Monday, July 14, 2008

On the Offensive

So there's a scandal going on about the latest New Yorker cover. Basically, the cartoonist who penned the cover image was satirizing the dubious claims of Barack Obama's origins, beliefs, and politics; while some have praised both the artist and magazine's courage in running the image, others have argued that this sort of stereotyping, regardless of context, is offensive and detrimental to the national conversation on the 2008 election.

It's a sticky situation, to be sure. On the one hand, First Amendment, freedom of speech, you know the drill. On the other hand, you know, a burning American flag and a portrait of Osama bin Laden hanging in the Oval Office are certainly charged symbols that, cartoon or not, portray neither Obama nor the country in a positive light.

Here's the thing--neither side is wrong.

No, I don't think the artist should have to apologize for his cartoon. He has publicly explained himself and made it clear that he is not mocking the candidate but rather the smear campaign that's been going on against him. There's a lot that can be said validly criticizing Barack Obama nowadays, but implying that his Muslim beliefs will somehow cloud his judgment if he is elected is not one of them. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, understands this, and wanted to spark a conversation about the roles of both the media and widely-circulated rumors in altering people's perceptions of a public figure, framing that conversation with a discussion on the current state of the election.

And what, did you just want another picture of Obama looking valiant? We understand that he's the candidate of Change and Hope and a bunch of other vague adjectives that just about every politician ever has used to describe his candidacy. We understand that he's young and optimistic and a fresh face on Capitol Hill. We understand that he can connect with youth while appealing to the country at large. But there are other forces at work in his campaign, and not all of those forces are in his favor. The fact remains that he also has an image as a shady Middle Eastern man with questionable religious influences and worrisome past politics. Whether or not you agree with such claims is your own decision, but they exist and to deny them is to deny a large factor in this election.

At the same time, yes, the New Yorker cover is offensive. If you are a Muslim--especially if you are a Muslim of Middle Eastern descent living in America--you should be offended by an image of Barack Obama dressed like a terrorist. One Gawker commenter made a perfectly valid point (American Dreamer, at 10:30 am.) "As an Iranian American this reminds me of the constant stream of caricatures of middle easterners in american cartoons...with excessively hirsute features or elongated noses. Am I supposed to see the joke there?" the commenter wrote. And that's true--it must suck to have to deal with people's--primarily white people's--stereotypes and prejudices on perhaps a daily basis, and then have to see this magazine cover staring you in the face. And on some level, I understand. I can laugh at Jewish caricatures (Google image search "Jew" and this is the first result), but I'm also hurt by them, because, like, it's my religion, and even if you're just trying to make a point, you know, we went through a Holocaust and all that stuff, and it sucks that such stereotypes linger today. So no, I don't enjoy seeing such images, and I'm sure a Muslim person would not enjoy looking at this magazine cover.

But what's offensive is not the cartoon itself but rather the stereotypes it portrays. What those offended do not seem to understand--or, at least, are not willing to acknowledge--is that the context of the cartoon defines its message. If someone scribbled a picture of Obama wearing terrorist garb on a city sidewalk, without any other explanation, that would be hateful. But a cartoon on the cover of a magazine that's discussing such stereotypes, why they exist, where they came from, and what they're doing to American politics--that's not hateful, that's just good journalism. It's the same reason black people can say the n-word but white people can't. When a white guy says it, you know, he doesn't get it. He doesn't understand what that word means to people who, in earlier times, may not have been allowed to eat at the same restaurant as him, or go to the same school. He doesn't understand that that word is what his ancestors may have shouted to a black person's ancestors while making them work the fields or blasting them with a fire hose. But when a black guy says it, well, it's different. It may seem like a double standard, but that's because a double standard exists. A black person saying that word is saying it with the implied context of historical understanding, of having faced prejudice and racial profiling, and having (hopefully) overcome it. It's the context in which the word is spoken that makes all the difference, just like it's the context of this cartoon that guides its meaning.

So yes, the New Yorker cover cartoon is offensive. As it should be. It should be offensive to everyone that a politician maybe being Muslim is somehow a negative and something to hide. It should be offensive to everyone that a country founded by men dissatisfied with monarchy and lack of personal freedoms is increasingly headed towards a watch-what-you-say, hyper-political-correctness. And it is offensive that Barack Obama can't necessarily fully focus on his political platform because he has to combat a petty, frighteningly xenophobic questioning of his patriotism.

But you know what's not patriotic? Criticizing everything you don't like, or not allowing someone to speak because they're bringing up a reality you'd rather not hear about. So, those are offended by this cartoon: be offended. It's your right. But don't you dare try to silence those who are talking about the very situations that have caused you to be offended in the first place. That sort of behavior is offensive to anyone who knows better.



Marshall said...

Am I allowed to also think it's funny? Especially since I know this image is a thought bubble in my grandfather's head.

allison said...

I wrote about this on my blog. I'm torn because on the one hand, the New Yorker is skewering ridiculous claims about the Obamas made by the media (especially the right-wing media.) That's totally valid, and it's readership (educated, liberal, analytical) will understand the satire.

Where I get upset is seeing the reactions on Fox news, with people who don't know the New Yorker. "Finally someone has presented him in his true light!" is the general gist of the comments. How depressing is that? But I guess those people were always going to vote Republican....

anyway, my stuff is at


Trina said...

A-freaking-men! This is probably the first treatment of this whole mess that I have completely agreed with, and that deals with the issue in a truly balanced way. Thank you!

Jess's Mom said...

I do think that one problem with this is that most people will NOT be reading the New Yorker article--they'll just see the cover and walk away with yet another image of Obama as a terrorist. Most Americans are simply not that sophisticated and it's the images that linger on, not the words. Yes, we should be having a national dialogue about this issue, but these visuals aren't going to help us have it.

jodi said...

Could you perhaps clarify your language a bit regarding Obama's garb here? Twice you referred to his being dresses "as a terrorist", and while I'm sure you mean dressed in a manner that the American public has repeatedly been told by its leaders and its media is what terrorists wear, it's not clear from what you say whether or not YOU think this is what terrorists wear. In fact, it's Michelle who is depicted with the ammo belt and camouflage trousers, while Barack wears salwar and kameez, an outfit worn by many non-terrorists of both sexes in many countries.

I don't want to sound like I'm ragging on your argument, which is sound and thoughtful and with which I'm totally in agreement. I've read enough of your writing already to be sure that this is an oversight, but it comes across a bit (at least to me, but I'll admit I've been hypersensitive to language lately and it's hard to turn that off once you start paying attention to it) as the same sort of prejudice that you're discussing in your essay.

Jess and Josh said...

Jodi--Yes, I see what you mean. You're right, it's not NECESSARILY a terrorist's outfit. However, given the portrait of Bin Laden and the burning American flag, I made an assumption. But you're right--I should have clarified, but the fact that I didn't feel the need to is the sort of stereotypical, automatic thinking that creates such stereotypes in the first place. I guess again I used context clues, but who's to say Michelle didn't burn the flag?

Shawn said...

I agree with everything you said.

It's just, it might be hard for a New Yorker, such as yourself, to understand that we live in a country full of uneducated people. People actually believe that Obama is a muslim(12%), people believe that the depiction on the cover of the new yorker is going to be reality and have believed since the beginning og the election.

So, it's not that people are offended, although some certainly are. Rather, it is that people are terrified that uneducated, middle America will see this and it will confirm all of what they believe to be true about Obama.

And people should be worried, you should never underestimate the ignorance of the american people.

very good post.

Jess and Josh said...

But it's such a shame that his being a Muslim would be detrimental to his political career. When you think about how Christian our country is, I don't know...freedom of religion?

I think I'm starting to sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist.


Shawn said...

not at all, you're right.

raafi said...

You keep referring to Obama as if he were a muslim (eg "...but implying that his Muslim beliefs..."), when the truth is that he's a Christian. (He even wrote a book about it, borrowing the title from his now ex-pastor). Here's his own refutation of spurious claims about his religion along with outside writing on the topic.

Another reason the cover is offensive is that it further pushes uninformed people who don't have the *basic* *facts* down to put forth ill-founded arguments.