Looking for the satirical sweet spot

Satire, not unlike irony, may elude a clear definition, but readers know it when they see it. Or so the editors of the New Yorker magazine assumed. Last week editor David Remnick was busy explaining and justifying the magazine's cover, which featured a Barry Blitt drawing of Barack Obama in the Oval Office, dressed in Middle Eastern garb, to include a gambaz, sandals and turban. Michelle Obama, sporting a full afro, stands close by, giving him a fist bump &

an AK-47 slung over her shoulder, dressed in revolutionary chic wear. Over the fireplace mantle is a picture of Osama bin Laden, or so it seems. Burning in the fireplace is an American flag.

Remnick, when questioned, was quick to explain that it was a satirical attempt to parody &

to the point of being burlesque &

the countless rumors circulating about Obama, rumors which have been endlessly debunked yet seem to be ever resilient.

Some cable news pundits felt that the magazine cover had crossed the line, arguing that the essence of good satire requires a nugget of truth, wrapped in trenchant humor, and there was nothing about Blitt's cartoon that was true.

Others pointed out that the people being satirized were those who continue to insist that Barack is a radical Muslim and Michelle's not proud of her country, no matter how often the Obamas roll out their biographies. Both have stories that are quintessentially American, which seems not to matter.

The NYer, of course, is not alone.

One political cartoonist had Obama wrapped in an American flag from head to foot with only his eyes visible. Mr. and Mrs. Heartland, standing nearby, accuse him of wearing a burqa. And so the rumors persist: Obama was schooled in a madrassa or a Qur'anic school in Indonesia; he was (and likely still is) a practicing Muslim; he took the oath of office for the U.S. Senate with his right hand on the Qur'an; he doesn't salute the flag; he reluctantly wears an American flag lapel pin; he was born in Africa and doesn't love America; he's a Muslim Manchurian candidate.

It's understandable why the NYer, which has been consistently pro-Obama over all these months, would decide to use a satirical political cartoon to draw attention to the entrenched rumor-mongering that has surrounded Obama's candidacy. The cover represents a throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air frustration while asking, how much truth is necessary to dispel these lies?

There is, however, embedded in this presidential campaign, the element of race, which may be the subtext for those folks unwilling to be confused by the facts when it comes to their opinions about Obama. It's easier to say that he is a Muslim and therefore not presidential than it is to say he is a black man and should not be elected.

A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that four in 10 blacks say there has been no progress in recent years in eliminating racial discrimination; fewer than two in 10 whites say the same thing. Half of blacks report that not enough has been made of barriers faced by blacks and many of the racial patterns in society remain unchanged in recent years.

Few Americans, the poll found, have regular contact with people of other races and few say their places of work or their neighborhoods are integrated, and nearly 70 percent of blacks say they have encountered a specific instance of discrimination. Only 26 percent of whites indicate they have been discriminated against based on race. Sixty-four percent of blacks feel that whites had a better chance of getting ahead in America than blacks while 55 percent of whites said race relations were good. "Among black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, Obama draws support from 89 percent," the poll concludes, "compared with 2 percent for Mr. McCain. Among whites, Obama has 37 percent of the vote compared with 46 percent for McCain."

Despite the historical aspects of Obama's candidacy, despite the enthusiasm stirred by his platform and his rhetoric, pejorative racial attitudes still represent a deep well of sentiment in America (often covert) which refuses to go dry. We are still a nation divided. And perhaps insisting Obama is a Muslim is simply a canard for a stealth racism that we, as a nation, find all but impossible to fully purge.

One last tangential point. Obama has been asked to say, repeatedly, that he is not a Muslim but a practicing Christian. But why should it matter? First, what has happened to separation of church and state? Has declared Christian faith become a litmus test for high office? And then there is the point that the word Muslim is being used as if it were an accusation, as if it's necessary to say "alleged Muslim." Being Muslim or Christian in America should be irrelevant. And we must remind ourselves that the vast majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world are peaceful. As are Christians.

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