Monday, July 14, 2008

From the "Better to Ignore It" File...

The Blogosphere is abuzz with debates about the controversial cover of an upcoming New Yorker magazine (right) depicting Senator Barack Obama as an Islamic terrorist and Michelle Obama as a 1960s-style Black Radical. While some liberals dismissed it as the work of Karl Rove, the artist responsible for the cover, Barry Blitt, is actually sympathetic to Obama and wanted the cover to poke fun at all the outrageous claims of Far Right loonies who wish to discredit the Democratic presidential candidate. As Blitt put it, "I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is." No surprise: The Obama Campaign saw the image and went ballistic. Campaign spokesman Bill Burton issued a statement: "The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree."

One of my favorite political websites, Steve Benen's The Carpetbagger Report, had this to say about the cartoon: "There’s clever, poignant satire, and then there’s ham-fisted, garish satire that’s in poor taste. The New Yorker cover falls comfortably into the latter category." The Carpetbagger Report quotes progressive Canadian Blogger Rachel Sklar as saying:
Presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke, but still: this is going to upset a lot of people, probably for the same reason it’s going to delight a lot of other people, namely those on the right: Because it’s got all the scare tactics and misinformation that has so far been used to derail Barack Obama’s campaign — all in one handy illustration. Anyone who’s tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who’s tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism — well, here’s your image.
I tend to agree with New Republic Blogger Isaac Chotiner, who insists that Senator Obama would be better off ignoring the cover instead of making an issue out of it. If you don't like the cover -- and most progressive Bloggers have made it abundantly clear they dislike it -- then keep quiet. The more Obama condemns it, the more his right-wing foes are going to use the cover to fuel uncertainties and misconceptions. Blasting the cover -- calling it tasteless, crude, Islamophobic, right-wing, failed satire, etc., etc. -- is only going buttress its street cred among anti-Obama yahoos.

If you don't believe me, look no further than Canada for an important cautionary tale. A while back, the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against conservative syndicated columnist Mark Steyn (left) for his column in the October 2006 issue of Maclean's magazine titled "The Future Belongs to Islam," which was an excerpt from his book America Alone. Steyn's article claimed that Western society was under the threat of being overrun and taken over by the world's rapidly growing Muslim population. At one point in the article, Steyn quoted a European imam who allegedly said that Muslims are reproducing "like mosquitoes." The CIC's complaint went all the way to the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, which launched a tribunal to investigate whether Steyn's article ought to be considered a violation of the human rights of Canadian Muslims.

It was a terrible move and it backfired. It triggered a firestorm of protest from Canadian civil libertarians across the country (including yours truly), who thought this tribunal threatened to stifle free speech. I fervently defended Mark Steyn in my regular newspaper column, despite the fact I disagreed with his claims. There was a brief show trial out in British Columbia in early June. It was a joke and it was attacked by people around the world as a sham. Luckily, the Canadian Human Rights Commission -- following an outburst of nationwide protest -- dropped the CIC's complaint. But sadly, in the course of the tribunal, Mark Steyn became a hero of "free speech," and untold numbers of readers who would have otherwise ignored his column in Maclean's were instantly drawn to it.

There is something about "taboo," "politically incorrect" topics that atrract people like magnets. While there are no Human Rights Commissions in the United States like the ones in Canada, the same general principle in the Maclean's/Steyn case applies to the case of the New Yorker Obama magazine cover. The moral of the story is: Let sleeping dogs lie. Leave it alone. Ignore it. If you ignore it, it will go away. Make a big deal out of it and your foes will know where your vulnerable spot is located and they will hit you hard there. That is the nature of politics. It was like that long before you or I came along.

1 comment:

Michael Balter said...

Good post, Andrew, and I certainly agree with your bottom line. There is just too much finger wagging and politically correct scolding these days, on both left and right. Satire is meant to be satirical, and if done well it is sure to draw fire from all sides, and if done poorly--well, so what! In addition, Obama supporters should be spending more of the energy making sure their candidate gets elected and less on distractions like this.

btw, the New Yorker cover is meant to illustrate a story about fearmongering campaign tactics against Obama, and it seems appropriate enough for such an article to me. Perhaps some would prefer a drawing of Obama cringing like a small child because he is being attacked...