I first spotted the ghoulish, macabre face on the poster with the word "socialism" slapped underneath it on wall boards and on an occasional freeway onramp girder around Los Angeles last April. From time to time the poster would pop up (really more a crude handbill) on walls and even stuck to billboards. It was so ludicrous, cartoonish and amateurish that I never made the connection between the lurid face on the poster and President Obama. That is until a Fox TV News Los Angeles feature spotlighted the poster as the Heath Ledger Dark Knight Joker character now turned President Obama. This was not just another comic take off on a popular movie character, or even low brow spoofery or political punditry. This was a grotesque slap at Obama.
Politicians and public figures are not sacred cows. They are fair game for the endless cartoonish, lampooning, even ridicule that pundits take special delight in. They are routinely defrocked in print and shown in the electronic media in every kind of unflattering pose. Their foibles, follies, and slapdash antics are legitimate grist for the satirical pen and drawing pad of critics and artists. Presidents are not exempt from the same lampooning. Bush was routinely typed in every raucous and irreverent pose that a writer or cartoonist could conjure up.
This included cartoon depictions of him with horns, as a vampire, Hitler, and yes, the Vanity Fair magazine depiction of him as the Joker. The depictions often badly crossed the line between legitimate satire and criticism and grotesque character assassination. But as juvenile and offensive as they were, there were no Pravda state censors rushing to yank the cartoons or depictions from public view.
There was always a legion of conservative pundits and cartoonists who had free and unlimited access to a vast network of conservative talk radio stations, cable TV stations, websites, and print publications to rail against the Bush bash, and to counter attack with their own equally garish and outrageous slam of liberals, gays, minorities, environmentalists, and pro-choice women's groups.
That was their right too, and no one said they couldn't exercise it. But when the table is turned, and when this writer and a handful of other critics had the temerity to brand the Obama Joker poster as a demonic and mean spirited slur of President Obama, the Obama loathers went into a manic tail spin. Just as with Bush and the vampire or Hitler depiction, to call Obama a socialist because they don't like his health care reform proposals and economic policies is to sail way off the deep end.
The Web sites and chat rooms quickly filled with shrill screeches about the first Amendment, free speech, and liberal double standard hypocrisy. Those were the more charitable defenses. As silly and loose screwed as the depiction of Obama is as a socialist Joker, this writer did not scream for the posters to be summarily yanked down and tossed in a Hitlerian banned-book bonfire. Instead, the call was simply for the individual or groups slapping the posters up to publicly ID themselves and take credit for their work. Come forth and take public pride in branding the president a jokester and a socialist. Don't slink around at midnight, taking the guerilla graffiti artist's route, and smear walls with the posters when cars disappear around the bend. That's not the joker's MO. It's certainly not befitting someone who's bold enough to call the president the Joker and a socialist.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.