The New Yorker July 21, 2008 Cover: Satire or Racist?
On the fourth week of July 2008, people were astonished as The New Yorker Magazine graced the stands. The cover page showed Barry Blitt’s illustration depicting Barrack Obama wearing a traditional Muslim outfit with a white cap or taqiyah, a white robe or thawb in light brown overtones covering a pair of black pants and brown sandals. Obama’s taqiyah covered a turban that showed his ear prominently unlike Middle Eastern Arab turbans that cover their ears. Moreover, his thawb length is midway between the knee and the ankle which reflects an orthodox Muslim dress code.
Obama is also shown doing a knuckle greeting with his wife Michelle that “Fox News’ E. D. Hill calls a ‘terrorist fist jab’… [that is] …usually seen used by other prominent terrorists…” (The Acropolis). Meanwhile, Michelle Obama was shown in an afro hairstyle, a black blouse, camouflage pants and combat shoes. She also has a bandolier and a grayish-greenish, banana-type assault rifle slung at her back. The rifle looked much like an AK47 variant without the AK’s trademark brown, wooden stock.
Barrack and Michelle stood at the oval office in a happy demeanor. Barrack was portrayed with his usual serious, but smiling face while Michelle’s smile was more obvious that revealed her prominent cheekbones in a blush. Michelle stood by the left side while Barrack stood by the right side. At Barrack’s back is a golden framed half-faced portrait of Osama Bin Laden in pure white cap and robe and just below the portrait is a fireplace showing the American flag with flames but not yet burnt.
The New Yorker’s cover page certainly had shock value yet after careful thought and research, the illustration was really a satire rather than a racist statement. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a satire is “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn; and trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly” (“satire”).
The Encyclopedia Britannica further elaborates that a satire is an “artistic form, chiefly literary and dramatic, in which human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody, caricature, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to inspire social reform” (“satire”). Racism, on the other hand, is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; and racial prejudice or discrimination” according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (“racism”).
Racism is further elaborated as “any action, practice, or belief that [says]…that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities…[and that]…a causal link between inherited physical traits,…personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural behavioral features…[make]…some races…innately superior” than others by the Encyclopedia Britannica (“racism”). As a satire, the illustration has a meaning behind it and should not be taken literally as what it is shown.
However, some people will easily take the meaning of the illustration as a racist statement and think that the artist, Barry Blitt, thinks Barrack Obama and Michelle are not worthy to lead this country. The New Yorker Magazine has been published since February 21, 1925 and is sold nationwide. Its format deals with political commentary and cartoon covers that are somewhat ‘unreal’ yet funny.
It is also quite proud of its Cartoon Bank and “sells prints of…cartoons and covers…” A quick view on the contents of its July 20, 2009 issue show some topics as follows: a) Hendrik Hertzberg on Sarah Palin; b) John Colapinto on Senator Al Franken; and c) Elizabeth Colbert on America’s obesity problem, to name a few. The Obama cartoon was published on July 21, 2008 right at the heat of the US Presidential Election campaigns. Various rumors during that time have circulated accusing Barrack Obama as a “‘radical Muslim’ who ‘will not recite the pledge of allegiance’” (Snopes. om, “Barrack Obama”) and have sworn in on the Quran as Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison did (The Acropolis) (Snopes. com, “Who is Barrack Obama”).
Issues also included President Barrack Hussein Obama Junior’s middle name ‘Hussein’ which was associated with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (Snopes. com, “Who is Barrack Obama”). Moreover, Obama’s wife, Michelle, was not spared from close public scrutiny. Her undergraduate thesis at the Princeton University in 1985 with the statement “blacks must join in solidarity to combat a white oppressor” has been quoted out of context (Snopes. om, “Michelle Obama’s Thesis”) and detractors have associated such statement with Black Panther Party for Self Defense political activist, Angela Yvonne Davis (Davis). The State of California charged Davis as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide for the shotgun registered to her name that killed Judge Harold Haley in an escape attempt of the ‘Soledad Brothers’ that the Black Panthers supported (Davis). Davis has been acquitted then she temporarily relocated to Cuba before going back to the United States and ran as a candidate for the Communist Party USA (Davis).
With these rumors, the Blitt cartoon cover for the New Yorker can now be more easily understood. Obama has been dressed as an orthodox Muslim to depict rumors about him as an Islamic radical. In addition, since Obama has been educated in Indonesia as a kid, his Muslim attire closely resembled Indonesian Muslim dress codes rather than the Middle Eastern Muslims’. Accusations against Obama for his ‘unpatriotic behavior’ have also been symbolized by the American flag thrown into the flames of the Oval Office’s fireplace. Michelle has also been portrayed in an Afro hairstyle that was synonymous to Angela Davis.
Moreover, since Davis had ties to Cuba, Michelle was dressed as a Revolutionary in camouflage pants with an assault rifle at her back that looked like an AK47—a popular symbol among Communist revolutionaries. It can now also be easily discerned why Osama Bin Laden’s portrait was in the backdrop. First, Obama sounded like Osama. Second, Obama’s middle name ‘Hussein’ is the same as former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s. These two world figures tied Obama to the rumors that Barrack was a Muslim extremist. As John Aravosis of Weblog described the cartoon: “…New Yorker thinks it’s funny to make Mrs.
Obama some radical black panther, Barrack Obama basically a terrorist…and they’re even burning the American flag in the Oval Office…” (Stirland). The New Yorker cover on Barrack and Michelle Obama is a satire for the following reasons: a) the magazine has a reputation for satirical cartoons portraying political issues and personalities; b) the artist, Barry Blitt, is a known satirist and has made statements on the issues and rumors surrounding Obama; and c) the cartoon or artwork itself is full of symbolisms that convey irony and sarcasm.
Following the same track, Blitt’s illustration is really not a racist statement against Barrack Obama because the New Yorker is a liberal, cosmopolitan publication and the symbolisms of the cartoon show otherwise. A quick look into the New Yorker archives show that the magazine has been consistent since 1925 on its satire, focus on American politics, and political humor. It has developed its reputation along these lines. In a pro-Obama blog entry in The Acropolis, Dylan the blogger has this to say: “Obviously, the New Yorker cover was satirical. It also elaborates that: “Even faithful Fox News watchers will have to see the cover and hear anchors admit that it is a satire—that the images it depicts are making fun of rumors that are not true. ”
Likewise, in an anti-Obama blog entry in the ‘Old Atlantic Lighthouse’ notes: “The New Yorker Magazine…is now in full retreat mode to say it was simply mocking Christianity, Israel, America, the West, white people, the Constitution, self rule, and the resistance to Islam. Most of all, New Yorker editor, David Remnick, explained the controversial cover: “The idea is to attack the lies and misconceptions and distortions about the Obama’s and their background and their politics” (Stirland). Also, Barry Blitt is a known satirist. He has nine illustrations in the New Yorker with the title “The Politics of Satire. ” He has also made statements about the cover like: “I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic in certain sectors is preposterous,” and “It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is. Most of all, his illustration is titled: “The Politics of Fear. ” The title alone that Blitt has coined on his work conveys a message that certain politicians are playing on people’s fear that Obama was black, a Muslim, a terrorist and unpatriotic. Most importantly, the illustration was a satire because the artwork itself is full of symbolisms that convey irony and sarcasm. One, the Obamas were smiling. Two, Barrack’s thawb is not pure white unlike Osama Bin Laden’s pure white cap and robe at the backdrop portrait.
A pure white cloth has unique symbolisms in the Islamic faith. Three, Michelle crossed her legs while standing up as if crossing her fingers in wishful thinking. Four, the assault rifle’s color did not really feel like the real AK47 with a brown, wooden stock and wooden barrel encasement. Finally, although the American flag was in the fireplace with flames, the flag was not in flames and is not burning. The flag stayed whole and was not even partially consumed by fire.
Nevertheless, some people disagree and contend that the cover was an insult and racist. Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake observed: “…Most people who see this cover are just going to see the image of Obama in a turban. It reinforces a critical piece of misinformation that right wing propagandists have advanced in order to poison the political climate in this country and make it that much more difficult for a person of color to be elected president…” (Stirland). Roger Simon noted: ”It probably doesn’t encourage people to vote for him in America today. (Stirland). Likewise, John Aravosis of Weblog said: “…Is the New Yorker so out of touch that they don’t realize that much of America, or at least too much of America, harbors these very concerns about Obama and his wife? ” (Stirland). Finally, Matt of The Acropolis, sarcastically observed: “…I’ve heard so many students at MSU tell me, ‘Aw, come on, man. Everyone knows that guy’s a freaking Muslim. ’ Ok, maybe it was only, like two students, but I’ve heard even more adults say the same thing. It’s truly insane. ”
In conclusion, Blitt’s cartoon cover of The New Yorker magazine is a satire. The magazine is widely known for its criticisms and satires and literary views on social and political issues. This cartoon is not the first satire that The New Yorker had published or Blitt created. The magazine had no bad intentions for Obama’s political career or his personal life. The New Yorker was just trying to make business and doing what they were known for. Perhaps people should look more closely before making a judgment when they see something out of the ordinary.