Aislin Discusses Media, Politics and Satire

Graphic by Terry Mosher

Aislin is the nom de plume of Canada’s foremost satirical cartoonist, Terry Mosher. He has been brilliantly lampooning culture and politics for decades, with unflinching insight and a wonderfully cruel wit.

The highlight of any newspaper, and perhaps of our political culture, is the editorial page cartoon. It can be both funny and thought-provoking, but only for certain people—those who take an interest in public affairs and know a few things about them.

Today, too many people are missing out. They are not getting the jokes and not bothering to ask why. Because of this apathy, Mosher may be one of the most pre-eminent members of a dying breed.

It was a cold, rainy Thursday morning as I nervously approached the downtown offices of The Gazette. Mr. Mosher welcomed me graciously with a soft handshake. ­The giant caricatures of Brian Mulroney and Louise Beaudoin adorning the walls of his office made everything seem tiny. His white hair and beard, calm demeanour and friendly aura belied his passion, energy and curiosity.

The Link: Is political cartooning taken for granted in some ways?

Terry Mosher: I think so [loud exhale]. There’s a concern in the US about syndication and making money. Therefore, for an editorial cartoon to be picked up in Dallas, and Minneapolis and Chicago, it should be palatable to everybody. I think that’s probably a big factor in the death of political cartooning in America. It’s just not as effective or as vital as it used to be.

Some people use the Internet to reinforce their own pre-existing beliefs, rather than broaden their horizons. Could this dynamic play a role in the decline of cartooning?

It’s always existed to a certain extent, but you’re right—it’s really overblown these days, and technology has permitted that. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it has created tremendous problems. People are disappearing into themselves. It’s very easy to bookmark things that you agree with. So we’ve become specialists in our own lives and everything else is ignorable or crap or bullshit, whatever it happens to be.
How do you poke fun at that? Well, I’m trying a bit but it’s really up to a younger generation.

How does satire help correct abuses and reign in excesses?

It’s important to point these things out. One of the most effective ways is through humour. Within a society, the insult and the joke are important because you can learn from these things. We can all learn from them.
There are examples of politicians adjusting. [It’s] because there’s a collective sense out there. If a politician is smart, like Louise Beaudoin, they get it after a while. She’s an elegant, wonderful woman but she was perceived as being hugely arrogant and domineering in English. So I came up with the dominatrix. She learned from it. After she retired, she wrote me a wonderful note “Aislin, je regrette votre absence dans ma vie.” Mulroney on the other hand never did. And I’m drawing him again for tomorrow.

Is our political culture crumbling?

It’s difficult because we live in a cynical age. But at the same time, if you look around and you travel a little bit, you realize we have a pretty damn good system. The fact that I can even exist here says something.

In the early ‘90s, I worked half the week at the Toronto Star and half the week at The Gazette. And even back then, no one wanted to know about politics in Toronto, it was all business. Politics were on the sidelines. And I think that’s probably taken over everywhere.

So people involved in public affairs act more out of self-interest than concern for the greater good?

Yeah. “What’s in it for me?” is far more of a factor. Even Mulroney… [grinning]
It’s nice to have him back, every time he opens his mouth it’s great. He proposes a new debate on medicare. So I’ve drawn him saying “a new way to pay our health workers.” And he’s holding up a brown envelope! [laughs] That will make some people uncomfortable because that is going on. Doctors are being paid under the table by the well-to-do. So even though it’s a joke about Mulroney and the brown envelopes, there’s still a legitimate secondary message under there. But thank god we live in Quebec, it’s a great place.

I’ve always sensed that people in the United States can’t engage with politics in the same way that we do here.

The United States has become brittle. They can’t bend, they can’t give. So much of America now is just incapable of poking fun at itself. There are pockets that can, but overall they can’t. It’s too bad.

Is the same true of Canadian politicians? Are people like the Conservatives incapable of taking a joke?

Maybe Flaherty, he’s pretty good. He has a sense of humour, he’s a Montrealer! [laughs] But politicians take themselves very seriously in general. You should be looking at the commentators around them. I’d worry more that the Ottawa Citizen is a terrible newspaper. I’d worry more about the fact that Maclean’s magazine will not use cartoons anymore. They use photographs because they can get them for 35 bucks each. They don’t want to pay a cartoonist. Maclean’s used to be a wonderful resource and source for that sort of thing. So I’d worry more about that.

What does the future hold for Canada and Canadian culture?

Canada is looked to as an interesting country and governments will come and go. I won’t be as much a part of it because you have to pass the torch on these things, but it will be interesting to see what happens over the next 10 or 20 years.

[Former Prime Minister Wilfrid] Laurier said that the 20th century belongs to Canada. He might have had the wrong century—it might be this next one. It’s going to be a very interesting place to be and a very interesting place for a young commentator to get started, provided you can find the outlet. Now the puzzle is to find out who’s going to be able to survive online.

How are journalists going to be able to make a living? The age of hiring journalists and giving them benefits for the rest of their lives is over. It’s gone.

I think people worry that individual efforts are trivial in light of the structural forces.

We all feel that frustration to a certain extent. What can you do about it? Put one foot in front the other and do the best you can—draw the occasional cartoon in my case. How much good does that do? Occasionally, they get people talking. That’s the most important thing of all—that people talk about it and think about it. If that stopped happening then I’d quit.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 15, published November 23, 2010.