Controversy is erupting over the cover of this week’s New Yorker magazine which is a cartoon depicting Barack Obama in Muslim garb while fist-bumping Michelle Obama wearing camouflage and weaponry. Oh, and the American flag is burning in the fireplace behind them. (Click on any link in this blog to see the picture in question and read commentary about it.)
The cartoon, he explains, makes fun of all of the ugly rumors about the Obamas that ooze through the slime of dirty politics and racial hatred just under the surface of public discourse.
The cartoonist Barry Blitt has also defended the cartoon as satire intended to expose the mean underbelly of right-wing politics.
Satire lives robustly on Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show and many other television shows. It’s not inconceivable that the SNL cast could produce a hilarious skit depicting exactly the kinds of nasty stereotypes that the New Yorker cover illustrates (and I bet they will after this episode!).
But does the cover of a well-respected national magazine have a different impact from a late-night television show? And, do the editors of the magazine have a different responsibility to the public and politicians than the producers of broadcast comedy?
For good satire to work well, viewers have to know something of the context, and they also have to know the truth. Is it possible that some people will see the New Yorker cover and believe that it depicts the truth? Such seems to be the fear of some commentators, that the general public is not smart enough to know a satirical sketch when they see it. Other commentators believe that the insinuations about Senator Obama’s patriotism, links to Islam, and other attacks on his character and credibility are much too offensive to treat in a humorous way, even when the humor is intended to expose the sickness itself.
I think the cartoon is shocking and inflammatory. Should the New Yorker have repressed it? No. Sometimes we need the shocking and inflammatory conduct of the media to force us to confront the issues we prefer to avoid. In the toxic gutters that run alongside mainstream political life in this country, the commentary about Senator Obama and his wife is positively repulsive. Good to throw some sunshine on this sickness in our culture.
The satire is exposing the sickness.
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