Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says--A Question in Response to the Obama-New Yorker Hysteria: Is Our Skin So Thin? Are We Not Stronger Than This?

"If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

To be consistently funny is the most difficult of tasks. Satire, perhaps more so.

I would imagine that the New Yorker's audience probably understood the magazine's attempt at satire. It is clear that those outside of the club did not. Simply, I am of the opinion that it fails as satire because there is nothing witty, ironic, particularly insightful, or funny about it (especially when compared against the high standard established by the smart and sharp cartoons that have previously graced the publication's cover).

Here, the central failing is that the cartoon states the obvious, i.e. that there are many people who believe that Obama is a Muslim terrorist and a fifth columnist, and that his wife is a fire-breathing, white people hating, black Nationalist. Okay, I got you. But, where is the payoff? I for one would have liked to see a cover with the same basic image, but instead modifying it by adding Michelle Malkin and Bill O'Reilly donning full body suits to imitate the Obamas, and perhaps McCain peering through the window with lascivious peeperesque glee in his eyes. Now, that would be a cover! But perhaps that cover would be better suited for Mad Magazine or Heavy Metal than the almighty, New Yorker.

Frankly, I have never been a particular fan of the New Yorker because it is too smart and self-consciously intellectual for its own good. Proof in point, their film critic disliked the movie Iron Man (how could you? Do you not have a soul and a heart?) and they have given Batman: the Dark Knight a negative review as well (how joyless they are):

Come on people, sometimes you just have to enjoy life. In my opinion, those cosmopolitan folk at the New Yorker just take themselves a bit too seriously is all. It doesn't upset me, it doesn't throw me into fits, I simply don't "get" the publication's hyper inflated sense of its own gravitas.

Not surprisingly, the brouhaha over the New Yorker's "offensive" cover was a conversation I was not too keen on participating in. It seemed over discussed, much ado about nothing, and while I understand how some could be upset, I felt that the energy being expended over a distracting sideshow could be better spent elsewhere: the housing crisis, on helping the unemployed, on finding a solution to the indebtedness of our country to multinational banks and foreign governments, or on staving off the impending Recession/Depression.

The New York Times with their piece on why comedians are afraid to make fun of Obama (all that messy race stuff), and (quite surprisingly) Gary Kamiya at Salon.com, both hit the nail on the head: Are we so sensitive that every poke, tickle, or unpleasant dig must be met by cries of offense and with clarions of bloody murder? Moreover, why do we have an expectation that popular culture, political humor, or satire more generally, should be "offense free?" That it should be easy? Or that popular culture should always make us feel good or validated?

Maybe I am an old soul, or perhaps I am hardened a bit, but aren't we--we meaning people of color generally, and my black people in particular, a bit tougher than this? And I will be generous and add liberals and progressives to this list as well--at least the old school Lefties who had courage and true grit--can we not laugh at ourselves? Must all art, humor, or popular culture be politically correct?

Consider for a moment: Black Americans have fought off the chains of slavery, struggled for the full rights and fruits of citizenship, improved American democracy for all peoples, fought in every war and conflict, never backed down from white supremacy, struggled to educate ourselves and our children when the State said "No," formed maroon colonies to resist the regime of slavery, and generally have done pretty damn well for ourselves (and yes, we have much more to improve), but a cartoon, a failed bit of satire, is the source of consternation and angst? How would our honored ancestors feel about that? Are we not stronger and tougher than what the New Yorker hysteria suggests?

Perhaps we respectable negroes need to make an intervention? Maybe we need to correct the historical myopia embodied in the New Yorker hysteria by providing examples of some truly racist and vile popular culture? Why not...

Exhibit One: A Little Old School Minstrelsy

Exhibit Two: Speaks for Itself

Exhibit Three: Oh Those were Good Times, weren't They?

Exhibit Four: Cartoons are Fun and Harmless, aren't They?

Exhibit Five: A Powerful Film that is Wholly Under Appreciated

Exhibit Six: Get Me Some Fried Chicken!

I feel dirty. These images are truly ugly, ugly spiritually, foul in their energy, and cruel because of the political work and power they embody and encourage.

How about the following challenge: Is this segment from Mad TV's, My Black Momma smart satire or is it crude "racism?" Is it hurtful? Mean? Unfunny? Or is it brilliant? Is there such as thing as "positive" or "empowering" racist satire? Or are they mutually exclusive? And no, I won't give away my answer.

Folks had better toughen up a bit because as this race continues, and if Obama wins, he, like any other president will be fair game--and rightfully so. Because to treat Obama just like any other candidate, to muck rake, to attack him, to swift boat him not because he is black, but because he is running for the position of President, the most powerful person on Earth, would be a true step towards racial equality.

Yes, some of the attacks will be tasteless. Yes, some of the criticism will be motivated by racism. Yes, some of it will hurt. But you know, I really think that we should thank the fates that while these images and their legacy are still with us, looming in our political and social subconscious, that we live in a moment of hopeful possibilities. Or perhaps, I, we, dare to dream too much?


Anonymous said...

The only reason that this Mr. & Mrs. Obama satire DOES have impact — and may very likely spread — is because like all good satire, or good humor for that matter, there’s more than a germ of truth in it. Otherwise, the satire would utterly roll off the Obamoids’ backs, having no impact.

Amadeo said...

I'm more mad about the Dark Knight Review. I've come to a point where I don't care what anyone says about Obama. Just doesn't matter. It's like eating a bag full of crappy jelly beans looking for the one flavor you like.

As for the Dark Knight...Batman has been around for years longer than me. Have any of them read the comic book. They may have noticed the things they complain about appear to be the film hitting the comic book on the head.

gordon gartrelle said...

We're clearly on the same page about the ridiculousness of the public offense parade, but I want to object to a few arguments that people are taking for granted:

The notion that the cover fails as satire because the stereotypes are too obvious is nonsense. For instance, two of Chappelle's best bits of satire--Reparations 2003 and the Mad Real World--are based on the most obvious stereotypes about black people.

I've heard many a so called respectable negro tear into Chappelle because even though they know that Chappelle is not mocking black people as much as he's skewering the twisted racist mind, they can't get past the images, especially when large numbers of white people "don't get it." I just find that position condescending and weak.

There's a bit of a speaker effect going on: because the New Yorker is what it is--a publication by and largely for elitist white liberals--those behind the cover are catching extra hell for something that wouldn't be a big deal if it came from black folks.

Also, putting the image in a Rove or McCain thought balloon wouldn't make it funnier; it would just make it stupider.

chaunceydevega said...

And I will dare to say it Senor Gordon...comedy works because there is a degree of truth behind the images, joke, jab, dig, or the like--and frankly, the untrue arguments made about Obama aren't wholly implausible. Yes, reject my membership in the tribe, but some of what has been said isn't impossible or totally ridiculous (except for the 5th column Angela Davis bit). Frankly, this scares the hell out of folk and no one, at least in the center, wants to engage it. I am not being PC, clearly, but we need to understand the minds of our enemies so we can defeat them--to deny their logic is to concede victory before the battle has begun. Just going black Sun Tzu on you is all.

Proceed to throw tomatoes, garbage, rotten ages, bombs, at me now.


All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

well u know how i feel


Anonymous said...

@ chauncey: oh my gosh, this blog made so much sense, its actually quite scary...careful there or someone might hurt you...but truly, are we not stronger and tougher than this...? Are we forever going to be that group of people that can never be mocked just because we are always quick tocry wolf and whine all the time at every little thing? yet for many of us, our lives are not improving and often times because of the wrong choices we have made....
@ the dark knight: they gave it negative reviews??? now what were they thinking????