beyond the words I chose. My story “Your Face” has already been translated into Chinese and Spanish — here’s the Spanish version on Cuentos para Algernon, a nonprofit blog and anthology run by Marcheto, who also wrote the translation.
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment  

A Haiku for Saturday, November 1st

The cold that nestles,

knits a blanket, lights a fire,

turns you toward yourself.

Posted in Poetry, Rachel Swirsky's poetry | Leave a comment  

Defending Free Speech


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I have three complaints about the way mainstream pundits treat the “campus speech” issue.

First of all, they vastly exaggerate the scope of the issue. Second, most of them barely acknowledge campus censorship coming from the right (Reason Magazine is an exception).

But, third and most importantly, they give little or no attention to much more effective attacks on free speech. The people most vulnerable to censorship are the people with the least privilege and standing in our society, such as sex workers, undocumented immigrants, and prisoners.

I’m not saying that genuine censorship on campus shouldn’t be reported on and editorialized against. But the attention campus speech gets, compared to the way pundits almost totally ignore other forms of censorship, is infuriatingly disproportionate.

And it’s hard not to see it as an unconscious bias based in self-interest. Columnists writing for major magazines and newspapers know that they will never be censored by laws targeting sex workers, or I.C.E., and it’s extremely unlikely any of them will spend significant time in prison.

But all of them either have been campus speakers, or can imagine themselves being campus speakers. All of them have friends and colleagues who speak on campuses. And that makes any threat to campus speakers seem far more immediate and significant to them, than objectively more threatening and harmful censorship against the less powerful.

* * *

Here’s an essay on this by Noah Berlatsky.

* * *

Panel one is exciting, to me, because I didn’t trace it, or use a perspective grid, or use the computer equivalent of straight-edges to help me draw. I just drew the capital building freehand.

That probably won’t seem like a big deal to you. But to me, it’s a great advance. I never would have attempted freehand drawing of this complex a building a few years ago!

I’m constantly jealous of cartoonists who are great at drawing architecture freehand – done well, it looks amazing. It’s much more expressive than the merely accurate results I can get tracing a photo. Panel one isn’t a great drawing of a building – but it’s certainly passable, and I’m proud of having achieved that. :-)

* * *

Here are a few links with more info about the issues mentioned in the first three panels.

Panel 1, on censorship of sex workers by Congress:

With FOSTA Already Leading to Censorship, Plaintiffs Are Seeking Reinstatement Of Their Lawsuit Challenging the Law’s Constitutionality | Electronic Frontier Foundation

Why FOSTA’s Restriction on Prostitution Promotion Violates the First Amendment (Guest Blog Post) – Technology & Marketing Law Blog

Panel two, on I.C.E. targeting undocumented immigrants who criticize I.C.E.:

ICE arrested activist just hours after he recited a poem criticizing the agency – ThinkProgress

ICE Keeps Arresting Prominent Immigration Activists. They Think They’re Being Targeted. – VICE

Panel 3, on censorship of prisoners:

Inmate Says He Was Thrown In Solitary for Talking to Reporter

Do American prisoners have free speech?

* * *

As always, thank you so much for supporting these cartoons! There are a lot of terrific cartoonists out there, but I think I have a point of view, and an approach, that is pretty unusual in editorial cartoons. Thank you for making it possible for these cartoons to exist!

I won’t be posting this cartoon in public for at least a week, but if you’re pledging at the $5 level or above, feel free to show (or post) it without waiting.

* * *


This cartoon has four panels, plus a small “kicker” panel below the bottom of the cartoon.

A large caption, at the top of the cartoon, says “DEFENDING FREE SPEECH.”


This panel shows the Capital Building in Washington, D.C., where Congress meets. Two word balloons come from inside the building.

SPEAKER 1: Our new law will force websites to silence sex workers!

SPEAKER 2: Good plan!


Two men, wearing jackets and hats that identify them as I.C.E. agents, stand talking to each other outside a depressing blocky-looking building. One of them is angrily pointing to something on his tablet. The other is grinning and holding up a forefinger to make a point.

ANGRY I.C.E. AGENT: An illegal immigrant wrote a poem criticizing I.C.E.!

SECOND I.C.E. AGENT: We’ve got our next target!


Inside a dirty-looking prison, a prison guard in uniform leans on a cell door, talking to the prisoner within. A small barred window is in the cell door, and through the window we can see part of the face of the prisoner. The guard is grinning; the prisoner looks angry.

GUARD: Let’s see you talk to any more reporters from here in solitary!


A large caption at the top of the panel says “THE PUNDITS REACT!”

Inside a room with a sofa and a vase on a table, two pundits – one male, balding and wearing a necktie, the other a woman with black hair and glasses – are talking. The man is looking at something on his phone screen and looking panicked; the woman is striking a heroic pose.

MALE PUNDIT: Oh no! A wealthy writer with a huge following and plenty of access to media was protested on campus!

FEMALE PUNDIT: This is the worst threat to free speech ever!


The male pundit looks serious as he speaks to a self-portrait of the cartoonist.

MALE PUNDIT: If wealthy powerful pundits don’t stand up for the wealthy and powerful, who will?

Posted in Media criticism | 37 Comments  

A Haiku for Monday, October 28th

in deep winter; Mike and I
walking now as then.
| Leave a comment  

If You Say So

[image description: line sketch of a woman looking off to one side]

She’s pretty sure you’re full of shit, though.

Posted in Drawing | 1 Comment  

Cartoon: Intellectual Excuses for Misgendering

Important note: If you want to just say “nice job!” or talk about the drawing or Matt Walsh or “Agents of Shield” or “Unbelievable” or whatever, you can comment in this thread.

But if you want to argue with the point of the cartoon – if you want to argue that misgendering is ever okay – then that’s not allowed in this thread. And really, consider not making the argument at all. But if you must, take it to the mint garden.

Help me make more cartoons like this one by supporting my Patreon! A $1 or $2 pledge really helps.

The dude here is based on the very popular right-wing columnist Matt Walsh – but also on dozens of others I’ve seen, trying to make being cruel to trans people sound like a high  virtue instead of just them being mean.

It’s not something I have a lot of patience for anymore, and this strip reflects that.

This strip, and also the previous strip (“Ten Reasons We Won’t Abolish I.C.E.”) were drawn to the first two seasons of the TV show “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Somehow light adventure TV shows are just right for drawing to – they’re simple enough to follow while only paying half attention, likable without being so absorbing I get diverted from drawing, have season-long plots, and there’s lots and lots of episodes to listen to. (Prior to “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” I drew to all the seasons of “Supergirl.” Oddly, both shows are to a great extent about immigration issues – do we fear immigrants or welcome them?).

What’s not good to draw to is truly great, stellar TV. I recently watched all of the Netflix series “Unbelievable,” and it was one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen – certainly the best detective show I’ve ever seen – and I doubt I would have gotten a line drawn during it if I’d tried. If you’re in the market for a feminist detective show based on true events, I highly recommend it. (Content warning: The villain of the series is a serial rapist).


This cartoon has four panels, plus a tiny “kicker” panel below the bottom of the strip. Each of the four panels shows a man and a woman walking through a hilly park; she is walking away from him, looking annoyed, and he’s following, lecturing pretentiously.

He is wearing a yellow dress shirt, collar open, and has a beard and rectangular glasses. She is wearing a dim orange dress, with a thick belt and a headband.


He’s talking and holding up one forefinger in a “I’m making an important point” way.

MAN: I will NOT use your “preferred pronouns.” The reality is, you’re a man. That means “he” and “him.”


The “camera” has zoomed in to a closer shot of the man (we really only see the back of the woman’s head in this panel). The man is now speechifying, one palm on his chest and the other hand raised a bit, and looking solemn and pretentious.

MAN: Anything else is a LIE. And you can lie to yourself all you want, but you cannot force ME to lie on your behalf. I’m morally and ethically obligated to tell the truth, regardless of how that makes you feel.


The “camera” has zoomed out to a more distant shot of them walking through the park. She’s still in front, not turning back to look at the man. There are a few trees in the background, and a wooden picnic table in the foreground.

MAN: It’s not my goal to hurt you. But I have principles. I value truth. You understand what I’m saying?

WOMAN: I do.


She walks forward, still not turning; behind her, the man has stopped walking, and looks a bit startled.

WOMAN: You’re saying you’re a gigantic asshole.


The bearded man from the first four panels is talking cheerfully to Barry (the cartoonist); Barry is facepalming.

MAN: What impresses me most about myself is how SUPER rational I am!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Transsexual and Transgender related issues | 14 Comments  

Reading Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”

From page 49:

“Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful…Our very being exposes us to the address of others, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.

For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back and, as insane as it is, saying please.”

This captures so perfectly something I have never been able to put into words about my experience of antisemitism, my fear of it, my sensitivity to it, how it feels and why it becomes a source of shame when it is directed at me. I am thinking about James Gilligan’s notion of shame as the desire not to be seen because no one wants to be seen who is, who feels, who has been branded, unworthy of love. (Though, if I remember correctly, Gilligan took the idea that to be ashamed is not to want the eyes of the world on you from someone else. I just can’t remember who right now.)

Posted in anti-racism, Anti-Semitism, Race, Racism | 1 Comment  

A Haiku For Saturday, October 19th

The cold rain shivers.

I dart, indoors to indoors,

generous shelters.

Posted in Poetry, Rachel Swirsky's poetry | Leave a comment