Who's image is it? – Black on Black Thought

This is part of the bi-weekly Black on Black Thought feature.

James wrote an interesting response to the New Yorker cover called “The New Yorker and Archie Bunker”. The gist of his analysis is the following:

Wlady Plesczynski, longtime editorial director of The American Spectator, blogged that the cover was “too clever by half, taking some generally known unserious tropes and having a field day with them, as if at some level the magazine actually thought such a caricature had some basis in fact.” That is exactly right. If the cover were an attempt to pre-empt and ridicule conservative attacks on Obama, two things went terribly wrong in that thinking:

  1. This will only embolden — it certainly won’t scare — conservatives. Now that a liberal publication has fired the first salvo, one far worse than any that Republicans have conjured up to date, it’s far more likely that we’ve entered Open Season than any chance of conservatives shying away from playing the race angle.
  2. Most Americans are, in the words of a former colleague, “only negligibly literate.” While the inside-the-Beltway types will see the cartoon for what it is — a poorly done jab at the right-wing — I doubt that the people in “Flag City, USA,” many of whom actually do believe that Obama is, or was, a Muslim, will see the nuance. More likely they’ll just take it as proof that see, I knew that Obama he was some kind of Muslim; my friends were right all along — even The New Yorker said so.

I agree with James that this is satire done with the skill of dog writing poetry. However, we differ on the underlying reason why this article cartoon cover failed so miserably.

Political satire requires irony

James’ colleague’s quote that most Americans are “only negligibly literate” is, while harsh, tragically applicable to this situation. The few people that actually read the accompanying article would quickly realize that its content is wholly unrelated to the cover image. This would be effective satire if the article would have actually talked about the stereotypes that were shown on the cover, which have been both passively and actively perpetuated by conservatives and even the now defunct Clinton campaign, and shown how ridiculous they were. That did not happen. Because these things are not addressed, they are left to stand on their own, which make James’ #1 & #2 scenarios real possibilities. There is no irony here, only encouraged idiotic ignorance.

The framing of a candidate

The larger issue here is that is at hand here is the definition, framing, and ‘ownership’of Obama’s image. Obama has done something during this election cycle that while frustrating to myself and some other progressives is actually a political stroke of genius. He has set a broad boundary for the definition of his political self, and laid on canvas upon which people and groups can project their ideals & positions onto him.

The smart thing about this is that it allows for him to build an extraordinarily broad coalition of supporters. Even better, it allows him to do this without necessarily having to take a hard position on particular issues, leaving him the political flexibility and wiggle-room to govern as he needs to without having too many folks trying to cash in favors.

The risks with this strategy are also two-fold. For Obama himself, he has to very carefully and powerfully make sure that nay-sayers do not co-opt his image. I think Obama has been doing a decent jobon this, at least a much better job than John Kerry did. These means stern responses to things like this. The risk for Obama’s supporters [and to an extent the candidate as well] is that feelings of betrayal may fester (even if they are not really based on anything). We saw this with Obama’s vote in FISA and his responseto critics of that vote, and I suspect we’ll see it again on issues like Iraq and economic policy. That’s good for Obama, but could be problematic for his progressive supporters.

Satire has to actually be funny

This cartoon was good for neither Obama nor his supporters. Obama must not let attempts to take ownership of his image away from him by opponents happen without a strong response.

Actually, the cartoon itself wasn’t even good. Along with being ironic, satire must have comedic value. On scale of 1 to 10, this got a comedy factor of -50.

One Love. One II.


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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

2 responses to “Who's image is it? – Black on Black Thought”

  1. Nonso Christian Ugbode says :

    Very trenchant analysis brother Garlin.

    Additionally I was wondering, doesn’t satire have to include some clue within it as to the party being made fun of? There is no representation in this cartoon of the right-wing being presumably criticized.

    Satire targeted at the victims of stereotypes is not satire, it’s just a stereotype loudly stated.

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