by Special Correspondent Thea Lim
Excuse me if I seem a bit dim, but this week I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what satire is. When satire takes the form of straight-up replication of offensive images and ideas, is it still satire? Or is it just imitation? And if it’s the case that imitation really is flattery, why is the New Yorker flattering Fox News?
At the heart of much satire and all bad satire, is something snarky and holier-than-thou, the belief that when someone (allegedly) enlightened articulates the exact same thing as someone unenlightened, it’s different solely because of the mouth it comes out of. Underpinning this kind of satire is often classism, ignorance and a pretty gross lack of self-awareness. The thing about last week’s New Yorker cover is that, like all quintessential hipster racism, it manages to hit (or oppress, I suppose) three birds with one stone. The hatred trifecta!
Instead of just being racist or ignorant, in the way E.D. Hill’s off-hand reference to a “terrorist fist jab” was, ye olde cover is simultaneously:
2) absolves itself of hatred: by creating and printing an image, that the New Yorker would immediately abhor if printed by a right-wing blog, the McCain campaign or poor old E.D. Hill, the New Yorker is saying that it’s above the censure that it lays on others; it’s immune to being hateful.
3) classist: an opinion that was hateful when articulated by folks in poor, rural areas, is clever when articulated by someone who reads high-brow art reviews, and can differentiate between camembert and brie.
According to my favourite website Dictionary.com, central to satire is the act of exposing or unmasking hatred that simmers beneath the surface of “polite society.” What is it then, that the New Yorker is unmasking? The fact that many people are suspicious of the Obamas? The fact that some people think Obama is secretly Muslim? I hate to break it to you New Yorker, but pointing out “Osama” and “Obama” rhyme is not exactly this season’s hottest exposé.
The cover fails as satire because it fails to unveil anything new about race in America, or the perception of Barack and Michelle. Satire without the element of exposure is just replication. The New Yorker cover simply reinforces hateful ideas. It helps propagate some pretty serious misinformation not just about the Obamas, but about black folks and Muslims.
And I would argue that the drawing of Michelle (who you’ve probably noticed seems much more menacing than Barack) adds in a just a little dash of its own latent hatred of strong black women. If you ask me, the only people who would find this cover funny, is people who on a conscious or unconscious level believe the misinformation this image is peddling.
This quote from the Daily Telegraph nails the New Yorker’s blindspot:
The New Yorker’s 630,000 or so readers know what the magazine is about. It has highbrow arts reviews, intelligent metropolitan opinions, and quirky, knowing cartoons. Woody Allen writes for it. Any regular reader would immediately ‘get’ that cover as it was intended. A not too subtle lampoon of exaggerated right wing
Actually, I have to disagree.
Attention all insensitive and arrogant hipsters, liberals and bobos, I’ve already said it here, but one more time: sadly, highbrow arts reviews, knowing cartoons, Woody Allen and even a lifetime subscription to the New Yorker are not an amazing elixir that will protect you from being racist, or classist, or sexist, or homophobic or ableist or just an all-round jerk. It’s not as if as soon as you pick up that Jim Jarmusch box set, no hateful words will ever be able to pass from your lips again.
Anxious Black Woman asks
are we, as a nation, truly sophisticated enough to make these kinds of jokes?
In a culture like ours where racism is institutionalised, everyone is racist. Drawing for the New Yorker doesn’t vaccinate you to racism. There’s always a chance that we might do and say something racist. To release that image into a culture like America is irresponsible because both the culture, and artist Barry Blitt as an inseparable part of this culture* (as we all our inseparable from our cultures, no matter what we may think of them), is not advanced enough in Anti-Racism 101 for that kind of satire. The New Yorker and Barry Blitt imply that they’re above racism, that they’ve reached the nirvana of tolerance. That’s pretty much the height of arrogance and the depth of self-awareness.
I’ve seen this attitude manifest itself in lots of different ways. I’ve known feminists who thought that any opinion they articulated was feminist – even when it wasn’t – simply because they identified as feminists. I’ve known people of colour who termed every slight against them racism – even when it wasn’t – because they were people of colour. And I’ve dealt with people who thought they were incapable of mistakes, and would insist until blue in the face that they were right – when they weren’t – simply because by their own logic, no act committed by their hand could ever be wrong.
It’s that same logic that makes hipster culture what it is. Whether or not they intend it, whenever a hipster dresses up in an NKOTB t-shirt and a fanny pack, they’re saying “I’m so clearly above actually dressing like this that it is funny.”
Input American Apparel into the equation? When they first began pumping their soft-core porn billboards into the main intersections of countless North American cities, they were saying “We’re so above exploiting women and women of colour that this can’t be offensive” regardless of how those billboards changed every intersection they loomed over, into sexually charged, pornified and sometimes unsafe spaces for any women walking through them.
How about Vice Magazine? This 2005 gem sent to us by reader Chairo called Hey Kids! It’s Time for some Dumb Myths and Smart Facts About Slavery!, pushes the idea that slavery wasn’t that bad. Due to my aforementioned dimness, I’m not even sure if this article supposed to be serious. But Vice is saying “We’re so clever, so above racism, that even when we publish an article that would fit nicely in a White Power magazine, we’re still not offensive.”
If you ask me the joke’s on The New Yorker, American Apparel and Vice. Unless you have your PhD in Anti-Racism 101, when you mock something that is hateful by repeating it, you’re not mocking it, you ARE it. There’s a level of insanity that underpins the false distinctions the New Yorker paints between itself and those allegedly ignorant, stupid right-wingers who actually think Obama is Osama. It’s a delusion: when you say something that is racist, I don’t care if you’re the ghost of Malcolm X: you are racist.
You want one more piece of delusion? From politico.com:
Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune defended [the cartoon] as “quite within the normal realms of journalism,” adding that “it’s just lampooning all the crazy ignorance out there.”
As if because something is part and parcel of journalism it’s not offensive. Hey, maybe if that kind of rhetoric is part of journalism, it doesn’t mean that that kind of rhetoric is ok, it means that journalism isn’t ok.
Trying to point out this kind of insanity is a thankless task. When you call people on their delusion of hatred immunity, people will say you’re too uptight, too humourless, you take things too literally, you’re not cool enough to get the joke.
You know what? I’m ok with being a dim-witted square. If you need me I’ll be at home working on my beginner’s degree in Anti-Racism 101.
*This is not to say I think that we’re all unregenerate racists/bigots. I’m just saying it’s always lurking within us, and the only way to truly protect our psyches from being hateful is to recognise this; and then to be careful about what we say; and be honest and sorry the times that we do mess up.