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Uncovered: the elite’s view of white America

Many writers fear that the masses are too dumb to ‘get’ the New Yorker’s satirical front page picture. Trouble is, Obama agrees with them.

Kirk Leech

Topics USA

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The cartoon cover of this week’s New Yorker has certainly provoked a response. Unfortunately, few have been able to see the funny side.


The front cover of the New Yorker

Entitled ‘the Politics of Fear’, the cartoon is an attempt to satirise many of the crazier right-wing rumours and conspiracy theories currently doing the rounds about the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama. The scene is the Oval Office a few months hence; an American flag burns in the fireplace and a portrait of Osama Bin Laden hangs on the wall. In the foreground, Obama, dressed in a turban, a khaki thobe and a pair of sandals, is giving what right-wing commentators describe as a ‘terrorist fist-bump’ to his ‘afroed’, machine-gun-toting wife Michelle. Where Obama evokes contemporary fears, she is drawn as Angela Davis, the 1960s Black Panther leader.

While the cartoon might mock the right-wing wet dream, the backlash has originated elsewhere – amongst New Yorker readers, Obama supporters and the Obama campaign itself. Unsurprisingly, calls to boycott the New Yorker have been growing daily.

New Yorker editor, David Remnick, denies the cartoon was an attempt ‘just to get attention’. It was ‘not a satire about Obama’, he protested, ‘it’s a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama’ (1). Anyone who reads the New Yorker will know that its front covers are often obscure and at times cryptic. But it wasn’t obscurity that was the problem this time, but offensiveness. But to whom was the cartoon offensive?

Strangely, many of the cartoon’s critics claim to know that it’s ironic rather than a ‘smear’. It’s just that while ‘people like them’ are sophisticated enough to understand it, other Americans aren’t quite so fortunate. This patronising attitude to others, especially those living south of the Mason-Dixon line, reflects a deep-seated prejudice held not only by many Obama supporters, but also by the presidential nominee himself.

In this sense, Obama’s comments in April about small-town America – ‘they cling to guns and religion’ – mirror the real political divide in America today. Those who favour ‘God and guns’, in other words the white working class, are those Obama and his supporters believe most likely to be duped by the New Yorker magazine satire. Such elitist condescension is at the root of the Obama fan club’s concerns over the cartoon.

Hence, Eve Fairbanks, writing in the New Republic, suggests that a ‘reader would have to have a fairly sophisticated understanding’ of the magazine’s ethos to understand the ‘intended ironic distance’ (2). Rachel Sklar at the Huffington Post believes that the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke, but ‘[w]ho knows if they’ll get this in Dubuque, [and] they sure aren’t going to like it in Chicago’ (3). Elsewhere, Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton was content to see it as ‘tasteless and offensive’ and Jake Tapper, another high-profile Obama supporter, called it ‘as offensive a caricature as any magazine could publish’ (4).

The response on this side of the Atlantic has been no less condescending to the American electorate. The Times cartoonist, Peter Brookes, clearly ignorant of The Simpsons, believes that ‘Americans just don’t get irony and it’s probably wasted on them’ (5). Roy Greenslade in the Guardian opines that ‘satire, as so often, can be read two ways’ (6). BBC reporter Jonathan Beale questioned ‘whether everyone will get the joke, and that it may perpetuate the myth that Obama is a Muslim’ (7).

Admittedly, the cartoon doesn’t really work. Satire holds best when reality is pushed to an absurd level. Anyone wanting to see this in action should watch the repeats of Chris Morris’ Brass Eye currently running on More4 in the UK. Morris takes on all manner of subjects from the point of view of a contemporary current affairs show. Pushing the sensationalist element of such shows to the extreme, he ridicules the self-promoting hyperbole of the medium, indeed, the media, from paedophile panics to drugs hysteria. Some 11 years since Brass Eye was first shown, it remains vital.

The Obama cartoon, on the other hand, fails because it has no foothold in reality: we know that Obama has no plans for a worldwide caliphate and his wife is no gun toting radical.

In this sense, what is more interesting than the cartoon, or even the response to it, is the companion article in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza. Outlining Obama’s early political career and meteoric rise, Lizza presents Obama as very much a pragmatic and calculating politician, and certainly not the wind of change many are hoping for: ‘[P]erhaps the greatest misconception about Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them… he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game.’ (8)

And this Tuesday, right on pragmatic cue, Obama promised to send another 10,000 American soldiers to Afghanistan, increasing their number by a third. It’s time that Obama’s cheerleaders began to see the irony in their belief that he is something to get all hot and bothered about.

Kirk Leech is project manager for the Research Defence Society (RDS) and is currently undertaking postgraduate research at King’s College London.

(1) David Remnick On That New Yorker Cover: It’s Satire, Meant To Target “Distortions And Misconceptions And Prejudices” About Obama, Huffington Post, 13 July 2008

(2) What were they thinking?, New Republic, 13 July 2008

(3) Yikes! Controversial New Yorker Cover Shows Muslim, Flag-Burning, Osama-Loving, Fist-Bumping Obama, Huffington Post, 13 July 2008

(4) Obama Camp Hammers New ‘Ironic’ New Yorker Cover Depicting Conspiracists’ Nightmare of Real Obamas, Political Punch, 13 July 2008

(5) The Times take on The New Yorker cover, The Times, 14 July 2008

(6) Storm over ‘tasteless’ Obama mag cover, Guardian, 14 July 2008

(7) Anger over Obama cartoon, BBC News, 15 July 2008

(8) Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama, New Yorker, 21 july 2008

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Topics USA

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