O bummer

This is the cover of the New Yorker for the issue dated July 21, 2008.

Barry Blitt's illustration for the issue dated July 21, 2008

Barack Obama, it has been reported, has no comment. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, says it’s a satire so can everyone please grope their elbows and find their funny bones. John McCain’s spokesman has said the cover is “tasteless and offensive”. I’m not an unhumorous person, I frequently find the New Yorker covers funny and I have absolutely no opinion on or knowledge of the American elections. However, this cover is no laugh riot even for me. Not only is the 21st century Satan, Osama bin Laden, gracing the walls of the White House, there’s an American flag burning in the fireplace, fer crying out loud. (You’d probably have a hundred public litigations out if someone showed the Indian flag like that. After all, we do sing the national anthem before watching a movie in this city. Why I have to prove my patriotism before watching Ratatouille is a mystery to me but anyway…)

This cover may seem ridiculous and exaggerated to some but it is disarmingly close to what many suspect is the hidden truth. It’s a depiction of precisely what many are being conditioned to think and it isn’t excessive in a country that has ended up in a tangled mess in Iraq, supposedly because of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Rather than expose scare tactics, as the New Yorker claims, I have a feeling this cover effectively shows what a large section of those following the American presidential elections suspects is Obama’s doppelganger.

Look inside the magazine and it’s clear there are no “I heart Obama” stickers in the New Yorker office. Ryan Lizza spends 15 pages telling us what a scheming, mercenary and opportunist bloke Obama is. The solidly-written article makes Obama’s political past look like a diaper peeled off a diarrhoea-afflicted baby. Of course, one could argue that Obama is a politician. He’s meant to be scheming, mercenary and opportunistic.

Hendrik Hertzberg’s comment goes some distance in explaining why the New Yorker is so upset with him. He is, to quote Hertzberg, “providing plenty of plastic for the flip-flop factories with the adjustments he’s been making as he retools his campaign for the general election” ( I wonder if Hertzberg is aware of the Indian tradition of garlanding public enemies with a wreath made of flip flops, or chappals as we call them).

A magazine cover is rarely disconnected from the inner content. In case of this particular New Yorker, it is hard not to draw a line between the Machiavelli-esque Obama depicted inside the magazine with the victorious, turbaned Obama on the cover. The illustration suggests Obama is attempting to destroy America, like Osama did in the past, and this might have been ridiculous at a time when terrorism wasn’t such an uber-sensitive topic. That Lizza’s piece keeps pointing out how Obama has been an outsider and a social climber with one focussed goal – as though wanting to be president is a bad thing and politicking to that end is a serpentine evil – doesn’t help add any humour.

Is it really funny to suggest that Obama reaching the White House is an enactment of a grand bin Laden plan? Is there humour in playing up the Islam = terrorism equation? Is the idea of a wife being the blinkered, Mad-Max terrorist following her philosopher husband’s lead likely to bring about giggles?

Probably not. Because people believe these things. But if you are in New York, buy a copy. It’s the kind of thing Osianama – with founder Neville Tuli’s love for kitsch and pop culture – will offer millions for a few decades from now.

UPDATE: Predictably enough, everyone has a piece on this cover. There’s the camp with the likes of Huffington Post which deconstructed whether the cover qualifies as satire. The Guardian, Slate and Salon are all championing the New Yorker’s right to have the cover and write that it’s a shame that people don’t see comedy when it’s staring them in the face. Salon’s Gary Kamiya rues that the Bush adminstration has robbed people of a sense of humour. While reading these reactions (which will go on for a while now, no doubt), what struck me was the underlying accusation that if you don’t find the cover funny then somehow you’ve betrayed your liberal leaning and proven yourself to be dumb. Kamiya and Slate’s Jack Shafer, for instance, would like to ignore that Islam has become a highly-sensitised topic and that Blitt’s illustration simply adds another image to the growing canon that conflates terrorism with the religion. The questions raised by the cartoon about Obama’s motivation to be president and his inherent patriotism shouldn’t be taken earnestly but as a joke. Except, if someone doesn’t find the cover funny, they simply don’t. Shaming them for that reaction isn’t going to help. That’s the tricky thing about humour – it’s either funny or it isn’t and it’s subjective. A critical dissection of it’s technical parts won’t elevate a bad joke to a good one.

It’s a curious thing, the image. The Orientalist painters who painted odalisques in diaphonous clothing paintings were not consciously forwarding a propaganda to other the Middle East. They were capturing what they found beautiful on to the canvas. That Edward Said would open a window to their souls using these paintings and find in them twisted racist politics is something none of the artists could have imagined. Perhaps after a couple of decades, this cartoon will be more universally funny or it’ll be said Blitt was a right-wing, Bible/ Torah-thumping New Yorker cartoonist. Or perhaps it’ll inspire nothing more than a snigger. Then all this debate about the cartoon will seem completely unwarranted and we’ll all look like we had entirely too much free time on our hands in July 2008.

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