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Lighten up!

By Helen Pringle - posted Thursday, 24 July 2008


On the cover of the current New Yorker magazine is a cartoon of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in the White House. The Oval Office has been redecorated with a portrait of Osama bin Laden over the fireplace, in which an American flag burns. Barack Obama is wearing some kind of vaguely Middle Eastern gear, with a turban and shower sandals. Michelle Obama is drawn with a towering Afro, combat fatigues and a machine gun with ammunition. They are making the gesture that a now-chastened Fox News television host characterised as a possible “terrorist fist jab” when the Obamas fist bumped as he claimed victory in the Democratic primaries in June.

The New Yorker cover is a reiteration of myths trafficked about Barack Obama: that he is a Muslim, or worse a secret Muslim; that he is unpatriotic and does not love his country enough or at all; that in sum he is a “Manchurian candidate” who will metamorphosise into his true self when he reaches the White House.

The cover is a souped-up version of the notorious comments made by voters in the West Virginia primary as recorded in a Jon Stewart segment, in which one woman volunteers, “Ah don’t like the Hussein thing. Ah’ve had enough of Hu-ssein.”

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But what saved the New Yorker cover according to the artist, and to other commentators, is that it is satire. Unlike the opinions of banjo-playing West Virginians, the cover is not serious. It’s all a joke. As media studies experts tirelessly explain to the unsophisticated and the politically correct among us, images can be “read” in more than one way. Their point is that we should not criticise the image but see through it, and the claim is that most young people are sufficiently “media savvy” that they do this without even thinking.

Like most people, I have never had much of a problem in grasping the rather obvious point that images and words can be interpreted in more than one way. For example, “coon jokes” are funny to some people and not to others, child porn strikes some people as arousing and others as exploitation. What I do have a problem with, however, is the tendency in modern politics and culture to turn any and every thing into a joke - which seemingly then gives the thing an immunity to criticism.

“Lighten up!” we are told. The thing is only an image, and the image is only a joke. Hence in response to criticism of the New Yorker cover as a tasteless reiteration of myths and stereotypes, various commentators claimed that Barack Obama should lighten up and laugh a bit more. James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times, for example, suggested that Obama and his supporters showed symptoms of “an irony deficiency” in their reaction to the cover.

Rainey continued: “It seemed fairly obvious to me, my 8-year-old and, likely, the majority of readers of one of America’s finest magazines that the cover drawing by Barry Blitt was a parody. In other words (for those still struggling with the concept), the joke was not on the Obamas but on the knuckle-walkers who would do them harm by trying to turn a couple of fresh-scrubbed Harvard Law grads into something foreign and scary.”

To other commentators, the failure of the cartoon’s critics to “get it” mirrored a wider problem: that America, or large sections of it, had lost its sense of humour.

Maureen Dowd noted that Obama is “stingy with his quips and smiles”, and asked whether Obama had made it difficult to make jokes about him because “he’s trying so hard to be perfect that it’s stultifying”. To Dowd, it is perversely significant that Obama is abstemious in his diet and doesn’t much like sugars, fats or alcohol. (What seems to have slipped under her radar is that Obama also dislikes television, and has been repeating his view that television is extremely bad for kids since his speech to the 2004 Democratic convention.)

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Dowd complains, in sum, that Obama is not an “ordinary guy”. And he makes it difficult for the rest of us because we can’t find enough stuff to use to make jokes about him.

I rather like that Obama is serious and that he doesn’t make a joke out of everything. I like that he has a view that public office might demand gravitas, and even some distance from ordinary guys. And indeed it is unclear to me why an “ordinary guy” whom it is easy to joke about is suited to be president of a great and troubled empire, an empire that has a lot to get serious about.

For some reason, I don’t find George W. Bush’s bloopers all that funny any more. Nor do I find the ignorance and stupidity of some American citizens funny any more. What Miss South Carolina personally believes, or what American Idol Kellie Pickler thinks Budapest is just doesn’t get me rolling on the floor these days.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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