30 July 2008: Point/Counterpoint New Yorker cartoon bombs throughout the country

New Yorker cartoon bombs throughout the country

Point/Counterpoint with Adrienne Anderson, Courant Editor

Point: Jerry Fabyanic

The recent caricature of Barack and Michelle Obama on the cover of New Yorker magazine is intended, according to editor David Remnick, to be satire. If so, it bombs.

Merriam-Webster defines satire as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn” or “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly.”

The purpose of satire then is to poke fun at characters or events that need to be brought down to earth.

Satire’s roots can be traced to Roman poets and writers including Horace and Juvenal. The great satirist Jonathan Swift skewers the powerful rich in 18th-century England in his classic work “Gulliver’s Travels.”

American literary history is rich with satirists. Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” not only has done a number on the military way of doing things, but the title has become etched into our vocabulary, meaning a no-win situation.

Currently, Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central uses devastating humor to hold up for our inspection political social leaders who too often are too full of themselves.

Imagine a cartoonist depicting John and Cindy McCain riding a nuclear missile in the guise of Dr. Strangelove heading to Iran. Johnny is waving his Stetson while Cindy, scantily clad in mesh stockings and a red lady-of-the-night frilly dress, toasts the scene with a mug of Budweiser. The caption is Johnny singing, “Bomb, bomb, bomb … bomb, bomb Iran.”

Had this made the cover of any politically serious magazine, it would have been denounced across the political spectrum despite it targeting McCain’s obsession with attacking Iran, the McCains’ sultry relationship, and Mrs. McCain’s vast holdings of wealth.

The film “Dr. Strangelove” is satire, taking aim at the idiocy of the Cold War and MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction. As such, it works, particularly in hindsight as we look back to our days of duck-and-cover and wonder how we survived them.

True satire is thought-provoking in its intent, not victimizing noble individuals or institutions. Portraying Barack as an Islamist terrorist and Michelle as the 21stcentury version of Angela Davis of the 1960s Black Power movement, fist-bumping, while the flag burns, conveys erroneous and deleterious perceptions of the Obamas.
The intended targets of the cover are the perpetrators and conveyors of such falsehoods. So, it fails because it does not immediately imply the real target of the satire is not the Obamas, but their castigators.

By missing the target, the cartoon comes across as a lampoon, which is different from true satire. Lampoon pokes fun, only to poke fun, without necessarily demanding critical thinking skills on part of the viewer to ascertain the intended target.

Had the drawing been the cover of a conservative periodical such as National Review or Weekly Standard, it would have set off a firestorm in another way, to be sure, but it would have accurately been seen as a lampoon in the genre of the Onion or Mad Magazine.

In the end, the cover of the New Yorker bombs much like McCain’s rendition of the Beach Boys’ classic tune “Barbara Ann.”

Counterpoint: Adrienne Anderson

America, we are scared. Scared to death.

The recent public outrage over the New Yorker cartoon depicting the Obamas as terrorists not only demonstrates America’s inability to explore our racism, but also our inability to laugh.

In March, Barack Obama made a historic speech about race. He challenged our society’s continued denial that we still battle racism and eloquently called on Americans to move beyond race and embrace a dialogue that must be part of this process.

Political satire is part of that dialogue.

The cover by Barry Blitt, called “The Politics of Fear,” on the July 21 edition of the New Yorker, depicts Michelle and Barack Obama as the worst of racist characterizations that have followed them during the campaign: Michelle Obama as a revolutionary Black Panther, packing a semi-automatic weapon and ammo; her husband dressed like the Muslim he is ignorantly accused of being. Behind them in the Oval Office is a portrait of Osama bin Laden and a flag burning in the fireplace.

The shear outrageousness of the images demonstrates the outrageousness of the fear that many Americans have about the possibility of a black president.

In response to the criticism surrounding the cover, New Yorker editor David Remnick said: “I ran the cover because I thought it had something to say. What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama’s — both Obamas’ — past, and their politics … The fact is, it’s not a satire about Obama — it’s a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama.”
Instead of embracing a cartoon that sought to challenge readers about our ignorant assumptions, the Obama campaign called it “tasteless and offensive.” He would have been better off calling it hilarious and provocative. Not only would a positive response have squelched the ensuing media firestorm, it would also have given Obama the upper hand in a debate he has already engaged in.

Obama not only missed an opportunity to laugh and lighten up — an element his campaign is sorely lacking as we move closer to November — he also missed a chance to continue the race discussion that in one week he fights for, and the next he pretends to ignore.

Part of that discussion is recognizing that we are scared. Scared of change. Scared of the thought of a black president. Scared to talk about the fact that we are scared to have a black president. And maybe, most frightening of all, scared to laugh.

Jerry’s Response

Adrienne is correct in what she posits: At this point in time, we are still incapable of “exploring our racism” in an open and honest manner.

There is no doubt about the sincerity of the New Yorker attempting to confront us with the absurdity, mean-spiritedness, and simple-mindedness of Obama haters.

Nevertheless, the portrayal comes across as lowbrow and, consequently, is ineffective.

Vanity Fair posted an online spoof of the whole scene. Its re-creation depicts John McCain supported by a walker, fist-bumping wife Cindy beneath a portrait of George W. Bush while the Constitution burns.
In one online poll, respondents divided 50/50 about whether the caricatures of the Obamas were offensive. But a solid majority found the Vanity Fair spoof as humorous.

The reason is that the Vanity Fair cartoon is not ridiculing the McCains, but spoofing its rival. That’s the reason it is funny. Had the New Yorker somehow included in its cover a right-wing cartoonist sketching it, it would have worked.

Jon Stewart regularly satirizes Obama on the “Daily Show.” He quipped, for example, during Obama’s visit to Israel, “Obama stopped in Bethlehem to visit the place he was born.”

It is a superb line reminding us that he is a mere mortal. Stewart’s jab is on target: It’s not Obama, but the media, which often gush gooey adulation.

Race is a far trickier topic to broach in satire. Absolutely, we need to get our arms around it, as Adrienne argues. But in this case, the New Yorker, despite noble intent, has bombed.

Adrienne’s Response

A Fox news anchor in June called the victorious fist jab between the Obamas a “terrorist fist jab.” Obamafile.com is dedicated to painting Michelle Obama as an extremist. Countless sites are committed to spreading the rumor that Barack is a terrorist empathizer. This hate is real, and it is time we begin the dialogue to dismantle our deep-seated racism.

Like Jerry, one of the main disagreements commentators have with the New Yorker cartoon is that people won’t get it. Perhaps there should have been a caption to explain the cartoonist’s intent, they say. Middle America is not as smart as the elite, white New Yorker-reading audience to get the joke. Come on. This argument is not only elitist and unfounded, but it also proves our unwillingness to examine why these beliefs continue to flourish.

I think people are so outraged by the cartoon because they do not want to admit we live in a culture where racism still permeates our existence. The Obamas have been dodging these racist bullets the entire campaign, so I can empathize with their frustration at seeing these hateful images so vividly portrayed on the cover of a magazine.

But the cartoon is not the problem. Hate is the problem. And I fully support the New Yorker’s effort at calling America out for our continued denial that we are still a country of racists.

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