Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A taste of one's own medicine...

The New Yorker magazine's most recent cover entitled "The Politics of Fear" (July 14th issue), features Barack Obama in a turban fist-bumping his wife Michelle, who is portrayed as a gun-toting terrorist, in the Oval Office with the American flag burning in the fireplace and a picture of Osama Bin Laden hanging above the mantelpiece.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's series of cartoons entitled "The Face of Muhammad" features, among other images, the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban, the faces of Muslims being either women in full burqa exposing only their eyes or a blind-folded elderly male wielding a traditional sword, and jihadist Muslims being stopped from entering heaven due to the shortage of virgins.

The editors of both of these publications claimed that the cartoons are satire, aimed at lampooning or caricaturing prevalent stereotypes. In Obama's case, the cartoon "satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama's campaign" (according to the cartoonist Barry Blitt). In the Danish case, the newspaper's cultural editor Fleming Rose "invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him" in order to make a political point about the place of Muslims in Danish society, as he wrote for the Washington Post: "We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims."

The point however is this: neither of these cartoons qualify as satire.

Simply deploying stereotypical images of one's target is NOT lampooning the stereotypes, but rather affirming and reinforcing them.

Portraying the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist in no way skewers the misconception that Islam is a warmongering rather than a peaceful religion. Portraying Obama as a terrorist-loving Muslim in no way puts paid to the false rumours that he is a Muslim when in fact he is a Christian.

In both cases, the portrayals are simply that - a portrayal, and a deliberately false one at that. They are thus devoid of any satirical content.

Caricatures require the element of fundamental truth to make them work. A good lampoon skewers the essence of the target to the quick. Think of all the brilliant political caricatures of times past and present - of the Lady Macbeth-incarnate Margaret Thatcher; of the bumbling ingratiating gnome that was the former Hong Kong Governor Tung; and last but not least, of the chimp-like George Dubya Bush whose ignoramy could only ever be approximated with any degree of fidelity by showing him as a buffoon. The tie that binds them all is the ring of truth. Satire is vital to a well-functioning polity precisely because it dares speak uncomfortable truths to power.

That does not mean, however, that anything uncomfortable or controversial should be mistaken as the truth itself. Just because it is uncomfortable to witness extreme slander does not render said slander as bearing the ring of truth. Audiences respond with laughters when satirists succeed in confronting the powers-that-be with home truths, and not when the jokes ring hollow due to a lack of internal validity.

If the New Yorker cartoon is to succeed as satire, then one would have to actually agree that Obama is indeed a Bin Laden wannabe. But that, of course, is precisely the opposite of what the satirist avowedly intended. If the joke is really meant to be on the rightwing fearmongerers, then it should be they who should be caricatured, not Obama.

Precisely because neither the New Yorker nor the Danish cartoons trade on truth, but truck in common slanders and falsehoods, that's what they become, in actual fact: mere slanders.

Objecting to these cartoons is not (simply) a matter of sensitivity or taste - though charges on both these grounds are also valid - but because they failed miserably in their purported goal. When a satire is just a stereotype, only the bigot gets to laugh.

And the self-aggrandising segment of the liberal West should finally have a little taste of its own tasteless medicine...

[Update: Just to show an example of how PROPER political satire about fearmongering tactics is done, I present to you the highly-respected caricaturist Steve Bell's latest cartoon in the Guardian newspaper:

(explanatory note to those not from around these parts: the smarmy guy wielding a knife behind the sign is meant to be David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, who tries to make political hay out of the recent epidemic of teenage knife crimes in London by touting a Get Tough policy, using unsubtle rhetoric about targeting black gangs even though research shows that the racial make-up of gangs simply reflects the demographic profile of the neighbourhoods they are based in and there is no predominance of any one ethnic group in gang membership).

To those who might still fail to see the difference between Steve Bell's work above and the New Yorker cover, let me further explain: Bell's cartoon puts the spotlight of caricature forcefully and squarely on the fearmongerers - in this case Cameron and his Conservative party; whereas Blitt's cartoon merely depicts in one handy image the substance of the key rightwing falsehoods about Obama, without any soupcon of visual reference or the faintest of graphical hints as to whether such falsehoods are indeed fearmongering spin by vested political interests. If the image is meant to be lampooning those rightwing spin machines, as it is claiming to be by both the cartoonist and the magazine editor, then the lampoon is so weak and ineffective as to be virtually non-existent.

That Barry Blitt might think he's the bees' knees at the New Yorker, but really, he still has a LOT to learn from the true masters of the craft... That is, if we buy the story that they were indeed really trying to skewer the right-wing false propaganda machine about Obama, rather than actually aiding and abetting it.]

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At Tue Jul 15, 03:17:00 p.m. IST, Blogger laichungleung said...

I have to read your post one more time slowly. I am not sure if it's satire or pure slander.

At Tue Jul 15, 03:28:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

There's an easy test: if it's not true then it's slander. Satire is funny precisely because it rings true. In this case, it isn't. Ergo, it is not satire. Q.E.D.

At Wed Jul 16, 02:42:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

I've expanded my explanations a bit more on further thought, these are added in the post now.

At Wed Jul 16, 04:28:00 a.m. IST, Blogger laichungleung said...

You have made some interesting points and they are valid. But still I would just take it as a joke, maybe a bad one but that's about it. Maybe because I am not black or Muslim, so it's easy for me to say. Then again, I ask myself am I a bigot? Perhaps a bit ignorant but I don't think I am or I am but in denial? I value the right to be irreverence, and occasionally make a fool out of oneself.

At Thu Jul 17, 04:55:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

There's a bit of bigotry in all of us anyway, the litmus test is, did you actually find it funny? I remember you said you didn't. I too recognise that the New Yorker is just a joke (like the Danish cartoon is just a joke) - recognising something as a joke, or a feeble attempt at a joke, doesn't mean that you agree with it or found it funny.

Moreover, not all jokes could be elevated to the level of satire, and and just because something is a joke doesn't make it right either (if that were the case, nobody will ever call out the cruelty of racist jokes).

Although I too am not black nor Muslim, these tasteless jokes hurt me too because I too am a member of ethnic minority group in the country I call home. Not speaking out about racist slanders just because it happens to be not targeted to my particular ethnic background would simply mean I'm conferring legitimacy on such odious practice.

That's why I focus on drawing the parallel between the Obama slander and the Danish cartoon slander in my post. I really wish that those self-righteous Western liberals who are so shrill in claiming their right to so-called "freedom of speech" over the Danish cartoon furore would finally understand that what they were clamouring for was in fact the right to slander.

And because I too value the right to be irreverent, and as you say, to make fools of oneself now and again, I think it is appropriate that the New Yorker be made to look foolish over their misfire when it fails so miserably to indeed be irreverent. As you know from my previous post on Hillary, I'm no fan of Obama and I long to see him being taken down a peg or two and be taken to task over his blatant reversals of positions on FISA, etc., and would love to see someone with a wicked sense of irreverent humour skewer him to the quick with a top notch caricature. Unfortunately, the New Yorker cartoon is not it.


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