Another Look at The New Yorker's Obama Cartoon

By Melvin Bray 7-18-2008

To presume is human, to reconsider sublime. At least that's what I'm beginning to believe as a father of three. Fatherhood asks one to do a great deal with often incomplete, misleading, and sometimes outright false information -- from arbitrating disputes to meting out appropriate consequences to picking cereal. I am loathe to admit the number of times I've rushed to judgment or totally misunderstood something as a dad. Sometimes the only thing that spares me from acting on dubious presumptions are a loving pair of deep mahogany eyes staring up at me, begging me to reconsider.

Art functions in a quite similar fashion. It asks us to reconsider our biases, our preferences, our intuitions, our world. That's what Barry Blitt was doing when he inked the cartoon, "Politics of Fear," which made the front cover of The New Yorker this month. And, yes, I join the ranks of Clarence Page and Jon Stewart believing that Blitt did a pretty good job.

With all due respect to my fellow God's Politics contributor, Becky Garrison, who critiqued this piece as sloppy satire, as well as the many others whose sensibilities were bruised by Blitt's biting wit, I don't get a lot of the hoopla. Much ado has been made over whether the cartoon is funny, how easily it can be misconstrued, who it should offend and how else the cartoon shoulda-woulda-coulda been drawn. The reasons I think the piece works? First, whether or not satire is funny is irrelevant. The question is: Does it succeed at poking fun? Ridicule and provocation are the objectives of satire; humor is just an often-used means to those ends. As for the fear of it being misconstrued, the point of the cartoon is that so much is so often willfully misconstrued. The cartoon seeks to deconstruct this impertinence. Third, of course any and everybody has the right to be offended; that's the beauty of democracy. Fourth, although I believe the satirical gist of the piece may have been better served by including the title somewhere on the front cover, who is anyone to say it should have been done this way or that? Done any other way, it would have been a different piece of art. It seems to me that Blitt's art quite effectively accomplished what it set out to do, imperfect though it may have been.

I have two main concerns about the nature of the outcry against this cartoon. The first is that democracy doesn't abide the untouchable. Not losing sight of the fact that the cartoon isn't even about Sen. and Mrs. Obama, but rather about the ridiculous distortions that have dogged them throughout the campaign, there seem to be those who are intent on making Obama untouchable. In a democracy, a good lampooning is one of the time-honored ways we exercise our right to petition and protest. It would be different if The New Yorker cover represented the powerful, privileged, and strong going after the powerless, underprivileged, and weak -- such harpooning would be unseemly -- but it doesn't. As the historically underrepresented find broader audiences in the public square, we too have to be open to respectful forms of critique. America will have it no other way.

My second concern is that amid all the declarations of disdain, we might miss a golden opportunity for self-reflection. I would suggest that Blitt's art should not only be considered a mirror for the right but for the left and independent as well. Sure the fear-mongering of some conservatives must be seen for what it truly is, but so must the pious pretense of some liberals. Though some Republicans are doing all they can to enshrine the lies, smears, and half-truths scorned in Blitt's depiction, we must not forget that it was Democrats who in the name of "political vetting" first sketched that picture across the canvas of American consciousness. Both sides are equally responsible for nursing the notion that any criticism levied at America by a person of color indubitably comes out of a place of anger and militancy; both wings have bolstered the quiet bigotry that there might be something wrong with a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist running for president; both parties have fostered the fiction that freedom of expression is in fact unpatriotic; both factions have at times perpetuated the prejudice that anyone dressed in a headscarf is an enemy. Blitt simply offers us the opportunity to reconsider these insidious fallacies in contrast to our democratic ideals. There's something about the way the picture at once forces the viewer to take a position, and then later, when words are ascribed to it and we come to know the intent of the author, challenges one on that position whatever it may be. That, to me, is good democratic stuff and well worth reconsidering.

Melvin BrayMelvin Bray is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, lover of people, connoisseur of creativity, seeker of justice, purveyor of sustainability, and believer in possibilities. As founder of Kid Cultivators, he lives, loves, works, and dreams with friends in Atlanta, Georgia.

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