There’s a mid-to-large sized kerfuffle brewing over Barry Blitt’s cover art for the latest New Yorker (at left). As you can see, it shows a caricature of Barack Obama exchanging a “terrorist fist jab” with his wife in the oval office. His outfit is vaguely Muslim, hers is Sandinista chic (or possibly Black Panther chic). A picture of Osama Bin Laden hangs on the wall, and the American flag burns in the fireplace. Subtle it ain’t.
But it’s hard for me to understand why people find this picture offensive. If I was a right-wing smearmonger, I suppose might be less than pleased with the cartoon’s message (basically, “You guys are dicks”). But most of the outrage seems to be coming from liberals. Do they think that the New Yorker is honestly suggesting that this is what an Obama presidency would look like? Honestly, the New Yorker? A magazine whose editorial slant is two, maybe three steps to the right of Mother Jones? A magazine, furthermore, as famous for its cartoons as for its liberal slant? Come on now. The title of the picture is “The Politics of Fear,” and while you wouldn’t know that from looking at the cover, the message is still painfully obvious. Maybe it needs a caption (sort of like the one in that one South Park episode) that says “THIS IS WHAT THE REPUBLICAN SMEAR MACHINE IS ACTUALLY TELLING PEOPLE.”*
But actually, most of the people complaining about this do seem to understand that it’s a joke. They’re just worried that Joe Six-Pack McVotesalot is going to be too dumb to understand the subtext; an attitude I find both depressing and vaguely insulting. Others have more generalized complaints: a spokesman for the Obama campaign just called the thing tasteless and unfunny. (This is probably to be expected: political campaigns aren’t really allowed to find anything funny.) Obama himself has said that the cover is obviously protected by our right to free speech, but might be offensive to Muslim Americans. There’s a kernel of truth to this. It is offensive when people accuse Obama of being a Muslim as if it was a horrible thing. It’s also offensive when people rush to defend him from the pernicious charge of Muslimhood. It’s particularly offensive when Obama’s campaign prevents two women wearing hijabs from being photographed with Obama at a ralley. (Thankfully, as the link indicates, Obama has apologized long and hard for this last.) Still, it’s hard for me to see where this picture goes over the line. Yes, it’s a fairly grim piece of satire, but it’s well within the bounds of what’s appropriate. Look, people ARE making these claims – not just that Obama is a Muslim, but that he’s a radical Muslim, that he’s soft on terror, and that his wife is a dangerous Marxist. Are we supposed to ignore that, and hope they’ll shut up before the election? Are we supposed to engage them in intelligent debate, as if they deserve to be taken seriously? Mockery is the only sensible response to this insanity; mockery is what the cover delivers.
Or am I off base? Flame me in the comments if you disagree.
Slate, by the way, has some very good tangentially related stuff. 1: Where the phrase “terrorist fist-jab” might have actually come from. 2: The body language terrorists actually use to greet eachother.
23/6 has an excellent and comprehensive guide to moral outrage over the New Yorker cover.
* Except for the flag burning.**
** As far as I know.
You know, the responses I’ve read coming out of the Obama camp seem to take for granted that nobody would possibly believe the literal truth (Obama is an Islamofascist terrorist) of the cartoon depiction.
It seems, rather, like the offense they take is at something deeper, something akin to what would be engendered if someone called Obama the n-word, for serious.
This could be a sign that O’s handlers think he’s actually vulnerable to this sort of depiction. The smears on Obama for a supposed lack of patriotism are reprehensible, but maybe some double secret internal polling shows they’re gaining some traction.
But I don’t think that’s it. If you’ve overthought about The Daily Show where Stewart said, “It’s OK to laugh at him,” I think you’ve gotten closer to the heart of the issue.
Making ANY kind of joke about Obama is seen as offensive somehow. It’s like the guy transcends funny, or is supposed to.
I agree with Wrather. It gets quiet whenever someone tries to crack one about Obama. Crickets chirp and people fidget uncomfortably. The new Jib-Jab video has already upset some of his supporters that think attacking the “change” mantra is unfair. It’s true that the cover was attacking the right, not the left; and what’s the most upsetting about the response is that both sides are going after the New Yorker for it– so a**hats like Bill-O are making themselves look like saints when they’re the very ones being made fun of by the cover in the first place.
I don’t know that “transcends” is the right word. When Jon Stewart did the segment where he said “It’s OK to laugh at him,” I wasn’t laughing, either, because I didn’t find the jokes very funny. That doesn’t mean Obama rises above humor or can’t be made fun of; it’s just that comedians haven’t yet figured out how to make fun of him properly. Well, why not? Here are some potential reasons:
1. Comedians have had it very very easy when it comes to making fun of politicians for at least the last two presidencies. Politicians were caricatures of themselves: Clinton was the fast food eating horn-dog, Gore the boring nerd, and Kerry the boring boring guy. And the last eight years have been incredibly easy for them. Most of the time Jon Stewart doesn’t even have to mock Bush; he just shows a clip of him and make a funny face and the audience will fall over laughing. Obama, on the other hand, doesn’t have any strikingly obvious character flaws–which is not to say he has no flaws at all–so these ad hominem attacks don’t work. When Jon Stewart wants to make fun of him, he can’t just do a silly “Bush giggle” or “dull Kerry drawl” or cart out another “Clinton blow job” joke. Obama jokes are just harder.
2. Comedy shows tend to be written by Jews and Jews tend to be liberal. Or, comedy shows tend to be written by liberals, some of whom happen to be Jewish. Either way, most comedy writers probably want Obama to be elected president. They remember how late night comedy shows swiftboated Kerry back in the day, and they don’t want to make that mistake again, so they’ve been shying away from Obama jokes. When they do an “Obama is stupid, too!” segment, like the Daily Show did that night, it often seems tacked on, like the writing staff said, “You know, we really should make fun of Obama because people are accusing us of being too liberal.” Then they do some half-assed mocking because they are afraid that if they mock him too hard, McCain will automatically win the election.
3. My father claims the difficulty in joking about Obama involves some kind of “reverse racism,” which I admit might be part of it. Then again, comedians seem to have no problem making fun of Jeremiah Wright or Jesse Jackson or Condi…
Now, as for the (over)reaction of the Obama campaign to jokes made about him, I agree it’s been somewhat over the top, especially when it comes to the New Yorker cartoon. But I understand where they’re coming from. Jokes about John McCain, while sometimes unfair (like those about his age), are almost always based on truth. He IS old. He IS a crazy war hawk. Etc. Jokes about Obama tend to be based on lies that polling shows Americans still believe (he’s a terrorist; he’s a secret Muslim; he hates white people; he’s having sex with Louis Farrakhan).
Although I didn’t think the Jib-Jab video was very funny, at least its writers were able to avoid the above pitfalls by making fun of his “change” rhetoric, which should be fair game. At this point, since Obama hasn’t yet shown us any blatant character flaw beyond his idealism, then I guess comedians will have to make fun of his idealism. Or his policies or rhetoric. It’s harder, but I think that’s what comedians need to focus on if they want him to bring the funny.
Actually, now that I think about it, probably the funniest Obama joke so far has been Belinkie’s “he eats Americans” video. Now THAT’S how it’s done.
Wow, that post was longer than I thought. Sorry…
One thing I have found (if my co-workers’ response to the cartoon is any indication) is that now people think he’s Muslim. Anyone else run into that? I guess this must mean they forgot about the Reverend Wright business– some good news for Obama.
Ditto the comment on Belinkie’s video.
“Obama is a cannibal” is almost the definition of Belinkiesque, in that it is metacomedy that involves blurring the line between literal and figurative.
I’d point to the “There’s a BEAR on the field.” halftime show as another paradigmatic example.
Lots of people think he’s Muslim.
There was a really disturbing report on NPR last week where they were interviewing Hispanic voters who switched from Clinton to McCain. Their reasoning?
“Well, he was raised Muslim, but he abandoned that faith, and then he stopped being a Christian when he left Jeremiah Wright’s church. He’s abandoned two different religions!”
I really, really, really wish I was making this up. The reporter even pointed out (god bless NPR) to this idiot that she was, in fact, completely and utterly wrong, and it didn’t sway her in the least.
The ignorant are always the most difficult to convince of the fallacies they believe in. Sad, but true.
…And by that, I meant they’re the hardest to get to concede when they’re wrong… Yeah, that didn’t make a lot of sense. I’m tired. “…fallacies in what they believe in,” would probably have been better.