Monday, July 14, 2008

Satire, the Obamas, and the New Yorker


I've been reading comments again. I mention them because what I've read in comments on blogs, AOL journals, and news stories on the Internet, influences my take on the cover of the upcoming issue of New Yorker magazine, due to be released on July 21, 2008.

People whom I like, with whom I exchange comments and e-mails, continue to write things like, "I'm frightened by Barack Obama," "Isn't he a Muslim?," "Michelle Obama is a racist," "She hates white people," "His middle name is Hussein," (true, but I think that the comment is meant to suggest something more sinister), etc.

I try to understand what motivates these comments. Don't worry, I haven't labeled anyone a racist; I don't toss that label about lightly. I've personally experienced enough racism in my lifetime to recognize it clearly, and I don't believe in crying wolf. Besides, a true racist doesn't need anyone to tell him or her that he/ she is a racist.

I really mean it when I say that these comments or variations thereof are written by people with whom I enjoy exchanging ideas and who I think come from a place of sincerity in expressing their concerns. Please don't misunderstand. I don't share their concerns and I don't understand them. They don't have any basis in fact, but nonetheless, I do get that they weigh heavily on people's minds. I've even sent private emails to a few, asking them to explain to me, in detail, the basis of their fears and beliefs. So far, no one has done so.

By the way, I don't question anyone's right to select the candidate of their choice, I'm just dismayed by the persistence in clinging to beliefs that are grounded in misinformation and blatant lies. Dislike any candidate because you don't support his/her politics or beliefs but for heaven's sakes, don't base your decision on some emotional belief that a candidate represents some dark, evil force. Hell, I'm not even afraid of GWB, and he's done some pretty scary stuff in the last eight years.

Just for the record: Barack Obama is not now, nor has he ever been a Muslim; you may not like his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but he was the pastor of the Christian Church to which the Obama family belonged for 20 years. Michelle Obama did not make a racist comment about hating white people or white America, what she said was "...for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." I've said the same thing and I meant it from the bottom of my 53-year-old heart. I'm proud of how far this country has come in my lifetime. Having grown up with legal restrictions on where I could sit, eat, go to the bathroom and get a drink of water in a public place, I am awed that a man with African heritage may possibly become president of these United States, and that he has gotten where he is by appealing to a diverse cross section of the American people. I don't even know what to say about Barack Hussein Obama's given name. I confess that I find it hard to believe that anyone could seriously fear anyone based on the person's name. My first name, Sheria, is an alternative spelling for the Sharia, which is the name of the body of Islamic religious law. Anyone trembling in their shoes yet?

Which brings me to the New Yorker cover, (bet you thought that I would never get there). The magazine has released a statement about the controversial cover,

'In a statement Monday, the magazine said the cover "combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are....The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall? All of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that's the spirit of this cover," the New Yorker statement said.'
I believe the statement; the New Yorker is known for its use of satire and for its liberal leanings, two of the things that I like about the magazine (surely, by now you know that I am a flaming liberal and proud of it). However, I wish that they had thought about it a bit more. As a former English teacher, I'm pretty certain that satire is not a form of literary expression that most people get. When Jonathan Swift's satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal," was first published in 1729, it was met with great outrage by many who didn't perceive the satirical tone of the piece in which Swift proposes that the Irish poor ease their economic woes by selling their young children to the wealthy to be eaten as a great delicacy. Swift writes: "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."

Before you get all excited, he didn't mean it; he was using his writing to comment on the hypocrisy of the government in blaming the poor for their own plight. He wanted to point out the inhumanity of allowing families to starve while the wealthy had an excess of food, goods, and luxuries. Swift wanted the reader to find his position appalling enough to act, to call for reform, to do something about the problem. This tradition of satire dates back to the great tradition of Roman satire, and echoes the writings of Horace and Juvenal.

However, I digress. The problem that I have with the New Yorker cover is quite simple, far too many people will miss the magazine's stated intent entirely. They won't read the accompanying stories. The cover will merely reinforce the misinformation that they already believe. Most people's familiarity with satire is limited; the unit that I did on satire was always the most confusing for my students. In particular, visual satire often leaves many people totally confused.

I also find the cover insulting to Michelle Obama. I really can't recall any presidential candidate's wife being subjected to this type of depiction in the past. Maybe I'm just a touchy black woman, but in every hierarchical ranking in this country, whether it is regarding wages earned or marriage potential, black women always come in dead last. If you're a black woman who speaks your mind, you are labeled difficult or the really big one--intimidating. Early in my teaching career, I had the following exchange with a colleague.

"Sheria, I just find you intimidating."

Me: "Have I ever threatened to slap you?"

"No, I didn't say that, just that I find you intimidating."

Me: "Tell you what, when I threatened to slap you, that's when I'm trying to intimidate you, otherwise, you have nothing to worry about."

Sometimes a woman gets tired of being called intimidating.

Alas, the cat is already out of the bag and and the cover cannot be undone. I have to decide if I want to read the comments that are already being generated by the news coverage about the cover. I should know better but I can't resist. Intimidating? No. Inquisitive? Yes.

1 comment:

Malloy said...

The only reason that this Mr. & Mrs. Obama satire DOES have impact — and may very likely spread — is because like all good satire, or good humor for that matter, there’s more than a germ of truth in it. Otherwise, the satire would utterly roll off the Obamoids’ backs, having no impact.