Satirical Art Not Always Funny

For anyone who was seeking validation of virtually any rumor surrounding Obama back in 2008, it was handed down on a silver platter, courtesy of The New Yorker magazine.

The magazine’s July 21, 2008 issue featured on its cover a depiction of Barack and Michelle Obama that sparked some serious controversy in the realms of politics and journalism.

Standing in the Oval Office and wearing traditional Muslim garb, turban included, Obama was seen fist-pumping his wife, Michelle, who sports camouflage pants and an AK-47 slung across her back. As if that weren’t enough to hit home the point, an American flag is burning in the fireplace, while a portrait of Osama Bin Laden looks down approvingly at the fist-pump.

RISKY SATIRE - This illustration depicting Barack and Michelle Obama was the satirical cover of the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Though published in an attempt to alleviate fears about Obama and his presidential campaign, it backfired by perpetuating misconceptions and generating controversy.

Yikes. Talk about confronting a touchy subject. No white elephants in that room. In an effort to put it all on the table, the illustration perpetuates every right-wing stereotype possible to paint the mother of them all: the Obama’s as terrorists.

Drawn by Barry Blitt, the illustration is titled “The Politics of Fear,” and according to a press release by The New Yorker, was intended to “satirize the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign.”

The problem? Not everyone gets the punch line.

While the cover was almost certainly published in an attempt to alleviate some of the prejudices and rumors about the Obama’s by making these misconceptions appear ridiculous and absurd, it missed the mark a bit. Somehow ridiculous got a tad too close to real. Considering that a lot of Americans are predisposed to be fearful of Muslims and to associate Islam with violence, especially after the 9/11 attacks, the publication of this illustration seemed a serious oversight on the part of New Yorker editor, David Remnick.

Instead of alleviating fears that many Americans may have had about Obama, this illustration reinforced them. It paints Obama to be a radical extremist, the worst of conservative fears. While it must have been intended to point out the ignorance of people who believed Obama lacked patriotism or was soft on terrorism, it paints him out to be both of those things, and in a complicated satirical way that not everyone understood. This cover is simply dangerous. Sad as it may be, too many people were (and still are) resolutely convinced that the rumors surrounding Obama were true, and this merely provided ammunition for their arguments.

This cover was not supposed to be a satire of Obama, but a satire of the misconceptions about him. But for a satire piece to be truly satirical and have the intended effect, it has to be presented in such a way that everyone can recognize the irony and laugh at the joke.

This one just wasn’t funny.

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