At right is the cover of The New Yorker‘s July 21 edition. It depicts, as Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar summarized, Barack and Michelle Obama enacting “every smeary right-wing stereotype imaginable: …[Barack] Obama in a turban and robes fist-bumping his be-afro’d wife, dressed in the military fatigues of a revolutionary and packing a machine gun and some serious ammo. Oh yes, this quaint little scene takes place in the Oval Office, under a picture of Osama bin Laden above a roaring fireplace, in which burns an American flag.” The image has caused considerable uproar in the States—to take one example of many, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer today suggested that it was something a neo-Nazi or Ku Klux Klan publication would create—and Obama’s campaign immediately called it “tasteless and offensive.”
If the people who hate the cartoon hate it because it’s “tasteless and offensive,” though, then it has done its job. Barry Blitt—the artist behind it, a former cartoonist for Toronto Life, former enemy of Conrad Black, and former Ontario College of Art student—told the Huffington Post that “…the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is.”
The New Yorker cover is, then, a pitch-perfect case of satire. As M.H. Abram’s Glossary of Literary Terms puts it, satire is “diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation.” The satirized subject in the cartoon is not the Obamas, just as it wasn’t Irish babies in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (or soldiers in this Torontoist article); it is, instead, the same group that Obama’s campaign recently launched Fight the Smears to respond to. Fight the Smears and the New Yorker cover share the same aim: to show that the no-longer-whispered claims against Barack and Michelle Obama—he is a secret Muslim; he hates the flag; she hates “whitey”—are ridiculous.
For those who “get” the cartoon but still don’t like it, the oft-cited reason for deeming its publication irresponsible is the ‘what if they don’t get it?’ argument, which says that other, dumber people will get confused and frightened by the cover, and that that’s a good reason to hold back on its publication. Gawker expertly summarized: “This obvious and heavy-handed satire has enraged Democrats and liberal media critics because now they are pretty sure this nation of child-like imbeciles will believe it to be an un-retouched photograph from the FUTURE.” Even if the argument wasn’t asinine (and, well, pretty elitist), it’d still be moot—fear of public stupidity or ignorance is never a good reason to muzzle satire. If you think that people are dumb now, just wait’ll you’re not allowed to challenge them.
Blitt has now, sadly, been cast in the eyes of many as no different from the people whom his cover was so obviously taking aim at. (To borrow everyone’s favourite phrase from the Reverend Wright era of the Obama campaign, he’s been thrown under the bus.) And sure, there’s probably more important news out there—Obama writing an Op-Ed in the New York Times about Iraq earlier today, and The New Yorker publishing an extensive article about his past not too many pages after the cover—but until Jesse Jackson threatens to cut off Obama’s nuts again, this is distraction enough. And just wait’ll they find out that Blitt is a secret Canadian.