Can’t Take A Joke?

Barry Blitt New Yorker cover of the fist-bumping Obamas.

By now, you’ve undoubtedly seen the New Yorker cover that had everyone emoting. Entitled “The Politics of Fear,” drawn by cartoonist Barry Blitt, it features Barack Obama as a Muslim radical and Michelle Obama as Angela Davis, fist-bumping in the Oval Office, with the U.S. flag ablaze in the fireplace, while a portrait of Osama bin Laden stares down from the mantlepiece.

I loved it. I’ve been appalled by the Internet-powered whispering campaign that has convinced 1 in 10 Americans that Obama is a Muslim. It’s a devil’s twofer: it panders to bigotry against Muslims when we all need to clear our minds of it, and it confuses voters at a time we all need facts. Reasonable minds can differ on many things, and there are lots of good reasons to vote either for against Obama. But people shouldn’t be voting against him because he’s falsely associated with a stereotype that is itself largely false. (Yes, of course there are murderous Muslim radicals who hate us, but they are not in the Islamic mainstream.) It was nice to see somebody going after the smears, if only satirically.

But even if I had hated the cartoon, I would have been taken aback by the rancor the cover inspired in certain quarters, one of those quarters being the top of the political pyramid. John McCain called it “tasteless and offensive” – doubtless in part to put some at least ostensible distance between his campaign and the dirty tricksters who have spread the rumors lampooned by the cover. Obama retaliated – there is no other word for it – by banning the New Yorker correspondent from his Mideastern and European junket plane. (Apparently all the hopefulness in the world doesn’t stop Obama from acting like Rudy Giuliani where the press is concerned.) Interestingly, though, once you get past the top, the hysteria cools rapidly. Pretty much the entire blogosphere and commentariat, left and right, gets the joke.

Instead, the reactions there have mostly proven thoughtful. I was particularly struck by Sophia Nelson’s melancholy op-ed in the Washington Post, reflecting on her conversations with sisters in her African American professional sorority. They have focused on the Michelle figure in the cartoon. It reflects for them the limited public images available to the public mind for depicting black women, the angry radical stereotype used here being one of the few available in our vocabulary. The sorority sisters are looking to Michelle Obama to help broaden that vocabulary. And here Obama is being thrust back from the reality, something like Claire Huxtable, into the Angela Davis role. But Nelson is not blaming Blitt. Blitt is depicting the calumnies, not creating them.

Continuing to drill down, though, to the man and woman in the street, I have again encountered considerable outrage. You can read it in the reader response sections of the blogs and I have encountered it in conversations. People are upset by the supposed disrespect to the Obamas, the supposed affront to Muslims, even by the supposed insult to the flag. Read in its obvious context, the cover belies each and every one of these criticisms. It does not diss the Obamas, Muslims, or the flag. To the contrary, at least by negative implication, it affirms them all. The insult is entirely directed at the smear-masters (this election’s Swift Boaters), and to those credulous souls whose rejection of progressive politics, fear of racial and religious diversity, and/or general cluelessness has led them to embrace the smears and close their eyes to the truth. What Blitt and the New Yorker may not have anticipated was that so many people in the New Yorker’s own audience lacked the cultural literacy to decode the fairly obvious signs as to what the cover meant. It turns out that cluelessness is not the exclusive property of listeners to right-wing talk radio after all.

This is not quite the “niggardly” brouhaha, but it’s close. That 1999 dispute, you may recall, involved David Howard, an aide to then-D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who used the word in public remarks about the city budget. Despite the fact that the word has no denotative or etymological relationship to the N-word, Howard lost his job because it was widely believed he had employed a racial epithet. (It should be noted in fairness that he was later hired for another position in the city administration.) Causing both teapot tempests was the fact that some people were slow to master cultural vocabulary but quick to outrage.

The consequences of this kerfuffle should not be exaggerated. The New Yorker, reportedly, is crying all the way to the bank on the strength of increased sales for the issue. (And at some point Obama will have to let Ryan Lizza, the magazine’s correspondent, back on the plane.) No lasting damage is likely to be sustained by the Obama campaign, either.

But we really do need to do something about cultural literacy. It was correctly observed by one commentator that the cover would have meant something entirely different if it had appeared in the conservative National Review. Quite true. One bit of context changes things. But it is not a little bit, it’s a huge one. If one doesn’t know what the New Yorker logo on the cover portends about the political slant of everything in the magazine, including the cover, something is wrong. Between our high school civics classes, our college introductory literature courses, and our late-night comedians, the usual sources of our cultural education (and I’m only kidding a little), someone should be doing a better job.

And of course it bears reiterating that in a democracy, people should be free to tell jokes. Hilarious jokes. Stupid jokes. Offensive jokes. Gross jokes. Bathroom humor. Ribald jokes. Sick jokes. Jokes that upset members of minorities. Sacrilegious jokes. And especially political jokes. They are all a vital a part of our precious national discourse. Like war, in fact, they are politics by other means.

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