x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Obama cartoon sparks outrage

A satirical magazine cover of Barack Obama pictured as a Muslim generated condemnation from both Democratic and Republican parties.

Vickie Han looks at The New Yorker magazine at a news-stand in Manhattan.
Vickie Han looks at The New Yorker magazine at a news-stand in Manhattan.

NEW YORK // A satirical magazine cover of Barack Obama pictured as a Muslim generated condemnation from both the Democratic and Republican parties yesterday and was branded "offensive". The cover of the latest issue of the liberal magazine The New Yorker, by artist Barry Blitt, was meant to satirise "the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the presidential election to derail Barack Obama's campaign", said a New Yorker press release.

The cartoon's title is The Politics of Fear and shows Mr Obama, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, in Muslim dress and Michelle Obama, his wife, in camouflage with a rifle slung over her shoulder. A US flag burns in the fireplace below a portrait of Osama bin Laden. They are in a White House room congratulating each other with a fist jab, once characterised on Fox TV as a "terrorist fist jab".

The image quickly aroused off-the-cuff political punditry and outraged commentary on the blogosphere, pitting defenders of free speech against liberals fearful the cover would reinforce persistent, right-wing questioning of Mr Obama's patriotism and background. Right-wing commentators say the Christian senator is really a Muslim, his wife once made a racial slur and make much of the fact that Mr Obama's middle name is Hussein.

A rebuttal website called fightthesmears.com launched by Mr Obama's campaign said he was never a Muslim and nor was he raised in that faith. Bill Burton, a spokesman for Mr Obama, slammed the cartoon. "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," he said. "But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree."

A spokesman for John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, was quick to weigh in. "We completely agree with the Obama campaign, it's tasteless and offensive," Tucker Bounds said. Previous New Yorker covers by Mr Blitt showed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, on a toilet reading the newspaper, while a shoe appears from underneath the neighbouring stall. The cartoon was a reference to Mr Ahmadinejad's claim that there were no homosexuals in Iran and to a sexual-solicitation scandal involving Larry Craig, a US senator. Another cover depicted George W Bush, the US president, wearing an apron and duster while Dick Cheney, the vice president, relaxes with a beer and cigar.

Not everybody was outraged. Clarence Page, an African-American columnist with the Chicago Tribune, said the cover was "quite within the bounds of journalism". Liz Cox Barrett, a writer for Columbia University's Columbia Journalism Review, said the cover on its own would have been unlikely to make any effect on the presidential elections, but it remained to be seen if the accompanying controversy and commentary would have an effect.

"This was a political cartoon and a satire and from a media critic's point of view, I have no problem with it," she said. "In this campaign, every rumour and distortion is seized upon and becomes fodder for the cable news networks. Some people have argued the cartoon should have included the caption The Politics of Fear, but the people who send it out on the internet would lop off the title and still circulate it out of context."

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, vigorously defended his editorial judgement. "The fact is, it's not a satire about Obama - it's a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama," he told the Huffington Post website. "This is saying a particular thing at a particular time, when these imaginings and dark fantasies and misconceptions about Obama exist. And we're putting it all together in one image and holding a mirror up to it and showing it for the absurdity it is."

Ryan Tate, a satirical writer on the gawker.com website, defended the cover. He recently drew the ire of miquelon.org, which says it monitors anti-French activity, for a humorous piece attacking "lazy, arrogant French doctors" who made Angelina Jolie stay in hospital for three days after the US actress gave birth to twins rather than letting the "tough American patriot" leave immediately. "Well this is the part in the campaign where we find out who among Barack Obama and his supporters truly do want to set aside the melodramatic hysterics that have cropped up around political dialogue in this country ? and who is instead destined to join the extreme right in opposing a long and proud American tradition of brazen free speech and rough and tumble dialogue, that have all too often been set aside in recent years in the name of sensitivity," Tate wrote.