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July 16, 2008

Obama Cartoon

I've been trying to stay away from political commentary for a while because it's been making me very unhappy, but it's hard to get away from. And I've been very discomfited by the lefty hysteria around the Obama terrorist cartoon on the cover of the New Yorker, but the long, hard fight of the last year or so has made me wary of speaking up. Do I really want to pick this battle?

Fortunately, Gary Kamiya picked it first.

To judge from the reaction of much of the left, you'd think that New Yorker editor David Remnick had morphed into some kind of hideous hybrid of Roger Ailes and Roland Barthes and was waging an insidious Semiotic War against Obama.

I don't know what lugubrious planet these people are on, but I definitely don't want any of them writing material for Jon Stewart.

Some thoughts:

  • This is how it goes: in anti-racist work, we're very, very, sadly, very used to the use of ill-considered "satire" as a safe way for idiots to play with stereotypes that they feel are otherwise prohibited. It's a complex gambit: you don't know what lies beyond the stereotype, and you have a fuzzy understanding of what politically correct language and notions are for. All you know is that the stereotype is not allowed. So with a vague idea that pushing the stereotype to an extreme is allowable under "satire," and that the people whom the stereotype addresses are somehow oppressed, you take it upon yourself to have a good, politically incorrect, time, trusting that--somehow--it'll all come out in the wash.

This is thoughtless, and very likely an expression of a subconscious racism you need to express--but can't really cop to--publicly.

Additionally, you know that extreme stereotypes are at least mildly shocking, so you'll get attention and probably a laugh and some popularity, by voicing them, even if the form you voice them in is ham-fisted and unfunny. Naturally, this is probably your strongest impetus: not the desire to address racist stereotypes, but rather the desire to get attention and be considered funny and popular.

Your excuse, that "this is not a racist joke, it's a joke about racism" is impossible to answer to everyone's satisfaction. And the world is full of people who feel as you do and will jump to decry the "censorship" if anyone takes issue with your joke.

Anti-racists are then left in the position of arguing either that not everything is acceptable, which is hard to argue about comedy, especially against people screaming about freedom of speech, or that the joke isn't funny, which is, of course, a matter of taste and perspective.

Critics of anti-racist activists will then, inevitably, talk about humorlessness and taking oneself too seriously, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, etc. We've all heard it a million times before.

There's a spectrum of perception, intention, and impetus in all of this. The swift-boaters, the pundidiots, and the sharp satirists all have political agendas, all have subconscious prejudices, and all have a desire for attention. How, and how much, each of these play a part in their public expressions is a matter of degree. There's no hard line between the racist excuse, "it's a satire," and the legitimate explanation, "it's a satire."

Likewise, there's no hard line between anti-racists armed with clear-sightedness pointing out the racism submerged beneath a "joke," and anti-racists drunk on conflict losing their perspective and--yes--their sense of humor. High on my first taste of group power, I've attacked things that didn't need attacking before. I know what it feels like and it does happen. Being expressly anti-racist, being an activist, does not magically protect you from your own complex of perception, intention, and impetus ... or your own bantam aggression.

  • What I'm seeing here is a group of people--anti-racist activists and writers--who have been largely ignored and marginalized before, suddenly put front and center in the media for months and months because they're the only ones with the language to address what's going on with race nationally.

Antiracist activists online--who are mostly people of color raised during the culture wars of the eighties--have learned to make their case one two-days'-wonder at a time, crying out briefly against stereotyped media depictions of people of color as they happen, and trusting that an accumulation of such incidents--and the strong reaction against them--will eventually turn some people's minds in the right direction. It's not one, major challenge, but the repeated calling out of small challenges that makes up the main tactic of online racial dialogue. And it's not been a bad strategy, given the circumstances under which it was developed.

But what it means is that now we're seeing a bunch of people used to building up a mosaic slowly, one tiny tile at a time, suddenly thrust onto a scaffolding and told to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, upside-down, before the plaster dries.

It's worse than that, even. During the Bush administration, the national dialogue on race, such as it is, has been off the agenda since 9/11. It's been nearly impossible to talk about race in a context where even centrists spend too much time arguing that anti-Islam isn't racist. And after seven years in a desert of attention, broken only by a Duke rape scandal, or a Jena Six, or Don fucking Imus, suddenly race activists have to come up with a universally understandable explanation of Obama's place in the universe, or render themselves permanently irrelevant.

So it's people used to fighting their way over to the mosaic each time they want to lay a single tile, suddenly heaved onto the scaffolding and handed a brush and paint they may never have learned how to use. Don't fuck up, now.

  • Since the Clinton/Obama fight really heated up, I've been confused and demoralized by how badly the discussion has been handled by anti-racist bloggers and pundits whom I've admired and looked to for years. Suddenly, alliance isn't enough. Because alliance is easy to sustain, lifelong, when the candidates you support are merely of your political spectrum, and not of your tribe. But when, for the first time in history, you see a candidate of your tribe up against a candidate of someone else's tribe, it's easy to forget the difficult exigencies of alliance in the face of your first experience of truly powerful tribalism. And this applies both to the "black" tribe and to the "women" or "feminist" tribe.

This is what the initial discussion over whether Obama was black enough was about: is he or isn't he of our tribe? And the answer was a resounding yes. The very people who could be counted on to slow the public down and (try to) make them reasonable about the complex identity of a Tiger Woods or a Halle Berry, suddenly had a personal stake in glossing over the complexity of Obama's identity. That's when we first started losing the clear-sighted, steadying voice of the antiracist phalanx.

This kind of politicized tribalism is something we've seen forever in third world countries, without understanding it. Because, let's face it, when wealthy whites have a lock on government, there's no opportunity for the millions of tribes in the United States to operate racially-based politics on a national level. Alliance between the one, powerful ethnic group, and all other ethnic groups, is necessary. And race-based political maneuvering has been grounded in the necessity of finding your political spectrum-mates, and not your tribal siblings.

Race activists have been accused for years of "Balkanizing" the United States, without justice or truth. Ironically this is the first we've seen of any true tribalism in politics. It's not going to take over. A two-party system of the type we have won't allow it, and besides, what we're seeing here is simply a role-reversal: white liberals, who are so used to politicians being of their tribe that they aren't even aware of it, are now having to make alliance themselves. Please note that Obama is clearly not subscribing to tribal membership. And it's easy enough for white men in a race against Clinton to subconsciously feel a masculine identification with Obama.

Tribalism is not going to take over, but the important question is: are the citizens with voice, who are nominally of Obama's "tribe," going to be able to pull their heads out of their ... sand ... in enough time to welcome Clinton supporters, centrists, swing-staters, and the racially doubtful? Or are they going to continue to add their demoralizing and often vicious clamor to Obama's incomprehensible about-faces on surveillance, reproductive rights, and Iraq ... until Obama's public image sinks and the election is lost? In short: can they learn how to make alliances from the other side?

  • What's also been happening is that liberal citizen journalists and major journalists, who have always been symbiotic and nominal allies before, now find themselves knocking heads. And this is very specifically because of where and when national attention falls.

You may not like the New Yorker, you may resent its elitism, but this is a magazine that publishes 10,000 word investigative pieces, the only major national publication that's had its head on straight about Iraq the whole time. This is the one and only magazine that is famous for its tradition of dry, often silly, but trenchant political and social cartooning. This magazine's beat is broader United States: national news, politics, society. The media perception of the Democratic presidential candidate falls squarely within the New Yorker's purview, and the New Yorker has always felt free to deal with such major topics through the use of satirical cartoons. The New Yorker is not doing anything new, shocking or different.

The difference is that race bloggers and commentators are turning their usual MO (see above) against the New Yorker's usual MO. This is not because the New Yorker is wrong, but because, for the first time in history, media perceptions of the Democratic presidential candidate and media perceptions about race are the same topic. Race pundits, used to only seeing stereotypes produced by political enemies, are suddenly seeing stereotypes reproduced satirically by allies because the allies are finally being forced to deal with them.

Some of these allies are proving unprepared for the task, certainly. But the race pundits are also falling short of this new challenge.

In closing: this discussion cannot continue as it has been going or we're going to lose this election. And by "we" I don't mean Obama supporters. I mean everybody, even McCain supporters who, even after 7.5 years of Bush rule don't realize that they're being screwed.

Obama's candidacy has laid out the novel position that a "black" president would unite the races and the parties. But they've failed so far to model this behavior, or to provide a working strategy for actual unity even within their own party.

But it's not the government's role to lead in the actual tasks of living morally and ethically. That's our job. Obama is extraordinary because he has not just said to us what we know we want to hear, but also said to us what we didn't know we wanted to hear. He's set a new national goal of genuine unity. But it's really up to us to figure out how that's going to work and to make it happen. And Obama's supporters so far have been more than usually divisive, contemptuous, humorless, and vicious towards those who would normally be their allies, myself included.

It's time to put down the tiles and start painting the ceiling folks. Here, I'll help.

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Comments

Sorry to dump this here, but I've been perusing through blog links related to this issue for the past while and I keep seeing the same mistake being made: A Modest Proposal did NOT make the suggestion that the Irish eat their children. It made the suggestion that the Irish ought to sell their children to the English for them to eat, as they were already bleeding the country of food anyways, causing the Irish starvation in the first place. It's a minor point, but I keep seeing this and it's frustrating to a student of English.

Minor point. Otherwise, a solid and well-reasoned post.

thanks for the correction, sam! i actually read through the first part of it before posting, but then thought, "do i really need to read this again?"

apparently, i did.

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