I came across a middle-aged woman on Ferry Beach in Scarborough, Maine, reading The New Yorker. When I asked her what she thought about the latest cover she pursed her lips and said, “Well.” She shrugged annoyingly. “It’s sarcasm—but do we really need this now?”
The cover cartoon by Barry Blitt shows the Obamas in the Oval Office. Michelle, sporting a radical chic Afro and an AK-47 over her shoulder—“Nothing gets between me and my AK”—stares intently at her husband, head tilted towards him, her left hand on her hip in an ah ha, you go girl pose. Her right hand reaches out to her husband’s, fist closed. Right on, we did it.
Barack is in Muslim garb. A sly eye gazes at us—a fox, telling us to wait and see what’s next now that the Obamas have arrived. The other eye is presumably on Michelle. He reciprocates Michelle’s clenched fist. Right on.
Two distinct artifacts behind Barack Obama adorn the Oval Office and flirt with our xenophobia and racism. An American flag burns in the fireplace and above the mantel looms half of a portrait of what can only be described as an Islamic fundamentalist, perhaps even Osama Ben Laden.
Do we really need this now? Yes, we do.
Michelle Obama’s Afro is 1960’s chic radicalism. The AK-47 comes from the Middle East. In Tehran a billboard of a young woman and her AK-47 stares down at the busy streets reminding everyone that even the women of a repressive regime are willing to fight for the cause of Islam.
Michelle’s cartoon figure fuses the strong African American female with the equally strong Middle Eastern woman, suggesting that a third, more dangerous possibility can reside in the White House—the woman that has appropriated our worst fears and is going to have her way.
Cartoons are exaggerated messages. Realistically, Michelle embodies the post civil rights American Dream. She is the daughter of a city water plant employee and a secretary. She attended Princeton and Harvard Law, reaping the rewards of the civil rights struggle. The image is then not about Michele Obama at all.
The cartoon overstresses how our deepest, most profoundly xenophobic fears can be manipulated to create a myth—even if the myth is a condemnation of the truth.
The cunning Obama image confuses us, too. He has not helped himself in this respect, changing positions he once held, having to defend himself on issues ranging from his personal relationship with God and the flag to the wars to political reform. He’s backed by real estate professionals, medical professionals, commercial bankers and hedge fund and private equity managers. Obama’s ambitions are supported the old-fashioned way, money, and lots of it. He’s mainstream politics, with every sound bite moving more to the center.
The cartoon is sarcasm all right, but it derides the viewer. It postulates knowledge, but not of the Obamas. It’s about us and how reliant we are on the media’s fixation with the surface of things. This was evident during the primaries when we wondered about Barack’s odd name, his relationship to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his not sporting an American flag pin on his lapel. If Obama is not loyal to American iconography, the argument goes, then he must be loyal to something else, and with a name like Barack Obama, well then, it must mean he’s secretly loyal to Islam. He even wants a dialog with Syria and Iran—that says it all. Israelis have picked up on Barack’s middle name, Hussein, and read it as a sign of mistrust and contention.
The New Yorker cartoon is our shortsightedness. It portrays, as Jonathan Ralston Saul has written, an “unconscious civilization,” a “civilization that scorns knowledge itself.” We aggregate the quick and easy, the first idea or, better, the first image until we can’t tell truth from fiction. We don’t know when we are being told something meaningful or when we are being made fun of—and in this case, both are true.
In The New Yorker cover we find the Other we don’t want to face. This Other is not the fear that Islam or any other belief system may find its way into the White House, but rather, it is the sins of America that we have yet to resolve to enable us to move closer to reconciliation since, after all, what is demanded of us today is to find roads to end conflicts and renew friendly relationships with those we have scorned and violated. Our age requires deliberation, cooperation and collaboration, particularly when we find deep differences.
The woman on Ferry Beach finally said to me, “I don’t know what this means, not now.” This is why we need to look at this cartoon. It’s an image not of the Obamas, it tells us nothing about them, but of our challenges and conflicts, of us, the citizenry that has been sleeping away the promises of America.
Yes, we need this now—because we are inalienably free and we’ve yet to realize the promise of this truth.
A letter in response to Barry Blitt’s cover (July 21, 2008)