The progressive blogosphere is a-ragin’ today about the rumor-mongering, naive, chaos-inspiring New Yorker cover of Michelle and Barack Obama terrorist-fist-jabbing in the Oval Office as a portrait of Osama bin Laden approvingly gazes on, alit by the flames of an American flag sizzling in the fireplace.
Progressives are pissed, and to prove it, they’ve dug out their lit-crit hats to scold illustrator Barry Blitt on the inner workings of satire and why he missed the boat and fell into no-no land. (I think the man who came up with this cover
probably has a thing or two to teach us all about good satire.)
When I mentioned the hubbub to Utne’s art director, Stephanie Glaros, she told me the illustrator blogs were equally enflamed, but in Blitt’s defense. Thank goodness some folks have thick enough skins to rally to his side. Let’s just hope that some of that sensibility migrates from the art world to the political commentariat sometime soon.
First off, progressives need to stop playing thought police to protect those weak-minded ninnies from Hicksville. Here’s a prime example from Rachel Sklar at HuffingtonPost: “Who knows if the people in Dubuque will get this?” Really? Must it be assumed that everyone who doesn’t live in New York, Chicago, or [insert shiny metropolis here] is both devoid of rational thought and a sense of humor?
In a more thoughtful assessment, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the image doesn’t go far enough to separate itself from the views it intends to harangue. “My point is that that this cover actually does reflect—not exaggerate, not satirize—the views of a sizeable portion of Americans,” he writes. He points out that some 13 percent of Americans actually think Obama’s a Muslim. It’s a horrifying stat. But consider a few more: Just last summer, 41 percent of Americans still thought Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11. And while 62 percent of Americans believe in the devil, only 42 percent believe in evolution.
Here’s the thing about good humor: Not everyone’s going to get it. Comedy, satire, humor, whatever you want to call it, is absolutely essential to a vital culture of political criticism. If we muzzle our humorists—going so far as to inveigh against those who have the clear intent of lambasting ignorance—than we’re in for a very boring, very unreflective four to eight years if Obama moves into that toasty, Osama-adorned Oval Office.
UPDATE (7/15/2008): Rachel Sklar writes in to note that I missed the reference in her Dubuque line, which was readily available in the link she provided. Point taken: Looks like the gal in Minneapolis didn’t get it. But the connotation, wink or no, remains. Later in her post, Sklar writes, “Presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke” on the magazine's cover, suggesting that most other folks probably aren’t worldly enough to join in on the chuckle. Sklar isn't the poster girl for perpetrating this meme—she’s certainly not alone in it—but it’s there.