Political cartoonist Paul Fitzgerald is angry. Not just about politics, and not because of the “Polyp” alias he’s had for 20 years — it’s the growing tide of science denialism that gets his goat these days. The United Kingdom native sees a lack of critical thinking everywhere he looks, whether it be at 9/11 truthers, alternative medicine practitioners or religious fundamentalists. You can practically hear Fitzgerald champing at the bit as he yells from his current Kickstarter project, “LET ME AT THE BASTARDS!”
It’s not just rhetoric, but a genuine plea, as his latest collection called thINK: A Book of Incendiary Cartoon Skepticism, was turned down by all his usual publishers for fear of backlash. So Fitzgerald took his passion project to Kickstarter, where it’s met its goal heading into the final funding date of February 23. AiPT! spoke with Fitzgerald through email about why the topics of science and skepticism drive him so, and how thINK might help turn the tide.
AiPT!: You’re kind of a veteran of the publishing industry, correct? This isn’t your first rodeo?
Fitzgerald: Yeah, I’ve been “pro” for decades, and have quite a few titles to my name. I’ve even got a non-Kickstarter title at the printers as we’re working on thINK … in contrast to the viciousness of my skeptic stuff, it’s a very sweet, science based kid’s book called Little Worm’s Big Question …
AiPT!: You couldn’t find a publisher for this book, though. Tell us about thINK and why that might be true.
Fitzgerald: I was gobsmacked that agents and publishers couldn’t see its market potential in the light of the size of the skeptic/atheist movement, and all those [Richard] Dawkins and [Christopher] Hitchens best sellers. (Though one did come close, saying they wanted narrative cartoons, not single gags.)
I don’t like to cry “I’M BEING CENSORED!!!” at the drop of a hat, as I associate that with paranoid conspiracy dweebs, but once we’d decided to Kickstart the project, go it alone, I found that at least some printers, including one who’d handled a previous graphic novel of mine, said no. As always, they were euphemistic about it, saying they didn’t want to offend …
The printer who eventually said yes, bless ’em, were more up front, and said they were concerned about their office getting burnt down … but decided to go for it in the end!
If I was a publisher, it’s probably the Scientology cartoon I’d be worrying about …
AiPT!: Given that you’ve done more mainstream science books, what made you want to do a book like this?
Fitzgerald: Maybe I haven’t shaken off my childhood man crush on Mr. Spock, but politically, I mean in terms of the future health of our culture and civilization, I think logic and rationality are crucial. We need to stop seeing the world how we’d like it to be, and get to grips with reality. I feel it’s a basic definition of being an adult, or if you like, an enlightened person to question your own beliefs … all of the targets in thINK represent the opposite of this … people who live in a fantasy version of reality. It’s toxic. It’s deadly. It really has got to stop. We can do better than this if we choose to have the balls to question our own core beliefs and get them to align with reality.
The anger I feel about “reality denial” is what always drives me, whether I’m talking about the environment, global poverty, or dumb conspiracy theories. People like to believe what feels nice, coz it’s what they want to believe, but in doing so they just f--k things up. Pretending climate change isn’t real because you don’t want to change how you behave… believing in an afterlife coz you don’t want to face death … being homophobic because you’re insecure about your own sexuality … and so on.
AiPT!: From some of the images on the Kickstarter, you seem to veer away from straight science and skepticism and point a lot of your “viciousness” toward religion. How related (or unrelated) do you think all those concepts are? What do you hope to accomplish by using this type of humor?
Fitzgerald: I see all these things as manifestations of the same refusal to simply face facts. I’m sometimes tempted to believe what feels cozy or reassuring or optimistic … but there’s no dignity or worth in that. The great thing about the scientific mindset or discipline is it becomes a voice on your shoulder saying “C’mon … that might not be true. Check the facts!”
[Carl] Sagan, a massive influence, said it so well … ‘I don’t want to believe… I want to KNOW.’
At the end of the day a grasp on reality leads to a far more solid, stable mindset than being a fantasist … though the journey can be painful.
I don’t object to a kind of “loose theism” like that of Thomas Paine, but in its more rigid form, religion is a destructive fantasy — both personally and socially.
AiPT!: Do you think by going after religion so strongly, you might automatically turn off some people in need of good, scientific skepticism?
Fitzgerald: Hmmm … that’s a tricky one! I actually studied both comparative religion and the history/philosophy of science at Uni, so have been thinking this one over for decades. To me, science is curiousity solidified, and any kind of metaphysical, religious or spiritual beliefs that claim to have answers about things we can’t possibly know is the death of curiousity. I guess this is the age old question re: can you be a scientist AND be religious? Statistically, scientists are atheist. I guess as a cartoonist I kind of don’t care if an honest expression of how I really feel or think puts people off … wow, tricky question. I’ll have to “thINK” about that!
EXCLUSIVE preview of of 10-page thINK story, in which lab rats become sentient and immediately undergo an existential crisis.
AiPT!: Either way, you’ve gotten support from some hefty names, right?
Fitzgerald: Yeah, we’ve been thrilled by support and publicity from The Skeptic magazine in the UK, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Tatchell, Robert Llewellyn, Ethical Consumer Magazine, Chris French, Simon Singh, Jesus & Mo, loads of skeptic groups and online forums, and The Richard Dawkins Foundation. Now I’m nervous I’ll have forgotten someone! We might not have stood a chance without them.
AiPT!: There really aren’t any bells and whistles with the Kickstarter, but there is a poster of some kind? And you’ve arranged to donate any funding beyond the initial amount?
Fitzgerald: Yeah, we really wanted to avoid begging or bribing people with absurd amounts of rewards. It’s patronizing. We think people will back it coz like us, they see it as part of a fight against irrational madness. We and it are part of the movement, rather than a commercial proposition. We think they’ll just want to see it out there. But the rewards we are offering are all things you can DO something with … the multi-use “no brain needed” stickers … the posters … we particularly like the “anti” 9/11 truther poster … it’ll drive the inside-job folk crazy. We see it as a sort of “subvert” in the Adbusters mold.
AiPT!: Any final thoughts on science, skepticism and everything? How would you like to see people use this book?
Fitzgerald: Yeah! Sagan! I’m a huge fan of his, and I keep wondering what the skeptic movement would have been like if he’d been around to influence it over the last 20 years … he had a more sympathetic and nuanced approach to dealing with our “enemies” … sometimes the pro-science and skeptic movement can be harsh and condescending to those who we disagree with … though I’m well aware of the irony of me, with all my “attack” attitude, saying that! I can’t think of anyone like him around now …
As for the book, well, we want it to become something that gets passed around, given away to mates, and most importantly left in toilet “bookshelves”… maybe underneath the “s------d” poster? It’s why we’ve tried to make sure people can order multiple copies, rather than offering over the top “bells and whistle” gifts …
And hell, once we’ve succeeded, and it’s out there and people are talking about it, we’ll go back to those same agents and publishers and see if they want to show some balls this time around ..? We might make them beg a little first, though …
With thINK completely funded, you can still get in on the Kickstarter to make sure you get your copy, or to channel your own rage into Fitzgerald’s colorful funnel.