Let's be serious for a moment, here: the idea that Barack and Michelle Obama are urban terrorists -- working in cahoots with underground communist rebels, and Osama Bin Laden, to destroy America -- is so ridiculous that nobody with any sense of decency believes it. But if that's the case, why has that idea come to dominate the 2008 presidential election? And what have we done to stop it?
Sure, the cover on this week's issue of The New Yorker will elicit outrage. It should. The image is so egregiously offensive that nobody with a conscience could look at it without reacting. But that exact same 'cartoon' has adorned 'the cover' of the 2008 Presidential election for over a year and none of the outrage that's been leveled against it has had any effect whatsoever. Yet again, America -- in yet another election on which the future of the world hangs in the balance -- a small number of vested interests on the right have shown that they can swamp our political process with cheap, sensationalist trash. And yet again the rest of America has yet to be able to do anything to stop them.
Certainly, the controversial cover of this week's New Yorker magazine raises questions about taste, race, and editorial responsibility. No doubt about that. The fact that there was nobody high up enough in the New Yorker's editorial chain of command to raise a concern about the cover speaks volume to the racial sensitivity problem that seems to be present at that magazine.
But beyond questions of taste, the political question the cartoon raises is much larger than race and racism. The question is not whether a leftist literary magazine has handed right wing pundits a golden opportunity to smear Obama. Perhaps it will, perhaps it will not. FOX News has been running its smears of the Obamas without pause for a year. They certainly do not need a cover of the New Yorker to give them reason to run racist lies about a presidential candidate. Right-wing pundits were going to call the Obamas terrorists no matter what. Even if the New Yorker ran a cover depicting Barack Obama as Ronald Reagan, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilley, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and the rest of the gang would still call Obama a terrorist.
The political question is about the deep crisis this country is in and our inability as a nation to come together and stop it. Certainly, there have been few Presidential candidates in American history who have done more to address this issue than Barack Obama. The entire Obama campaign has been framed by the idea that America can only realize its future if each one of us has the courage to lift our political debate out of the sewer into which it has been dumped over the past 8 years. Amen to that.
But we would all be fooling ourselves if we said that the Obama campaign has worked so far. Many Obama's supporters (including this writer) hold as principle the maxim that solving America's monumental problems can only happen if each of us has the courage to transform our destructive political debate into a productive civic exchange. It is a powerful principle whose spark emanates from the very framers of this Republic. And yet, the more that principle of civic renewal is emphasized by the Obama campaign, the larger the effort to undermine it seems to grow.
Sadly, a campaign that should be dominated by a message of civic renewal has been wrapped in a racist cartoon about the candidate and the candidate's wife. The result is yet another national election tainted by the stink of cynicism.
What will it take to get rid of these few individuals, these few corporations, and these few powerful interests who treat each election like a pristine carpet to fouled for silver and sport?
What will it take to restore to the center of an American presidential election a real conversation about the problems we face and the solutions we will craft for solving them?
What will it take for Americans everywhere to fully and finally reject the pessimism that keeps us trapped in mistrust, crippled by fear, and bankrupted by self-indulgence?
What will it take? I know for sure that a cartoon summarizing the grotesque smears undermining the 2008 election are not the answer -- but neither is the outrage against that cartoon, however warranted that outrage may be.
I am not suggesting that the Obama campaign's reaction to the cartoon on the cover of the New Yorker is inadequate. Rather, I am suggesting that what America needs is a moment where we all come together in a giant, public display that we are tired of the rot that has crept into the rafters of this election -- of our election.
For goodness sakes, we are sick and tired of it.
In the face of these crude stereotypes: no more!
In the face of accusations that a candidate and his wife are terrorists: no more!
In the face of the vested interests who seek to ruin this election: no more!
Americans everywhere, of every political worldview, and of every racial, religious, regional, and economic makeup all have one thing in common: we want our civic culture restored!
Enough stalling. We want to solve problems -- big problems, solve them now, and solve them better than everyone else.
For every politician, every media magnate, every political mudslinger with contempt for the will and ability of the American people to accomplish that goal, we say: run and hide. Your time is over. This is our time.
Towards that end, I have a modest proposal and I believe the New Yorker could play a key role in making it happen.
Rather than end this discussion with a cartoon and its aftermath, the New Yorker could and should translate some of the publicity it has generated to host a large public gathering for Americans seeking to express outrage at an election hijacked by cynicism.
Certainly, the Obama campaign rallies have been huge events, but imagine the impact of a huge candle light vigil hosted attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans -- Republicans, Democrats, and everyone in between -- for the sole purpose saying "Enough! We want this election to be about real problems, not about smear!"
What if the New Yorker hosted that event and enough people turned out to fill Columbus Circle? Union Square? Yankee Stadium? The Great Lawn in Central Park?
What if the New Yorker hosted the event in every city across America? In every town that wanted to participate? At every high school?
What if, after the New Yorker event in which millions of Americans stood in public holding candles, and shouting "Enough! We want this election be about real problems, not about smear!"-- imagine if everyone went home and lit a candle in their window so that everyone who walked by on the street would see it and share in it?
A few million candles would be a small price to pay for an opportunity for so many Americans to stand together, and by doing so to reclaim this election.
On the other hand, the New Yorker could stop with its cartoon and we could all stop with it. We could accept that yet another election has been suffocated by smears and squashed by those few interests in America who benefit when our civic debate fails.
But what a shame that would be.