Friday, July 18, 2008

On Barry Blitt's "The Politics of Fear"

This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on Pol Culture.

The controversy over Barry Blitt's cover for the July 21, 2008 issue of the New Yorker (at right) has certainly been the dominant news story this past week. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have denounced it as "tasteless and offensive," while supporters of Blitt laud it as effective satire and echo his statement * that "I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is."

In his defense of the cartoon, Joe Conason writes, "Sometimes satirical drawings provoke laughter, and sometimes they simply provoke. Measured as provocation and as the focus of debate, the New Yorker cover is actually a huge success."

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Conason, but what he doesn't take into account is that the cover is inflammatory quite simply because it traffics in inflammatory imagery without adding anything to it. The New Yorker could have achieved a similar level of provocation by printing "Barack Obama Is a Nigger" in inch-high red letters against a black field. Blitt's cartoon fails as satire; all he has done is compile a visual catalogue of slurs.

This is not to say I feel Blitt is misrepresenting his intent. I certainly understand the position that this portrayal of the Obamas is inherently laughable, as it is at odds with any reasonable person's view of them. However, I don't agree. Blitt hasn't done his job here. He recreates previously existing tropes; he doesn't create new ones. He doesn't make us look at this imagery in a new way. There is no counterpoint to the slurs against the Obama. There is no element that would give the cartoon dynamism and wit.

Over at TalkLeft, commenter LarryInNYC had an idea that might have been an effective use of the imagery. Instead of the Obamas, put the McCains in these trappings. Think about it. John McCain in ceremonial Muslim garb with the U.S. flag burning in the fireplace and Osama bin-Laden's portrait over the mantlepiece. (I'd put a portrait of Ahmadinejad next to it, given McCain's incredibly stupid statement suggesting that al-Qaeda and Iran are allied.) He fist-bumps with Cindy McCain, all done up like Patty Hearst in her Symbionese Liberation Army days. Hey, they're both heiresses. And the whole thing would fit in with the right-wing tendency to project their own negative attributes onto their political opponents.

The irony of depicting the McCains in this manner would likely be apparent to everyone. Blitt would have created a satirical trope of this imagery, and, most importantly, highlighted the absurdity of these slurs rather than just regurgitating them. Such an image would carry considerable dissonance for the viewer and have the potential to be really funny. This hypothetical cartoon might show the wit the actual one does not.

There would probably still be a controversy. The Obama people are extremely uptight about having this stuff in front of the public in any context, and the McCain people would likely be furious. Neither campaign--particularly Obama's--has demonstrated much of a sense of humor about themselves. But the public might have an image and a controversy worth its laughter. Instead we have a lame cartoon and a dull controversy with nowhere to go. My sense is that if your basic reaction to these particular Obama slurs is that they're ridiculous, you'll consider the cover benign. If you feel they're hateful, you'll detest it. All Blitt is asking for in response is condemnation or approval for reminding us of what we already think. Any worthwhile satirist should ask for more.

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