David Remnick, the New Yorker magazine editor, explained the purpose of the July 21st issue's cover art, which depicts Barack Obama in Muslim garb and Michelle Obama as a black militant: "The intent of the cover is to satirize the vicious and racist attacks and rumors and misconceptions about the Obamas that have been floating around in the blogosphere and are reflected in public opinion polls."
I like to think that I have some understanding of political satire. And I do not believe in censorship, especially the internalized variety or censorship targeting artistic expression. I'm not a killjoy. I appreciate Remnick's intent to dispel the myths about the Obamas that right-wing web sites and talk radio have perpetrated. I am relaxed. I'm not calling for a course of action or proposing a "solution."
But I still don't like the potential political effects of the illustration. Remnick told Charlie Rose last night that he believes "context" is key. But the cover can be easily taken out of context. And it will be. Remnick acknowledges that some public opinion polls already show these myths have seeped into part of the electorate. They will continue to do so.
We have only two choices this fall, Barack Obama or John McCain. The New Yorker cover art depicts Obama in a way that McCain simply never could be. Obama is "the Other." Something "foreign" and "un-American." Michelle Obama appears with an Afro and an automatic weapon strapped on her side. She's "scary." No cookie recipes will come from her, (even plagiarized ones). A portrait of Osama Bin Laden hangs over a fireplace where an American flag burns. Pretty powerful stuff.
John McCain is a gray haired wealthy white man. When he stands up there in front of all those American flags at his town hall meetings he looks a little old but no one can deny that he looks "presidential." McCain's face could be pasted on a dollar bill and he would be immediately recognized as "a president" -- just like all the rest. Obama requires some imagination to see him in that light because this country has never before had an African-American president. Yes, racism is absurd and "vicious," as Remnick points out, but it is also as American as cherry pie. There's no question that McCain looks like "an American." He's the older white man Americans are semiotically trained to see as a president. Obama is just as "American" as McCain, but the Republicans are going to do everything in their power to convince voters otherwise.
How could the New Yorker satirize John and Cindy McCain in a way that turns them into "the Other." They're wealthy white people. I don't think it can be done. Just turn on the television: wealthy white people everywhere.
Right-wing radio shock jocks are already calling Obama a "radical leftist." The Internet is abuzz with the scurrilous misinformation about the Obamas, the myths the New Yorker wished to dispel. In the time period between the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, the September 11th commemorations, and the election in November, there's sure to be a cascading torrent of propaganda, a stream of well-coordinated smears against Obama aimed at eating up news cycles and making as many Americans as possible -- call them "low information voters" -- to see him as something other than "American."
It's just a cartoon.
But it will be taken out of context, denuded of its left-liberal satirical connotations, appropriated by the Right, and found to be "humorous" for all the wrong reasons. I'm sure Rush Limbaugh will have hours of hilarity from it. It might be placed on the windshields of cars parked outside the megachurches in swing states where the faithful gather on the Sunday before the election. Or perhaps it could be sent in direct mailings to micro-targeted groups of voters susceptible to racist slurs. White supremacist organizations connected to the Republican Party, like the Council of Conservative Citizens, could make good use of it, and expand on its themes with their own additions. And if anyone complains about its racist content the 527s distributing it can say: "Hey, this thing didn't come from us, it came from liberal elitists in Manhattan."