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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

July 21, 2008

Written by C.N.

The New Yorker’s Obama Cover

I’m sure all of you have seen it by now — The New Yorker’s July 21, 2008 cover featuring Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, for an article entitled, “The Politics of Fear”:

The New Yorker's cover cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama

I’m sure you’ve also heard and seen the controversy that the cover has sparked. As a pragmatist, I can understand the Obama campaign’s negative reaction to the cover — even though it and the associated article satirizes the persistent and ignorant rumor that Obama is secretly an undercover fundamental Muslim terrorist, images are more powerful than words, and they fear that such an “in your face” image will only legitimize such a rumor.

But on the other hand, as a person of color who has dealt with stereotypes and racial ignorance for my entire life, I think the cover is brilliant. Mona Eltahawy actually captures my reaction and thoughts on the cover just about perfectly:

What was it but stupidity that left so many Americans gullible to right-wing “accusations” that Obama was that turban-wearing, Osama Bin Laden-loving Muslim on the magazine’s cover, bumping fists with his militant, rifle-toting wife Michelle as the American flag burned in their fireplace? . . .

This Muslim, at least, was relieved to see the stupidity lampooned so starkly. But as soon as I began to revel in the caricature, a little dismayed hand wringing began.

Because now the very people who were offended by right-wing accusations about Obama were acting offended by a cartoon lampooning those very same right-wing machinations. It is as if America has gone mad, or worse, gone brainless.

At a dinner-table conversation in Mumbai a couple of weeks ago, Sanjay – an architect and businessman – turned to me quite earnestly to proclaim, “Americans are inherently stupid. How do you live with them?”

Then Manique, a Sri Lankan woman, joined the conversation to tell us that during a visit to the United States a few years ago, someone actually asked her if they had bread in Sri Lanka. I asked her, half-jokingly, if it was the same American who asked my dad at an Athens hotel over dinner years ago whether we had fruit in Egypt.

More than just shocked amusement, these incidents show why all of us would vote for Obama if we could. He would never ask us if we had bread or fruit in our countries.

Obama is much like us.

He has travelled. He has lived abroad. He has family in several countries. He has a different script for what an American is. He is an American who is comfortable as a citizen of the world.This is what makes the right-wing, “secret Muslim” accusations and the stupid gullibility surrounding them all the more ludicrous and imperative to lampoon – just as Blitt does in the New Yorker.

Those howls of “offensive” and “tasteless” flung at the New Yorker suggest to me Blitt’s ability to lampoon not just the right wing but even some on the left who have promoted fears about Obama.

Wasn’t it Hillary Clinton’s campaign that leaked pictures of Obama in Somali traditional garb looking just like that crazy figure on the cover of the New Yorker? And didn’t Clinton herself suggest that white, working-class America wouldn’t vote for black, hyper-educated Obama?

Wasn’t it The New York Times which published an op-ed by a right-wing commentator that was ignorant and embarrassing: It claimed that Obama wasn’t Muslim enough and would be hunted by Muslims because he had abandoned the faith of his father – an atheist, by the way.

Just as we were amused at how confounded Americans are that we, too, have bread and fruit in our countries, the Obamas confound because they don’t fit within simplistic boxes meant to keep them securely in their place. They’re not at all the black stereotype, and it seems to scare the hell out of some Americans. . . .

[The New Yorker cartoon] touches on a fear of the world changing much too fast for many Americans to keep up. It ridicules an America that is being left behind, grappling with quaint notions of Muslims in regulation turban and white robe and militantly angry black women. And whether other countries have bread or fruit.

We, the children of a post-colonial world, don’t fear an Obama Planet. It has been our world for a long time. We’re happy finally to see the growing success of one of our own.

Mona Eltahawy is absolutely right — whether Americans like it or not, the world and American society are changing. With this in mind, if gullible Americans — and some liberals — don’t adapt, they will get left in the dust.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The New Yorker’s Obama Cover" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/07/the-new-yorkers-obama-cover/> ().

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