Satire 101


Are you laughing yet? If not, you're probably joining the growing chorus of jeers that has assailed the July 21 The New Yorker magazine cover illustration by artist Barry Blitt, dubbed "The Politics of Fear." In it, a turban-wearing Barack Obama gives his Afro-wearing, machine-gun gripping wife Michelle a pound as they stand in the Oval Office together. Nearby in the fireplace, the American flag burns under a portrait of Osama bin Laden.

Obama's spokesman Bill Burton called it "tasteless and offensive;" shortly thereafter, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds chimed in with, "we completely agree with the Obama campaign, it's tasteless and offensive." If there's anything that could bring two combative campaigns together, it's paranoia and the notion of maintaining political correctness at all times.


The New Yorker editor David Remnick told The Huffington Post the cover was done to "hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's—both Obamas'—past and their politics."

The problem with satire is that it's sometimes difficult to overstate the already overstated, hence the wave of criticism that the cover doesn't go far enough to properly discredit the stereotypes plaguing the Obama campaign.


That's right. If The New Yorker's readers do indeed buy into conspiracy theories as frequently as they shop at Whole Foods, why didn't the illustrator draw organic watermelon seeds into Barack Obama's teeth to properly illustrate that the cover is done in jest?

Instead of debating whether or not Blitt went far enough to pull off the joke now, we find most commentary stating that the joke shouldn't have been made at all—conflicting with the magazine's tradition of using bold imagery to point out the absurdity of issues of the time.


Take for example the Oct. 8, 2007 cover that intersected two growing controversies under the same brush. Sen. Larry Craig had been caught cruising public bathrooms for gay sex, while Ahmadinejad claimed no gays existed in Iran. TheNew Yorker cover image featured President Ahmadinejad sitting in a toilet stall looking down at an approaching leg leaning in to signal a special kind of an invitation.

Can we compare that cover to this most recent and argue there are better ways to drive home a point? Surely.


But are we that hypersensitive to where certain works of art should be completely off limits in order to never offend? If that's the case, bury satire along with the hot comb Michelle obviously forgot to use in that illustration.

The magazine has a history of controversial satire, so why should it stop for Barack Obama? Some critics have suggested the illustrator secretly wanted to paint Obama as the uppity black man by pursing his lips and giving him some sort of evil eye of doom. Meanwhile Michelle is presented as a "war-like creature" that basks in her husband's "evil genius."


So, what about the Rolling Stone cover that features an illustration of Obama so high in the clouds he could have handed God a voter registration card. When illustrating Obama, should we now only encourage artists to deify him? What good would that do? For the Bubbas of the world that will come across TheNew Yorker cover while browsing for the Enquirer and say, "I knew he was Osama's kin!" they weren't going to vote for him anyway. The same can be said for their like-minded brethren at Fox News and TheWeekly Standard.

So what would help people get over this? A week ago the Straight Talk Express got a bit derailed as John McCain awkwardly squirmed through a question about why some health insurance companies cover Viagra but not birth control. Maybe TheNew Yorker can seize on the Pop-Pop problem McCain faces and feature him in line buying Viagra and his wife Cindy in line buying her own pills to get through it.


That would be a funny joke, right? Probably even funnier than the ongoing joke that after all this time, many of us seemingly still can't take one.

Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard-educated freelance writer and blogger.


Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.

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