Condemnation is Salvation: The Politics of How Not to Be Offensive

Pretend that you’re given a list of ten race-related remarks and asked to decide whether each remark is racist or not racist with no option to abstain. Regardless of each statement’s clarity or relevance, if there’s a chance that the responses are going to be made public, here’s how to avoid being labeled a bigot: always answer ‘racist.’ Even if you risk sounding obtuse, at least you won’t risk sounding racist.

This has been a key tactic for Obama’s opponents since he entered the race, and it remains an effective maneuver. Racism (and sexism, for that matter) is a vague concept and its vagueness is what makes it so dangerous. There are some obvious, indefensible racist things like blackface and certain words, but even an ostensibly harmless remark, regardless of its intention, can be construed as a racist one, and once it’s construed as such, any disagreement on your part can be condemned as a defense of racism. It’s somewhat like the old Aesthetics maxim: ‘in matters of taste, there’s no dispute.’ If someone finds a remark offensive, who’s to say otherwise?

And that’s the key word in this whole controversy: offense. What is it to be offended? It’s an equally evasive concept, and both camps took refuge under its nebulousness when The New Yorker‘s June 21st issue hit the stands this week. Obama campaign spokesperson Bill Burton: ‘most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive — and we agree.’ McCain himself: ‘totally inappropriate, and frankly I understand if Senator Obama and his supporters would find it offensive.’

For most readers, that suffices: McCain made the right political choice and we commend him for it even if it was a no-brainer. The same thing would be happening now if Clinton had prevailed: an endless, ceremonial litany of McCain being presented with flagged remarks and illustrations followed by the suspenseful wait for his utterly obvious approval: ‘Offensive, indeed.’ Of course McCain agrees! Were you expecting an enlightening oration on what qualifies as racist in modern America? And what exactly are people so afraid of? That the illustrator is trying to propagate Obama smears? That readers (of The New Yorker, mind you) will interpret the cover as a confirmation of the staff’s belief in the caricature?

To quote the Ol’ Dirty Bastard: n*gga, please: you will know when The New Yorker goes after you. I can see how an illustration of Obama in the White House dining room, fussing over the bacon bits on his salad while terrorists strut through the front door, or a gigantic flip-flop with Obama’s campaign logo on the straps, could be reason for an uproar; that would be political commentary. But this? The worst thing you can say about the cover is that it isn’t very clever — but cleverness isn’t its goal. All of the image’s suggestions, that Barack ‘Hussein’ Obama is a secret, flag-burning Muslim, that Michelle is a bitter whitey-hating militant, are acknowledged platitudes (albeit, still damaging in some quarters; the Obama camp created a whole web page to dispel them). This illustration isn’t promoting those smears: it’s merely the first time someone managed to cram them all into a single image. And it means to end them. The result is ridiculous because those accusations are ridiculous, and, hopefully, anyone that sees the cartoon will recognize that the ‘joke’ is over.

As hollow as the whole controversy is, the result will be a net plus for Obama. McCain played it safe, but now that identifying Obama stereotypes, even if you mean to satirize them, has become irredeemably offensive, publications will have to be even more sensitive about how they portray America’s first black presidential candidate. If The New Yorker, that paragon of American journalism (with thinly veiled liberal leanings, to boot), comes under fire for a little boundary pushing, what can anyone else expect to get away with?

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~ by ohkrapp on July 15, 2008.

6 Responses to “Condemnation is Salvation: The Politics of How Not to Be Offensive”

  1. A good point at a good time. This is the Obama campaign playing the race card probably just to put McCain in the position to respond, seeing if they can get a ‘gaffe’ out of him (i hate that word). I might be prepared to place all political cartoon satire out of the scope of what can be considered racist, whatever that means. The NYer cover clearly satirizes (clearly for the NYer reader demographic, anyway) the Fox News “terrorist fist jab” comment, the Hillary campaign circulation of the picture of Barack from his Somolia trip, and all the other hullaballoo, portraying it so ridiculously as to, you know, highlight its ridiculousness. Good call, krapp.

    I can respond to your interview at lightspeed.

  2. I wished that Obama played it a little more like: Yeah, I get the joke, you know, I personally find it a bit offensive, but there’s more important issues like blah blah blah blah.”
    But he would have that in a way that doesn’t seem condescending.

    Also, I think the problem is that that particular illustrator has a rather grotesque, caricature-y, style, which makes it seem more offensive. People are responding to the style I feel than the content, at least in a subconscious way. When I first saw the cover I didn’t see the content.

  3. Maybe if you didn’t get your news by scanning the Drudge Report for scandals but instead actually listened to what the candidates said in their (oh so long, I know) speeches you would get a little more, “enlightening oration on what qualifies as racist in modern America”:

    “In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch […] So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighbourhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company.”

    But of course you’ve already read Obama’s speech on race. You were just expecting that he would go on record as finding funny a racial caricature in a magazine read almost entirely by white people. That would indeed have been enlightening. Especially for the impoverished blacks in Atlanta and Mississippi whose vote Obama is counting on for any chance of winning those states. Sure, maybe he’d lose some votes among the few who didn’t “get it”, but look at the cultural gain: the New Yorker would see a vast surge in readership among that demographic! Who knows what would be next: ads for the newest 3-6 Mafia album next to next month’s “The Talk of the Town”? Complimentary copies of Granta with the purchase of combo meals at Bojangle’s Famous Chicken and Biscuits? The sky’s the limit! The new age of enlightenment is upon us!

  4. i don’t think i said that i wanted or expected obama to say the caricature was funny…? and the ‘englightening’ comment was directed towards mccain anyway.

    the post wasn’t supposed to be a critique on either candidate, really, but how modern, panoptic politics makes candidates so dull.

    most importantly, the caricature isn’t a racial caricature. it’s a crowded juxtaposition of all the smears that his opponents (and the media) have been propagating; there isn’t a black stereotype anywhere on the cover. what does the black community have to with flag-burning and osama bin laden? obama wouldn’t have been letting the black community down even if he had considered it funny because it’s not about black people… i think you’re conflating obama’s campaign, obama as a black person, and black americans in general. although it’s my fault for misleading by starting the post off (and, um, ahem, the title) re: racism when i really wanted to talk about offense. a better subtitle would be: ‘the politics of how not to offend’

    and, yes, i do read the drudge report. but i first read about the caricature in le monde. it was international news.

  5. did my comment make sense?

  6. I apologize for my tone. I sort of got on a roll and the word “scathing” kept popping into my head. But, after all, that’s what the internet’s for, right? Friends?

    Also, you should’ve pointed out that I accidentally said Obama wanted to win the “state” of Atlanta. As I was going to bed last night, about 4 AM, I cried “Georgia!” loud enough to wake Sofia.

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