cross-posted to baratunde.com
My people, it has been a while. Apparently a brotha cannot take a vacation without major ish going down! Jesse Jackson is crazy. Tony Snow is dead. Phil Gramm let slip McCain’s true economic idiocy. And the New Yorker has generated more comments here than any other post.
The first media request I got upon my return was to join fellow (black) comic Jordan Carlos (known for playing the role of Colbert’s black friend and writing this Washington Post op ed about the lack of black comedy writers) on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show yesterday.
I had been so cut off from media and cell phones that I missed the initial heat and played catch up late into the night reading over 300 comments here and articles elsewhere across the web.
I have mixed feelings on the cover, but I basically come down in defense of it. You should listen to the entire show to hear the range of opinion, including my full explanation of my own, but here are the highlights.
I don’t believe the cartoonist or editors of the New Yorker are out to get the Obamas. Their intention, to satirize the conspiracy theories about the Obamas by combining all in one, seems clear to me even though it is not clear to all. We should, however, distinguish between what PowerLine might mean by the same image vs. The New Yorker.
Satire does not have to be funny to be effective. Many criticisms I’ve read say “That didn’t make me laugh.” If you’re looking for a “joke,” this certainly isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a provocative piece of art that shines a light on something previously below the surface, this is that.
Satire is hard and could always be clearer after the fact. Universal acceptance of any piece of art (and I’m sticking to “art” rather than “comedy” or “humor” intentionally) means the piece probably isn’t saying much. I’m generally defensive of the artist, being one myself and having had my own satire royally misinterpreted. Years ago, I posted what I thought was an objectively funny piece about the Rapture over on dKos under the title “A Final Solution For The Religious Right.” (the point was all the crazy right wing evangelicals getting beamed up by Jesus was a good thing cause they would leave us alone). Most people didn’t get it and focused on the “final solution” in the headline and ripped me for making a joke “about the Holocaust.” I later updated the headline to “A Final Solution For the Religious Right, But Not In A Holocaust-y Way.” Similarly, the idea that this magazine cover could/should have been framed in a Karl Rovian thought bubble might have made it clearer to some, but the essential nature of the piece would be the same.
I don’t think this cover gives any addional “permission” to the Right. Much of the criticism focused on the hypothetical abuse of the image by the right wing. Given the poisoned environment around race and Obama’s politics specifically, I understand this concern, but I would just say that I don’t think Fox News needs any help from the New Yorker in the offensiveness department. We’ve talked about this before in terms of political positioning. The Right is going to attack Obama on patriotism regardless of how he votes or speaks or acts, so he might as well do the principled thing. So goes the argument. A similar logic applies here. Those who already believe every one of those images will see what they already believe. This cover doesn’t turn new people against Obama, and the editors
There is a challenge of knowing who the audience is. So much of the criticism I’ve read says “Well I get it, but they won’t.” I made this point in the show after Jordan said the New Yorker needs to “know its audience.” That’s a nice idea whose time has past. In the age of the Internet and low-analysis cable news, every public expression can reach every person nearly instantly. There is no “audience” because the audience is everyone. Dave Chappelle found this out when he saw some white people laughing at black people through his show rather than at the absurd jokes he was making. He decided to end the show because his real audience was getting things not meant for his intended audience. Obama and Bill Clinton found this out when Mayhill Fowler aired their semi-private statements for all the world to see. This is a tough reality for anyone expressing an idea in public, whether a magazine, comedian or politician.
I understand and think the criticism is valid, however. I’m not saying that people upset by the cover are wrong or “don’t get it.” I’ve learned from my own past experience and from this campaign just how deeply frustration over an image or statement can run. Beyond the Obamas, there are those who abuse the idea of art/comedy/free speech as a cover for their own racism and hate. The white comic who uses the N word because he just wants to but excuses it as an act of artistic defiance is not the same as the artist trying to make a poignant social point. Michael Richards is not Bill Hicks.
Many of us are worn down by the ignorance spewed on a regular basis about the Obamas. We’ve seen official debates in which his love for America is questioned. We’ve seen a simple cultural expression (the pound) foolishly referred to as terrorism. We’ve seen the contradictory fears of his Muslimness promoted at the same time as his membership in a crazy America-hating Christian church. We’ve seen Michelle Obama villified for things she never even said about “whitey.” We will see more. When Malia and Sasha get cornrows, this country will lose its ever-lovin mind and ask, “Are the Obama children gang bangers??”
In this environment, any expression that seems to add to the incessantly rising tide of stupidity and distraction will be greated with skepticism and frustration and anger. I get that, and so I don’t flippantly dismiss those of you/us who are enraged. But I hope we can also see the value and acknowledge the intention behind this work and not just focus on the hypothetical interpretation and abuse by “others.” I hope we can distinguish between friends and true enemies. I hope we can see the good that may yet come of this incident.
The controversy and conversation is a very good thing for the real problem: the hard-to-combat whisper campaign around the Obama’s patriotism. It’s hard to fight rumors. Directly denying them often validates the position of those who believe in them. John Kerry will never be a war hero again to many folks. He’ll be an elite, out of touch, self-aggrandizing windsurfer for the rest of his days. If the world of artists can overexpose these rumors, by the time we get to November, it really will be played out and hack. The fact that the “terrorist fist jab” is ridiculed in almost every pop-cultural outlet is a good thing.
It won’t change the mind of those who actually believe Obama is a terrorist, but nothing will ever satisfy that minority. They are lost to reason and should not be used as a basis for judgment. So what if Fox uses this magazine cover!. They are beyond redemption and don’t really need to. They could just darken Obama’s skin, broaden his nose and thicken his lips as their own track record shows them capable of such acts. The person sitting on the fence, however, will see that such beliefs are being ridiculed en masse by the popular culture and may dismiss them as they should. The fact that many in the country have been talking about this cover is ultimately a good thing (even if you think the cover itself was bad) because it brings into the light the shady theories and lets us show them for the foolishness they are.
Cheryl Contee aka "Jill Tubman", Baratunde Thurston aka "Jack Turner", rikyrah, Leutisha Stills aka "The Christian Progressive Liberal", B-Serious, Casey Gane-McCalla, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley aka "Marcus Toussaint," Fredric Mitchell
Special Contributors: James Rucker, Rinku Sen, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Adam Luna, Kamala Harris
Technical Contributor: Brandon Sheats