In a display of monumental disingenuity, some members of the national news media are pretending not to recognize this image for what it is: a tongue-in-cheek depiction of certain idiotic beliefs currently bouncing around the right-wing echo chamber. Specifically: that Barack Obama is a Muslim (Mr. Obama shown sporting a dishdasha and taqiyah); that Michelle Obama is a Black radical who rails against "whitey" (Ms. Obama depicted with Afro); that the Obamas' celebratory fist-bump on June 3rd in St. Paul was a "terrorist fist-jab" (fist-bump featured at center of image / Ms. Obama wearing camouflage pants, combat boots, Kalashnikov, copious ammunition); that Obama sympathizes with al Qaeda (portrait of Osama bin Laden); and that the Obamas are unpatriotic (Stars and Stripes burning in fireplace). The blindingly obvious--and profoundly sad--message of this cartoon is as follows: some Americans are so mind-bogglingly bigoted and uninformed that they believe this idiocy.
Who knew that quatorze juillet was also We Can't Take a Joke Day in America? Reading news, blogs, and comment threads throughout the day, I have become increasingly despondent at the the vigor with which my fellow citizens insist on demonstrating their collective lack of any sense of humor. To rescue myself from this despondency, I have attempted to distill their commentary to four key objections, which I will now endeavor to answer as self-appointed defender of Mr. Blitt and the magazine.
1. How could The New Yorker make such libellous implications about the Obamas?
As stated above, where this objection comes from members of the national news media, it is surely disingenuous. I find it inconceivable that one could work for a media organization of national scope and be unaware of The New Yorker's editorial orientation. If you are a left-wing journalist, you probably read The New Yorker. If you are a right wing journalist, The New Yorker is well-known enemy territory. Is it remotely possible that this fiercely intellectual, resolutely pro-Obama publication would not only tack 180 degrees but also embrace the lunatic slurs of the Right's imbecile caucus? The image is satire, and anyone from Rush Limbaugh to Amy Goodman pretending not to understand that is insulting our intelligence.
Where this objection comes from someone else, that person is clearly unfamiliar with The New Yorker--not in itself a crime--but also rather dense: if we cannot hear the screams of "satire" as Old Glory burns in the Oval Office fireplace beneath a portrait of bin Laden, we are a nation struck deaf indeed with literality.
2. Okay, I get it, but lots of people won't, and so it will just fan the very rumors it is mocking.
I don't buy this. If there is still someone out there who a) has never heard that the Obamas are America-hating Black separatist Muslim terrorists, but b) would believe as much if he heard it--is it really very likely that the cover of The New Yorker will provide his first exposure to those ideas? I'm guessing that such fellows do not figure heavily in The New Yorker's subscriber base. Of course, the image has been disseminated widely in both mainstream media and the blogosphere, but anyone frequenting these outlets already has access to either the rumors, the truth, or both.
3. This is so racist.
No, it's not racist, and it's not even ironic-making-fun-of-racism-racism-that's-actually-still-racist. Given that Muslims can be of any race, the only racially specific elements of this image are Michelle Obama's Afro and, arguably, the fist-bump. But those elements are not included to say "ha ha, look at Black people's funny hair and greeting rituals." They're not even included to say "ha ha, look at the stereotypes White people have about Black people's hair and greeting rituals." Rather, those elements allude to specific accusations leveled at the Obamas--the Afro evoking a particular "radical Black activist" image cultivated by, e.g., Black Panther Angela Davis, and the fist-bump of course referring to the pair's much-discussed Minnesota greeting. The right's coöption of each concept is fair game for satire, and it's not clear how Blitt could have depicted them in a non-racially specific way.
4. I get it, but the fact that people are bigoted idiots is not funny; it's pathetic.
It is pathetic, and the most pathetic part of it is that we live in a society where almost no one, including Barack Obama, has the guts to stand up and say "shame on you, America, for making 'Muslim' into a slur" instead of "no, I swear to God I'm a Christian." But what makes life livable and humans interesting is our capacity to weep at the Holocaust Museum one day and scream with laughter at The Producers the next. If you don't believe that something can be both pathetic and funny, I will direct you to a syllabus beginning with Aristophanes, and continuing through Shakespeare, Chaplin, Brecht, Emmet Kelly, and The Sopranos. If you've completed my assignments and still object to this magazine cover, I will present you with the complete Family Circus and we will just have to agree to disagree about the nature of humor.