Monday, July 14, 2008

Obama ≠ Muslim

This week's New Yorker offers a pleasant image of what some conservatives see in Barack and Michelle Obama, and what many of them -even if they don't believe it- portray the two as:
Now, I agree with many of the criticisms that have been ringing out across the blogosphere everywhere from feministing to Shakesville to Moderate Left (and countless others). This doesn't ring out "satire" to me. It could be the cover of some radically conservative magazine; it could be a political cartoon found in my local (and very conservative) newspaper. Without some context, the image could as easily be a rallying cry for the Right as it is for the Left. And that is a problem, considering that satire is the main goal. No one thought Swift was actually advocating the selling and eating of the Irish children in A Modest Proposal. And that was because he went the whole hog. This image doesn't; it doesn't take the fear far enough, because it plays into what people fear already. Probably not those people who read The New Yorker, but still. I'm not offended by the image, because it was meant to be satire. And satire is one of those difficult art forms; it is something that is elusive. Paint in too broad strokes and one risks being as unfunny as if one did not go far enough.

However, this image does bring up something else. A while ago, two muslim women wearing hijabs were barred from sitting where they would be visible behind Obama at a campaign rally. I remember thinking at the time that it was a smart -if not politically correct- decision. It may not have jived with Obama's message of inclusion and unity, but it certainly prevented a rather unfortunate photo op when rumors of the candidate being a closet muslim who is out to deliver the nation to the hands of muslim extremists were (and are) floating about. After all, it was an equally atrocious smear campaign that helped bring down McCain's presidential bid in 2000, when push-pollers for Bush insinuated that his adopted Bangladeshi-born daughter was his own illegitimate -and racially mixed- child. Nixing potentially cataclysmic situations is what a good staff does. I could see Josh Lyman doing the same thing -for the same political reasons.

It wasn't fair to these women, and it wasn't right. But it is something that has to be done in order to win, in order to avoid an image of Obama with his fist up and traditionally garbed muslims behind him finding its way into every mailbox on a conservative pamphlet in every swing state. And now the New Yorker has delivered that image. Which is depressingly aggravating. And also kind of funny. Because this is how elections are won and lost. From the beginning of American history, this is how we do things. Adams was viciously smeared, both by his own party and by Jeffersonian Republicans. He lost; he lost by a lot. We generally don't decide elections on facts -or at least not relevant ones. We decide who to vote for on feelings, and on accusations that stick to the recesses of the mind. And Obama as a muslim and Michelle Obama as a radical Black Panther crazy has stuck. So the danger is throwing more fuel on that fire, even as we attempt to extinguish it. And that is what The New Yorker, however unintentionally, did.

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