[16 July 2008]
“Sometimes, yeah it’s true; you really do abuse me. You get me in crowd of high class people, and then you act real rude to me.”
—Bill Withers, “Use Me” (1972)
It’s 3am: you’re a tired McCain strategist sitting in a conference room with a stale cup of fair trade certified dark Sumatra that you special ordered online, hidden in a plastic mug from the local convenience store lest your cohorts think you’re some kind of proto-hippie Republican wuss. You can’t go home for the night until you come up with some way to turn Michelle Obama’s image from a Princeton-educated, Vera Wang-outfitted, The View-hosting everywoman into a neck-working, too-high pump-sporting, militant around-the-way black girl…
It’s 3am: you’re an exhausted Obama speechwriter sitting in a conference room with a half-eaten order of Pad Thai, wishing like hell you had opted for a 99¢ double cheeseburger, but you couldn’t because you’re trying to impress the cute new volunteer who doesn’t eat red meat. You can’t go home for the night until you come up with a new tag line that will underscore the fact that a guy who spent five years as a POW during a needless war wants to continue another ongoing, needless war, without overlooking the fact that he’s a hero for being a POW during the first needless war…
It’s 3am: you’re a weary cartoonist for The New Yorker sitting in a conference room enjoying your Lean Cuisine frozen entrée and a Diet Coke, resisting the doughy, half-eaten pizza that your coworkers left behind at lunch. You can’t go home for the night until you figure out how to satirize the hacks in the right wing media who’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Barack Obama to make him look like he’s not one of us (but maybe you’re not crystal clear on who “us” is supposed to be). You reach for the most convenient material: a caricature of the Obamas with a turban, an AK-47, and Old Glory toasting in the fireplace. After all, only coastal, irony-relishing elites read your magazine anyway, right? It’s not like FOX News will be tempted to run a story about how The New Yorker riffed on their original “reporting” about the “terrorist fist jab.” It’s not like they have the internet in Sadr City. Screw ‘em if they can’t take a joke.
The First Amendment is a beautiful thing. From the point of view of free expression and witty repartee in a national food fight about race, you can’t really criticize the The New Yorker any more than you can criticize a Danish newspaper for printing cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.—don’t want no trouble…), or Jadakiss for asking, “Why did Bush knock down the towers?” This is America, after all. You’re encouraged to say whatever’s on your mind (unless we don’t agree with you). If anyone had to censor their material or temper their thoughts between brain and mouth in any way, the framework of society would probably crumble. It might lead to an unmarketable outbreak of civility, implementation of the fairness doctrine, or a ratings decrease for cable access TV evangelists. Ever since Gary Hart’s extra curriculum hit the front pages years ago, it’s pretty much been “game on” in coverage of Presidential races. Every candidate for national office is on notice that their life (or a misrepresentation thereof) can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion. The New Yorker can’t stay in business if it stops to worry about hurt feelings in the demographic overlap between their subscribers and Obama’s supporters, and as the magazine’s founder once said The New Yorker, “is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque”.
Current editor Dave Remnick immediately defended his decision to run the cartoon by pointing out that, “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.” You can’t really argue with that, although it does warrant mentioning that the cartoon is also likely to stoke the “dark imaginings” (hey, I get it) about the Obamas in the minds of those who like them the least.
Remnick shouldn’t have to defend his decision to run the cartoon, just so long as he realizes that while it’s not his job to keep the image of a particular candidate tidy, it’s also not the job of the readers to not get bent when they see someone that they dig getting skewered, even if it’s meant as a send-up of crazy stereotypes. After all, if readers get pissed off at The New Yorker, it probably helps their circulation, but if their droll cover art trickles down to a sensationalist right-wing website, it’s grist for the mill of those who are predisposed to thinking that Obama is the second coming of the Mau Mau rebellion. The New Yorker‘s target audience may be the Northeastern chattering classes, but to the extent it appears on end tables in dentists’ offices in all 50 states, the cartoon stokes the idea of Barack Hussein Obama as “foreign” and Michelle Obama as “angry” in the minds of people who aren’t in on the joke or don’t understand that a senior thesis is not a manifesto.
Maybe if the Obamas were A-Rod and Madonna they’d privately acknowledge that the cartoon is kind of clever and leave it at, “We’d better hire a publicist.” But they’re not trying to boost album sales or win a home run derby. They’re trying to get a black guy elected President of the United States—the political equivalent of trying to do a triple salchow in the long program with dull blades on a sprained ankle.
Obama is the GEICO caveman of American politics: the public embodiment of the collective experiences and aspirations of African Americans who are willing to give and take with predominantly white institutions that sometimes giveth and sometimes taketh away. As often as he has tried to change the topic in the campaign from himself back to the economy or the war, someone or something always seems to come along to remind him that he’s black, as if he’d really forget. And now, somehow, with a caption-less drawing on its cover, The New Yorker has stumbled onto the great paradox of the whole Obamanon. If you’re Obama, first you initially present yourself as a post-civil rights candidate, but during the primary season everyone wants to talk about what kind of black dude you are. So you give a big speech telling everyone where you stand on race relations, and then they question whether you really mean what you say. Some people think you’re too black, some not enough. In the Appalachian quadrangle most white Democrats voted against you, but they blamed you for not being one of them.
So you resolve to win hearts and minds, but the polls keep reminding you that the country might not be ready for a black President, even as your opponent hugs it out with a woefully unpopular incumbent. Then along comes The New Yorker, and you know that if you don’t respond in some fashion, your opponents will have a license to use that imagery to hang their collective hat on the idea that you’re some kind of America-hating rabble rouser (let the “swift blacking” commence). But if you do say something, then your friends in the liberal intelligentsia will ask, “Don’t you get it? We’re on your side. Or at least we were until you got so damn sensitive.” Worse yet, though, is that if you decry the tenor or the sheer over-the-top-ness of the cartoon, or try in your own professorial, Hyde Park cum holy roller style to point out how certain imagery is possibly offensive (not to you, of course, but to “some”) then you’re perilously close to being tagged as a thin-skinned, “politically correct” thought policeman who only sees the world through a prism of racial suspicion. So you convene a quick press conference, brush the dirt off your shoulder (stiffly, without too much rhythm), and keep it moving.
In 2008, nobody—even racists—wants to be called a racist. So if you’re one of the folks working to thwart Obama’s election by assailing his “values” or his “background” rather than challenging his policy positions, you’ll have to figure out how to draw as much attention as possible to the fact that he’s a black man with a black wife without sounding like you’re trying to draw attention to it. It’s not as easy as it looks. Just ask Bill Clinton.
If you’re a cartoonist, a late night talk show gag writer, or just the loud guy in the break room, be really, really careful if you’re working without a net. Otherwise we’re all in for a long four years. We know you’re chomping at the bit to do a bit about First Lady Michelle Obama sitting down for high tea with Camilla Parker-Bowles or prom night at The White House for the Obama girls if there’s a second term. Take a breath. Chris Rock can pull off a joke about Air Force One and Soul Plane, but Jimmy Kimmel? We’ll see. And the same goes for the Bernie Macs of the world. Yes, it’s an already well-established rule that a black stand-up can almost always get away with doing the rawest of comedy (one of the few perks of being black, so just let it go). But you can’t do menopause jokes at a $2300-a-plate fundraiser and not expect to hear about it.
For the rest of us, we’ll just have to get comfortable with the segment of society that believes Obama is some kind of Hip Hop Islamic Socialist drinking Bordeaux in a tweed jacket. After all, if people think that John Kerry was a draft dodger, George Bush was a war hero, and that a guy who grew up on Waikiki Beach and counts Oprah Winfrey among his personal friends is really going to turn out to be Che Guevara, oh well. And if Obama is elected in November, then spoofs, bad jokes, mean-spirited running commentaries, and political cartoons with big ears drawn in are just going to be a part of our lives for the next four years. It’s o.k. He can take it.
These United States are inching ever closer to proving that despite a history of bigotry, intolerance, and cartoonish representations of African Americans, from Birth of a Nation to Amos ‘n’ Andy to a good portion of the programming on BET, that the country is going to try a black President on for size. Therefore, if Obama is going to be a real President, and not just The Man in blackface, then he has to be poked, prodded, and parodied just like everyone else.
But maybe the biggest lesson is the one for The New Yorker itself: that Americans are who we thought they were; we are in Kansas—still. One of the magazine’s famous covers shows Manhattan in half the picture, with the rest of the country taking up a quarter of the picture, and the rest of the world off in the distance. And that might sum up the editorial decision to run the cartoon. Funny?—check. Topical?—no question. Provocative?—just you wait. But at the end of the day, The New Yorker may have outsmarted itself. Its core readership is left of center and they care about the things that Obama cares about. But the cartoon may have the effect of encouraging Obama’s opponents to step up their mythmaking because they’ve been provided with “cover” by a respected liberal magazine.
And there’s the rub: for so long, progressives have been hamstrung by their own failure to understand that in politics, just because you win the argument, it doesn’t mean you win the argument. So, if they were going for a good Upper West Side chuckle then it is, as they say, “Mission Accomplished”. But if they’re also trying to influence the winds of change in society, they might have only succeeded in fanning the flames of a smoldering issue. With a war on, $5-a-gallon gas looming on the horizon, and an African American looking to be the next global pitch man for Brand America, to a lot of people, humor just isn’t as funny as it used to be.