While Ben Franklin penned the first American political cartoon in 1776, Thomas Nast ushered in the gilded age of the modern political cartoon when he toppled Boss Tweed. Since then, no political party or scandal has been deemed off limits, as evidenced by the cartoon coverage given to the misadventures of George W. Bush, Grover Cleveland, Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, John F. Kennedy, and Teddy Roosevelt, to name a few of the powerful who have been stung by the power of the poisoned pen. (For an interesting international take on the history of political cartooning, check out The Political Cartoon Society).
When one places the July 2008 issue of The New Yorker cover into its historical context, one sees that the magazine has a long history of running covers that can be deemed controversial and at times crass, depending on one's political perspective. As a writer, I tend to side with those who wish to exert their first amendment rights, as long as they are not committing slander, plagiarism, or other illegal offenses. Such are the benefits of living in a democracy. (Let us not forget that no one has called for the execution of anyone associated with this drawing.)
But when editor David Remnick and artist Barry Blitt began defending as "satire" the depiction of the Obamas as a radical Muslim and Black Panther intent on invading the White House, sorry, but I beg to differ. If this particular piece was intended to parody the racist thoughts that people harbor toward Obama, it fell well short of its mark. For starters, if you have to explain repeatedly that "it was just a joke," then you need to refine your material.
While I am sure The New Yorker would never intentionally pen a piece that would benefit McCain, I can see how select groups can use this piece for non-humorous purposes to perpetuate this Muslim myth. After all, according to a Newsweek poll, 12 percent of respondents still believe Obama is a Muslim, despite the fact that he is a practicing Christian. Also, this cartoon could be seen as depicting the anger still felt by some Democrats that Obama is their nominee.
When describing the role of the political cartoonist, Daryl Cagle observes:
Cartoons can be outrageous in their exaggeration; we draw things that never happened, and never could happen -- but we have a contract with the readers who understand that we're drawing crazy things that convey our own views. The New Yorker's Obama cover fails to keep that contract with readers. Cartoonists don't exaggerate anything just because we have the freedom to do so; we exaggerate to communicate in a way that our readers understand.
Here Cagle offers his solution for how this cartoon could be fixed:
I would have Obama think in a thought balloon, "I must be in the nightmare of some conservative." With that, the scene is shown to be in the mind of someone the cartoonist disagrees with and we have defined the target of the cartoon as crazy conservatives with their crazy dreams.
The controversy over this cartoon does serve to remind us that race and religion continue to be used as roadblocks to prevent any sane and reasoned discussion of the issues that face our country today. We clearly need satirists to deflate the hot air and hooey that permeate the air during every election season. As much as I love The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and The Onion, my heart yearns for the wisecracking wisdom of George Carlin right about now.
Becky Garrison is senior contributing writer for The Wittenburg Door, the country's largest, oldest, and only religious satire magazine.