Opinion » Bill Cope

Class Picture

A 'toon is worth a thousand pie charts

Close your eyes and imagine, please, that I am a political cartoonist instead of a political columnist. (This could never happen outside our imaginations because any talent I may have had for the graphic arts was lost about the same time I left my last box of Crayolas out in the sun 60 years go. But as long as we're sharing a fanciful conceit here, I invite you to imagine that my illustrations are as elegant as the greatest of the great cartoonists. Thomas Nast, perhaps. Or Herblock. If you don't know who they are or how they illustrated, I'm sure you can find them somewhere on the shelves of Google, and you'll be glad you did. Then imagine I can draw as well as they.)

Now as to the picture I'm drawing: There is a very muscular and well proportioned fellow, naked except for whatever fig leaf or loin cloth he needs to get him approved by your inner censor. (I don't intend him to be as bulgy as Arnold Schwarzenegger, circa Conan the Barbarian. I picture him more Charles Bronson-y, circa 1972. Look up Chato's Land on your Internet machine if you're too young to know who Charles Bronson is or what he looked like nearly naked in 1972.)

Upon this strong guy's sinewy biceps is written the legend "The Middle Class," and his face is twisted into a grimace of intense pain and effort. (i.e., Robert DeNiro's face when he's taking a right cross from Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull.) The reason he's straining so hard is that he's pushing an enormous rock up a steep hill. (On my mental sketch pad, I have the rock a little bit bigger than a Dutch Brothers coffee hut and the hill at about a 45 percent grade.) The only thing going for our muscle man is that the rock is round. Or round-ish, at least. It's not like a smooth granite marble 15 feet in diameter but at least it's not square.

Of course, you will have recognized by now that I am using the story of Sisyphus to make whatever point I have in mind. (To those readers who didn't do so well in your mythology studies, or who believe the world started about the time you were potty trained, return once more to the Google box and look him up. That's quicker and easier than me trying to explain why Zeus would condemn a man to an eternity of uphill boulder rolling.)

My envisioned Sisyphus is working like a sumbitch to push that rock and the name of the rock is "America's Wealth." Get it? Everything in a political cartoon has to have something written on it to explain what it represents, yes? So the boulder is called "America's Wealth" and the boulder roller is called "The Middle Class."

Adding further to the point I'm attempting to make is a little man, sitting atop the rock as it's being pushed uphill. Were the rock rolling with any speed that would be a dangerous place to sit. But it's moving agonizingly slowly, a centimeter at a time. And the little man sitting on top makes the task even harder for our Charles Bronson/Sisyphus. The cartoon caption written on this little guy's tailored suit is "The One Percent," denoting he is a member of the very richest of the rich. By the way he's gesturing up the hill with his riding crop, we can tell not only is he controlling how "The Middle Class" is pushing the big-ass boulder but where it's headed, as well.

(You might visualize this character with a top hat, a cane and a fluffy mustache like the fellow from the Monopoly game, but I would rather you pictured him as a flabby, fat, sneering Donald Trump. Maybe one of the Koch brothers or that ugly troll from Las Vegas who so far has spent $100 million to defeat President Barack Obama.)

Simple enough picture, eh? The middle class slave their lives away to put a higher and higher percentage of the available wealth under the control of a handful of people. That's all I'm trying to say with this cartoon. That is the point I have in mind. I was moved to do it this way when I heard the recent news that the average middle-class family has lost 40 percent of its accumulated worth in this damned recession. My hope is that if you could actually see--even in your mind's eye--what's happening in our economy, rather than just reading about it in news reports or those boring graphs and pie charts, then it might sink in a little deeper how grave the situation has become and how profoundly we--the men and women by whose labor all wealth is born--are being manipulated. (I wanted to use another word here. It begins with "f," ends with "k" and describes what is happening to the middle class more colorfully than does "manipulated." But my inner censor wouldn't let me use it.)

Now don't open your eyes quite yet. There is one more component to this picture I haven't told you about. It's the hill itself. The hill represents something, too. I call it "The Reagan Legacy." That's because I--unlike so many people who seem to have lost all memory of whatever took place in the world over a few minutes ago--understand the base of this hill, the foundations to this long, tortured middle-class slog, to be in the administration of Ronald Reagan, 30 years ago.

That's when it started, this rush of America's wealth into fewer and fewer pockets. Along the way, there were plenty of news reports and graphs and pie charts to prove what was happening, but alas, so few people paid attention. And now the middle class has no choice but to keep pushing. Really, if this thing ever starts coming down--as it inevitably does in the myth of Sisyphus--who's going to get smashed first?

(Youngsters, while you're out Googling, look up Ronald Reagan. But don't believe a word they say about what a great president he was.)