Hits And Misses

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Hits And Misses

I’m sure you’ve all seen the image and maybe even found it on the newsstands, but this cover illustration has caused a major sensation in the media and blogosphere. I admit when Kelly first forwarded the link to me, I IM’d her to say, “Since when has the New Yorker become a conservative rag?” I clearly didn’t get the irony.

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Nor did anyone else. Aside from a handful of intellectuals, and psydo-intellectuals, the rest of the news commentators, bloggers and average citizens all seem to agree that it was in poor taste. That the New Yorker was promoting blatant racial and cultural stereotypes, further reinforcing the right wing agenda against the Dem candidate, was nothing but poor journalism.

The HuffingtonPost spent their entire Monday analyzing the cover even getting a direct interview with the New Yorker editor David Remnick who, when asked about the negative reactions, said: “It's not the first time. I respect people's reactions — I'm just trying to as calmly and as clearly as possible talk about what this image means... The fact is, it's not a satire about Obama — it's a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama.”

I think the best quote was from the illustrator himself, Barry Blitt, when asked by HuffPo columnist Nico Pitney what he thought of the outcry in retrospect, his response was "Retrospect? Outcry? The magazine just came out 10 minutes ago, at least give me a few days to decide whether to regret it or not..."

Blitt is a regular cover artist for the New Yorker and also created this cover of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad several months back, though we liberal Americans didn’t seem to find the cover as offensive. If you remember, there was a controversy when Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia University this past fall, where he made his famous statment: “There are no homosexuals in Iran.”

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Sometimes a title helps in the interpretation of a visual message — “The Politics of Fear” is the title of the Obama cover. However, the New Yorker, known for its graphic illustrations, keeps text off their covers with titles appearing only in the table of contents. Which leads our interpretation back to square one.

The controversy seems a great indicator of how bigoted the majority of us Americans are. I will skip the Muslim = Terrorist commentary and go straight to a statistic I heard on CNN last night. Apparently 12% of both Republicans and Democrats believe that Obama is a Muslim. Seems like even educated people can’t distinguish a name from a religion, from race, from nationality, from ideology. When I teach art appreciation to 19- and 20-year-olds with high school diplomas, they routinely mistake Islam as an ethnicity or a region of the world. Maybe they equate Islam to Judaism, where religion and ethnicity are practically one and the same. But we can't really blame our education system in a country where creationism is still being taught.

In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran 12 satirical cartons about Muhammad the Prophet. The Prophet is absolutely not to be depicted in the Islamic tradition where worship is based on the words of Allah and not represented in a personhood as it is in Christianity. The paper claimed they were criticizing Islamic fundamentalism and censorship. This caused such controversy across the Muslim world that the Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran were set alight. Hamas leaders in Palestine issued death threats and European buildings were stormed and desecrated in Gaza City. The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Rasussen, declared that this was Denmark’s worst international crisis since WWII.

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English translation of a comic from the Jyllands-Posten, 2005.
I’m not sure if the New Yorker illustration will set off the worst national crisis since the Iraq War, but I think it does a pretty good job of unveiling the bigotry embedded in our national psyche... at least for all of us who didn't get the joke.

Sometimes we put our foot in mouth. We all do it, regret jokes taken the wrong way or insights that may just be inappropriate for the time or the company we’re in. Satire is insightful and poignant, albeit rude at times, and sometimes it can be a terrible blunder. There are hits and there are misses. In fact, George Bush did it just recently at the end of the G8 summit, when he jokingly said "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter."

The problem here, Mr. President, is that this isn’t satire… it’s the truth.