Aaron McGruder, creator of "The Boondocks"

The controversial cartoonist calls Bush a moron, says Americans shouldn't worry about bin Laden and says he might leave the country.

Published December 7, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Long before the war in Afghanistan becomes just a twinkle in the eye of an old general, Aaron McGruder may well be living in exile in Canada. The 27-year-old creator of the daily hip-hop comic "The Boondocks," which features the escapades of a group of young African-American kids growing up in the almost-all-white suburbs, has wrenched the torch of scathing satire from the Boomer King of Cartoon Controversy, Garry Trudeau, and set off on an Olympic-style sprint for infamy. Since Sept. 11, McGruder has been setting fire to the funny pages with incendiary panels of political humor mocking everything from Attorney General Ashcroft's anti-terrorist dragnet and the public's fear of anthrax to FBI wiretaps and the nation's ongoing orgy of patriotism.

McGruder's 4-year-old strip does garner laughs, but not without an accompanying sting. The point man in the strip is the pint-size Black Panther-in-spirit Huey Freeman, who recently has been as busy as an anarchist at a WTO meeting. Among his many subversive acts, Freeman has called the FBI tip line to report Ronald Reagan as aiding and abetting terrorism, suggested that the terrorists may be making their bucks these days manufacturing flags and has pointed out the parallels between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden during a Thanksgiving meal prayer. About the only thing Huey hasn't done yet is strap on a Kalashnikov and set off for Kandahar. But now that John Walker's bearded mug is on the front page of dailies worldwide, anything's possible.

A number of the 250 publications that carry "The Boondocks" have taken exception to the sardonic sedition of McGruder's characters. The New York Daily News dropped the strip for about a month and a half, Newsday in Long Island chose not to run Sept. 11-inspired strips the first week they started coming out and the Dallas Morning News has moved the strip to a separate section altogether from other comics. None of this fazed McGruder. In response, he temporarily "replaced" the strip with "The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon," where the two symbols sing the National Anthem and talk tough about the U.S. kicking tail.

Angry letter writers have suggested McGruder emigrate, and McGruder admits that he's so disgusted with his native land he may eventually do just that. Recently, he tore himself away from ranting at the tube in his Los Angeles digs long enough to rant to Salon about the state of the nation.

Your strips post-9/11 have touched a raw nerve with some folks. Did you anticipate all the attention you've gotten because of them?

It's become a story because of timing. You know, the New York Daily News temporarily pulls the strip, and in the middle of this wartime situation, it became a story about freedom of speech and all that. The reality is I get pulled all the time from various newspapers for different reasons. And it's been that way since the strip started. Usually, it's a few strips here, a few strips there. Granted, this is the longest I've ever been removed from a major paper. But it wasn't that big of a deal, really. There's been everything from the National Rifle Association strips that got pulled in Dallas to some strips I did about Bob Johnson [of Black Entertainment Television] ... You know, the newspapers make the call. They pull the strips that they don't want to run, and they put the strips back when they're comfortable. I've gotten used to it. I was somewhat surprised at how big of a story it became, because it's happened so often.

You don't feel like you're under siege, then?

No, because the Syndicate has not asked me to do anything different. And I'm in 250 newspapers, and none of them have asked me to do anything different. So I've been doing exactly what I want, and I haven't felt any pressure to do otherwise.

What's the status of things now with the Daily News and the Dallas Morning News?

The Daily News said they were going to look at it on a daily basis and decide whether or not to run it. So I have no idea what they're doing. I heard about the Dallas Morning News moving it to a different section, but I don't know much about it. Newsday chose not to run a few strips, and I've heard some reports of some smaller papers. But I don't really keep track of stuff like that. With over 200 clients, it would be too time-consuming and more trouble than it was worth to worry about what each one was doing and why. I do the strip, send it out and what the newspapers want to do with it is up to them. It's between them and their readers.

Was there ever a doubt in your mind that you were going to address Sept. 11 in the strip?

No, the only question was how soon? And that was the big decision that had to be made. My deadlines at the time were falling on Tuesdays. The day the attack happened was the deadline, and then I had a week to decide whether or not I was going to talk about it the following week. And I did.

I wanted to ask you specifically about the Thanksgiving strip where Huey compares President Bush to Osama bin Laden. Do you think that's crossing the line on a holiday like that after a major tragedy such as Sept. 11?

A couple of things about that: One, I stole that joke from an Internet forward that was going around. I don't even know who originated it. Two, the best thing about that strip is that it never says G.W. Bush. The reader has to make the connection. If the reader reads what I wrote and thinks about G.W. Bush, that means it's fucking true! So I didn't make it up; you came to the conclusion as well. And if it's true, why are you mad at me? If he's not all those things, then what are you mad at? (Laughs.)

Have there been strips you've pulled back on because of Sept. 11?

It's always happening. It never happens because I send it in and the Syndicate says we can't run it. It's always part of the creative process of me trying to walk that line and say the things I want to say without taking it too far and doing stuff that you're just not allowed to do in the newspapers. That's always a challenge.

Why did you decide to target the post-Sept. 11 displays of patriotism in the strip, and essentially mock them with those two characters Flagee and Ribbon?

Because it wasn't genuine. I thought it was very faddish, and there was no real weight behind it. You know, we just came off an election that was a mess. We still don't know if the president won the election. We do know that he got less votes nationwide. There's no question about that. And he may not even have won, legitimately, the electoral contest. There were reports of the massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans in Florida, which went totally unreported in this country, but was covered widely by the foreign press. There were black people in Florida yelling and screaming, trying to get somebody to pay attention to them. They were saying that they had their rights taken away from them, and they were not allowed to vote. And nobody in this country cared. Where was the flag then?

Where was this embracing of American ideals when people had their rights ripped from them so unjustly? We have a president who was appointed by the Supreme Court, and there was none of this talk about freedom and love of country at that time. So I feel like the deaths of 4,000 people had really nothing to do with love of country or not. This country made giant mistakes and failed to protect its people. We don't need to be rallying around the government and supporting it, we need to be holding it accountable and being very critical so this type of thing doesn't happen again. So there are a number of reasons why I was uncomfortable with the whole flag thing.

A lot of folks would argue that no matter what our disagreements are internally, if we're attacked from the outside, we have to come together and support the current administration even if we have problems with it. How do you respond to that argument?

I don't think that's true. Look, they're telling us these people are bad because they hate us, and they hate our way of life. And they hate our way of life because they hate freedom, and they hate the fact that we have freely elected officials. This is what the president said. Well, he wasn't elected! We really have to think about that. Considering that people around the world, other people, people "over there," "bad" people will always try to do bad things, that's kind of outside of your control. The only thing you can be responsible for is what goes on here. The American people have no control over what the military does. We have no say in American foreign policy. None. The only thing we can exercise some will on is what happens here domestically. So I think the focus is wrong.

I don't think the American people should be worried at all about Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or anybody, because our government is going to do what it wants to do to them regardless of what we want them to do or not. All we can control is what happens here. And what happened here is what allowed those attacks to take place. The intelligence community failed. Security failed. The military failed. Everybody failed at the same time. I can be really nice to them and say, "You guys really messed up and need to check yourself." Or I could be not nice and say, "You know, I don't think it's really probable that all the systems can fail at the same time, which means something far more insidious took place." People are really afraid to get into that.

Are you suggesting some collusion on the part of our government in the Sept. 11 attacks?

I'm not suggesting that. I'm saying I'm not going there. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they're idiots, and not that they had something far more nefarious in mind. However, history does teach us that the government has done things like that before, particularly with Pearl Harbor, where there's an overwhelming amount of evidence that [FDR] was aware of it and lured the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. He literally left it undefended. There's some new evidence that has just come out about the CIA planning terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the '60s and how they were going to set up Castro for it in order to get America behind a war in Cuba. That's not even a conspiracy theory. The CIA drew up the plans, even though it never happened. So if I were to go that route, I wouldn't be crazy. But I'm not going to go that route. I'm just going to say that the American people need to be concerned about what happens here. Forget what happens overseas. That's out of your control. Be concerned with what happens here. Because honestly, if our game is tight here, we can't be attacked. If our intelligence community and airports and military are doing what they're supposed to do, then we should be relatively OK.

This reminds me of the strip where Huey calls the FBI terrorist hotline, tells them he's got a tip on someone who helped the terrorists, and it's Ronald Reagan. Do you think there's been enough coverage of the support our leaders have given the mujahedin in the past?

The media have reported on it. But it's not so much [that] they said it or not, it's the way they've said it. When the news wants to tell you something is important, they put dramatic theme music behind it. They scare you into watching the story. Like, anthrax -- very, very important. Pay attention, it's scary. When they report on the U.S. creation of these people, these terrorists, it's all very matter of fact. Like, oh yeah, we gave them a whole bunch of money, and now on to sports. So a lot of it is not necessarily an issue of it being covered up. In fact, it can't be covered up -- it's well known. But to me, it's not given the right emphasis. The question is to what extent is the government culpable for creating the people who have done this? And to what extent should they be held responsible for the actions of terrorists that they have supported in the past? That's what this is all about. I'm talking about Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., their whole crew, up until the crew that's in there today. After the embassy attacks in Africa, they were well aware of Osama bin Laden. They were well aware of his location in Afghanistan, his protection by the Taliban, and this Bush administration gave them $43 million this year! And nobody talks about it, and nobody holds them accountable, and that's wrong.

To be fair, though, I believe even the Clinton administration supported the Taliban in the beginning because they were viewed as a stabilizing force.

Well, to hell with Clinton, too. I'm not a Democrat. I don't give a damn about Clinton. Hold these people responsible! You know, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have supported individuals and regimes that have slaughtered millions across the globe. And they need to be held accountable for that.

Your depiction of the news media in your strip makes it out to be almost a cheerleader for the government. Is that a fair assessment of your opinion?

They've absolutely been playing cheerleader for the government, to the extent that even they've had to admit it. I watch news shows, and they're like, "Yeah, we're treating Bush differently now." I don't want the news to be patriotic. I don't want to see flags on the lapels of the anchors. I don't want any of that. I want the news delivered unbiased. I thought that was the whole point with journalism. They've thrown that out the window. And because they've all thrown it out the window at the same time, it's supposedly acceptable. No! It's ridiculous. I don't need to see that.

This is war. It's serious. People are dying on both sides. How dare the media just give in when the government says don't air any of Osama bin Laden's video messages! What is this? He's going to rub his nose and something is going to blow up over here? Like terrorists don't have satellite television, and they can't watch foreign news and get the same messages. That's insane. It's totally and thoroughly irresponsible behavior by the entire institution of the media.

Don't hold back, Aaron.

I won't. I was talking to some television journalists about this who gave me some interesting insight. Right now, they're scared to be critical of the government. Everything is about access. Reporters are afraid that the administration will cut them off. Decades ago, the mark of a good reporter was how much dirt you could dig up. Like the Watergate scandal. They were actively trying to find out what was going on and report the truth to people. Now it's the exact opposite. Nobody wants to say anything that makes the government mad, and that's ridiculous. Also, after the attacks, now people think it's unpatriotic to say anything critical of the government.

Come on, Bush is a moron. There is no doubt about it. And they really didn't have a problem going there before. But now, nobody wants to call him on it. People get excited because he can speak well. What world is this? When we're happy that the president can articulate well. That's something they only used to say about black men. "Oh, you speak so well." That's nuts. You don't say that about the president. We're supposed to have higher standards. The media are a big part of shaping the perception of the country, and right now, they're not asking the tough questions. They're not exploring, for example, the Bush administration's financial ties with Afghanistan. The fact that George Bush Sr. has financial investments in the area, and those investments become much more valuable when the Taliban government is removed. I'm not talking about getting into a whole bunch of conspiracies. Report what's actually happening, and challenge the government to explain itself. Why didn't they ask more questions? Like, how did this happen? How did four planes get hijacked in one day? And who got fired? That's the question I want to know the answer to, because a whole bunch of people should have gotten fired for what happened on Sept. 11. Report on the fact that G. W. Bush is sealing presidential papers. Indefinitely. His, his father's, Reagan's. It's totally unconstitutional. Why don't they talk about that?

On the topic of George W's I.Q., I think that idea is pretty threatening to people right now, because like it or not, we're stuck with him.

Yes, but living in denial doesn't help the situation. We have to confront the very scary fact that the president is a moron. He's really dumb. He's got some really smart people around him, and people weren't afraid to say that before. They said it in a nice way, but they said it. It was like, he's dumb, but he's got Cheney and he's got Powell, so we'll probably be OK. But now they act like he's done something great. You know, he's called [the terrorists] "evil." That's really some childish stuff. They're bad, we're good. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. That's so incredibly stupid. What do you think they do? They call us "evil." I just see so many parallels between both sides in this war, and it's really uncomfortable. You know, they kill civilians, we kill civilians. They say they're justified, we say the same thing. This is gang warfare on an international level. That's all it is. And when gang warfare happens in American cities, we say it's wrong. When somebody loads a gun, goes 20 blocks and kills the guy who killed his brother, it's not justifiable homicide or self-defense, it's murder and we put people in jail for it. Why is it acceptable that we do it now?

Do you support the war at all?

I don't support the killing of innocent people, and that's what's happening. What's worse is that we're killing innocent people out of retribution for the killing of innocent people. It's wrong. It's really wrong.

But assuming that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida are responsible, we have to go in and get them. How do we go in and get them without taking over that country?

I don't know. But I would ask, how many bombs can we drop to bring these people back? We can't drop enough bombs to bring 4,000 people back, and we can't drop enough bombs to ensure that it never happens again. Is it really about Osama bin Laden, or are we narrowing this? The people that hijacked the planes and crashed them are dead. If there's a terrorist network or a man responsible, yes, we should get them, but when you construct it like a police action or an investigation, and not like a war, then you're forced to respect the lives of innocents, even if it's a pain in the ass. I say it's not worth innocent people dying, even if it takes years and you have to keep sending SEAL teams or whatever in there. What the hell? That's what they're trained to do. That's why they exist. Drop them in there to get one guy. F-18s exist to wipe out towns. It may take longer the other way, but that's too bad.

But I'm sure you've seen pictures of Germany after World War II, and that country was flattened. Japan too. There were countless innocent lives lost.

World War II was 60 years ago. I mean, just in terms of technology, we're not fighting wars the same way. They had special ops, but it was the beginnings of special ops. They didn't have satellites that could listen to a conversation from space or pinpoint and read a newspaper headline from miles in the air. We didn't have that. You went to war, carpet-bombed and a whole lot of civilians died. And you know what? World War II was fucked up. How many millions of people died good and bad? Could World War II have been fought differently? I don't know.

There are few wars where innocent people don't die.

I don't know why this had to become a war. A war on whom? This feels like the war on drugs. When does it end? When you declare war on Japan or Germany, you know you can stop when those countries are flattened. When you declare war against the word "terrorism," when is that over? What does that mean? Stopping terrorism is like stopping rape or burglary, it's an individual action. Anyone with a gun can go out and commit an act of terrorism, even without a political affiliation. It never ends. So it's like the war on drugs, and what has that accomplished? Not a goddamn thing but a whole lot of black men in jail for nonviolent crimes, millions of dollars spent and nothing else. And that's what the war on terrorism is going to do -- we're going to lose countless amounts of money, people are going to die and get locked up, but that's it. There's going to be no good coming out of it. We're going to lose our civil rights, and they're going to be gone forever.

You don't buy the argument that the curtailing of certain civil liberties is temporary, that it's been necessary in previous wars, and that eventually those rights will be restored?

It's not temporary. Once you give up rights, they're not going to give them back. This is a war that will never end. When are they going to say they've defeated terrorism? No one is stupid enough to say that. Because then when something blows up, they look like dickheads. They can never again come out and say America is safe. They'd be idiots if they did. So given that they've set the situation up as a war they can't win, they're never giving the rights back. Literally, someone will have to be elected who doesn't agree with this shit and gives us our rights back. Someone, I don't know who, will have to get into power and say, "You know, this was all bullshit, and we're changing the laws."

What do you think we'll have to go through for that to happen?

America will really have to understand how corrupt its system is, and they'll have to get so fed up that they're ready to make change. And I don't think that'll happen because the media are so in line with the government and so invested in the status quo. We have, essentially, a worthless democracy. I hate to sound so extreme, but things are that bad. There's nothing we have to share with the rest of the world. We don't even have one man, one vote. And we have so much legal corruption in our political system that no one even thinks about it anymore.

You say that, but would you want to live anywhere else?

I tell you what, I visited Canada, and I liked it. I liked it a lot. This idea that there's no better place in the world to live, I don't buy that. The reality is this: Me, I'm comfortable. I make a lot of money. So I can say, America is OK, up until the point that the LAPD pulls me over and knocks out some teeth on some bullshit. That happens enough to black men that it's a legitimate concern for me. So I have to ask, even with my money, even though I've worked the American dream pretty well, is this really the best place for me to be? I don't know that's true. When you have money, anyplace is good. I could go to South Africa with what I'm making right now and live like a multimillionaire just off the currency exchange. I could live real well in a lot of different places. If you're broke, a lot of places suck. If you're broke in America or Brazil, it sucks.

Are you seriously considering that, or just talking? The reason I ask is that prior to Bush being elected, a lot of Hollywood types were talking about how they were going to move to Europe if Bush won and they're all still here.

You know, they're Hollywood types, fuck 'em. They're irrelevant to the conversation. Yes, I have thought about leaving. Right now, I can't even find the time to get an apartment in L.A. So when my life settles, and I have to think about where I'm going to raise my kids, when I have them, Canada will be the first place I look. I've never had the opportunity to go overseas because I was broke up until a couple of years ago. Now that I have money, I have to find time to really see the rest of the world. I can't say this is the best place on earth because I haven't been enough places. But I know that in Toronto and Vancouver there are all the comforts of America, and yet there's a difference in the people, and I had health care. When I visited Canada, I didn't have health care here. I go there, I have health insurance. And the air was cleaner -- sparkling, even in downtown Toronto. People say Canada's just like America. No! I'm out of the country, and you know what? It ain't bad.

Yet what makes your strip successful, I think, is that it's going against the grain of American society. Don't you think you would lose that if you were living in some other country?

I don't need to live here to know how stupid this place is. I don't know G.W. Bush. What I know, I get from the television and the newspapers, and I can get that anywhere. I have been successful to a large degree because of controversy, but I have no intention of living my life mad. And I'm not so in love with making people mad that I want to live my life around it. Trust me, I would rather the attacks had not happened and not have anything to talk about. Sure, the U.S. of A. gives me lots of material, but I would rather things be good. So in the abstract, I would leave. I haven't had the chance to seriously explore it. But I'm 27, so I have some time. This is just not the best place in the world for black people, even the U.N. knows that. They did some study ranking living conditions by ethnicity, and white American men were No. 1. I don't remember where black American men were, but they were a little bit further on down.

Do you think your strip reflects in any way a certain skepticism among black Americans toward the government?

I cannot be made into the commentator for the unspoken black masses. But I will say that the strip represents a political perspective that people black and white hold that is not being put out in the mass media. I just happen to have incredibly wide distribution in a medium that doesn't draw a lot of attention to itself. It's not like Bill Maher, where you say the wrong thing and the powers that be can just pull the plug. Comic strips don't really work that way. The message gets out there 20 million times a day, but it's still very subtle and very small. The medium itself, not just me.

I'd give you more credit than that. Because most comics don't deal with political issues, it makes you and "Doonesbury" pop out.

Yeah, we pop out, but it's not a dynamic medium. It's not TV, it's not movies. In that sense, it doesn't capture people's attention in the same way. What happened to Bill Maher is a good example. His show is done, I think.

What do you mean? You think "Politically Incorrect" is a goner?

I think it's going to be soon. I've heard things, but I don't want to say. I think they already know it's not [going to survive]. Maybe I'm wrong. I watched "Politically Incorrect" recently, and I felt like I was watching "Crossfire." The jokes were gone. It was like, everybody was nervous. Nobody wanted to say anything. You can't have a show called "Politically Incorrect," and have everyone be afraid to be politically incorrect. It doesn't make sense. I mean, I've been on the show before back when the strip launched, and I think Bill Maher got a raw deal. But that's the difference between TV and comic strips.

You're working on a "Boondocks" TV show now. Will your show still retain the political flavor of the strip? Will this be on Comedy Central?

Well, it's going to be prime time cable as opposed to being network. I can't say the channel, because we've been through this with three networks and every time we think it's going to happen it falls through. But with a year lead time, you can't talk about current events. So the show's mainly going to be about the characters. It's still going to have a heavy political slant to it, but it's not going to talk about specific incidents.

Doesn't "South Park" do stuff that's timely?

Yeah, but we're talking about animation of a quality that's far superior to "South Park," so it takes a long time. I love "South Park," but it's animated very simply.

By the way, here's one vote for you not moving to Canada. Huey in Toronto just wouldn't be the same.

Thanks, but no matter where I live, it's more an issue of how much longer I want to do this. It's a very demanding job. How long am I going to feel like I have something relevant to say day in and day out? How long before I get bored with it or get fed up with the deadlines? A lot of guys who do this job do it for 50 years. That's not me. I don't feel like I'm going to be a lifer. There are weeks where I hate the strip more than anything. And then there are times, like recently, where everyone else is out of work, and I'm like yeah, I've got a job, woo-hoo! But am I going to do this another week, or am I just going to quit now and hope this Hollywood stuff pans out? It's always a debate.

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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