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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Response to Obama cartoon shows our growing censoriousness

    It’s hard to remember the last time the New Yorker caused an uproar, but the venerable magazine did it again this week when they published a cover showing a cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama in the Oval Office – with Barack as a headdress-wearing Islamist, Michelle as a gun-toting Black Panther, the two bumping fists in anti-American solidarity.

    As if that weren’t enough, the American flag burns brightly in the fireplace and a portrait of Osama bin Laden adorns the wall. Ouch.

    The point, if it’s even necessary to explain it, is simply that this is many Americans’ worst nightmare about what the first black couple in the White House might turn out to be like – and, more pertinently, the way right-wing pundits would like Americans to see Barack and Michelle.

    Whether you found it funny or not, the New Yorker’s point was certainly obvious enough – except to Barack Obama’s camp, which dubbed the cartoon “”tasteless and offensive.”” Even John McCain’s team joined in to agree. Bloggers, for their part, have been ranting across the Internet about the cartoon, some of them suggesting that John McCain be shown “”imagining”” the image – which would have made the cartoon so obvious and bludgeoning as to be insulting.

    “”There is nothing funny about it,”” a Long Island woman told Newsday. “”And the Osama bin Laden painting on the wall in the corner – that just gave me chills.”” (In other words, it made its point.)

    Why such overblown fury over a pretty harmless cartoon with a fairly obvious point? The arguments, all of them, are bogus: that this will hand “”ammunition”” to Obama’s enemies (as if it were a magazine’s responsibility to only run material that supports a politician), that most Americans won’t “”get”” it (the ones who don’t live in New York City, presumably), that the cartoon isn’t funny (no one’s picketing Comedy Central).

    The actual reason people are offended by the cartoon is that it “”seems offensive.”” Americans are growing increasingly allergic to any form of speech that strikes them as remotely “”questionable.”” Something has happened that has transformed a freedom-loving people into a censorious mob.

    A radio talk show host’s gaffe, a politician’s mumbled aside, a stand-up comic’s racy material – all of them, in recent months, have been singled out for condemnation. A theme repeats itself through every single pseudo-scandal: We are offended not by actions but by words.

    Since we can’t throw someone in prison for speaking their mind – and it’s worth remembering that it’s happened, even in America – we’ll hound them into the grave, or at least out of a career. We’ll make them pariahs. The point is to discourage the expression of free thought, to make certain thoughts crimes, to put an invisible boundary around what we can think and what we can say.

    Watching a host of old “”Saturday Night Live”” episodes recently, I was astonished by how often, and how comfortably, the show used race and racism as a source of humor. Many of them, like the classic sketch where Jane Curtin plays a (very) white woman who’s written a memoir about growing up black in Harlem, were a lot more daring than the New Yorker cartoon.

    It’s impossible to imagine most of those sketches running today, just as it’s hard to imagine the great show “”All in the Family,”” in which hapless antihero Archie Bunker was portrayed as a bigot (partly in order to expose the foolishness of bigotry, partly because indiscriminant prejudice is funny), running today, when we make no distinction between a bigot and a racist.

    Has our growing tendency toward grim censoriousness turned us into a less racist society? It seems doubtful. Rather, it has turned us into a society of people perpetually afraid to say what they’re thinking, afraid even to laugh at something that someone else might find “”offensive.””

    It’s hard to imagine anything more un-American than that.

    – Justyn Dillingham is history and political science senior. He can be reached at

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