Monday, July 14, 2008

The Politics of Fear -or- America Celebrates We Can't Take a Joke Day, courtesy of The New Yorker

In case you've spent the last 24 hours under a rock, below you will find "The Politics of Fear," the upcoming New Yorker cover by Barry Blitt.

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 coƶption 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.


  1. It is not responsible

    Looking at it as if it were intended to be a satire I first identified with it as a critisism of their lack of connectedness to their "responsibilities" to the black community, but upon reflection it is more phycological than figurative: the couple are celebrating because of the transperancy and therefore victory over their misrepresentations (kinda Du Bois-esk) the comradere presents a felling of likemindedness which furthers the us verses them mentalitiy that develops from the link of their arrogance (the big heads:ego and small bodies: powerlessness) to the hate crimes indicated in the backdrop.

    And, there is something wrong that the New Yorker should welcome itself to sybolisms of discrimination as if it had the personal responsibility of a cornel west.

    Here is something I wrote in early 2007 why not use this context to shake the foundations of auto-suggestion? (this was obviously a rough draft of a rather lacking finished product)

    The institution of Journalistic responsibility is malnourished. There are varying procurements of necessary explanation that allow for a “fair and balanced” environment in which conscientious choice is achieved or at least possible. In these varying degrees are invocations of presumptions precepts, assumed ideology, cited allegiances, mob logic, and “rob John to pay Paul” policies. The conditions that allow for this lack of accountability create room for caricatures which suppress or overlook the meaning of an occurrence which may have latent pertinence. The president’s leadership has been the focus many evening news parables; each of these stories suggesting there is enough support to justify our heading as a nation. Suppose, now, that there is a problem with where our chosen representatives are taking us; that it is necessary to expose the toil that threatens our future securities. As a citizen of the United States of America isn’t it my duty to regulate, uphold and question the institutions of my government, and being so burdened with the questionable ends of my government should I not adopt the vigilance of my fore-fathers? How important is it that I account for discrepancies such as, putting the responsibility of representing a county of 300 million poised men and women on the shoulders of an office so exclusive as to permit hereditary succession. These questions and others like them must be in place to address biases that impede clarity and decision making. In a time where the distribution of information, control and access has such far reaching implications it would be empowering to create context for accountability

    honestly, I rationalize myself just like anybody else who feels they have something worth saying. Thank you for creating a context for rational thought.

  2. Certainly most New Yorker readers will understand the satiric intent of the cover. However, the image of the cover will be much more widely distributed than than just to New Yorker readers. And even for those who "get" the cover, their impression and recall of it will not necessarily remain married to that original intent. Cognitive scientists have noticed that people often remember "facts" and "impressions" but do not remember the context. (See So even though at one time we knew that a "fact" was gleaned from a dubious source, when later dredging up that "fact" we forget where we heard it. A cover like this gives a powerful impression that operates at many levels not just the rational and that impression will persist long after the satiric intent is forgotten.
    The New Yorker has every right to print such a cover, but I don't think it is too much to ask that they look beyond the point they are making to the more lasting effects when deciding whether to run it. I've heard David Remnick speak: he's a subtle thinker and so I think is appropriately held to such a standard.

  3. The best way to show the absurdity of something is to present it in the most ridiculous manner possible. This cartoon does that, making the slurs against Obama look so outlandish that only a moron would consider them to have substance. Most intelligent people will get the satire. It is not going to convince anyone who is unaware of the claims that they are true. However, people who believe the claims will say the Obama's reaction shows there is weight in the claims, as did a commenter on my own post on the topic.
    What is with these people?! Do they not see the cartoon is poking fun at them, not the Obamas?

  4. The New Yorker is simply fueling the republican propaganda machine by printing this image on the cover. It doesn't matter that it is satire. It's motivation for those we despise to continue spreading slander. I'm just wondering if the editors fully realized the consequences of running this cover.

  5. I almost guarantee that anyone under the age of 25 got it.

  6. Aside from who "got it" and who didn't: Why does an African-American woman with natural hair=crazy radical?
    Yes, I know it's an Angela Davis reference. Not even every New Yorker reader will. And even knowing it, it squicks me out to think that way.
    Why does that work, even as satire?


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