Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

I’m not much convinced that The New Yorker cover works as satire (more on that below), but I think the guys over at JibJab have another hit with this take on the political campaign.


More later on why I think this works and the New Yorker cover fails, but first I have to say I’m so glad that the world is abuzz with cultural theory! Ok, not so much. But the New Yorker’s ill-fated attempt at satire has the chattering classes hard at work trying to parse questions of genre, reader response, aesthetic taste and various other kinds of folderol. If it was satire, would people get it? If people didn’t get it, could it really be considered satire. Does the message of the image depend upon it’s intended audience as David Remnick

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding?  You Decide

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding? You Decide

seems to suggest it does when he asserts that it’s intended, after all for “Readers-of-the-New-Yorker,” that snooty bunch. But is the meaning of the visual text here determined by the intention of the artists and the reading capabilities of an intended-and-oh-so-sophisticated-audience? In this day an age? When ANY text has no chance of being targeted exclusively at an intended audience because it will immediately be spewed endlessly into the blogosphere. What is an intended audience in such a world?

I’m impressed by the degree to which the discourse has revolved around criticisms of readings and possible readings. Maureen Dowd–I liked her much more when she was being smug and condescending about Hillary Clinton–smirks that obama is prissy and humourless and should just realize that COME ON, everyone in New York knows its just a joke. This seems just like the kind of answer a New Yorker would give, believing as they do, and apparently Maureen does, that the world is their oyster.

Philip Kennicott has a more interesting take on this same general idea over at the Washington Post. Agreeing with Dowd that Obama may be a bit too prissy in his response to the cover, he goes further and links it to the particular aura of printed material in comparison to our video-oriented imagination. Satire lives, but only in the bawdy possibilities of the moving image.

On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous — and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

“People say, well, I get it, but I’m afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it,” said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television’s continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube — where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves — we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.

I can really only go part way with him on this. Do we really think print is sacred. Just the other day in my reflections on Hard Times I was suggesting that we are so super saturated with “print”–broadly considered–that print has lost it’s aura. I think the same applies to the image.

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

[Side note: I can see the point that everyone can be a little condescending to readers in fly-over country, still, I think this take from Tom Toles on the controversy is a lot smarter than the original and a lot better satire too. Score one for the post, and tom Toles.]

It may, of course, be that a good number of lefties have been holding Obama sacred, and The New Yorker cover doesn’t work for the same reason that jokes about Jesus mother don’t play in the Vatican.

But really, I don’t think the real issue is that all the Obamabots are humorless. I thought the JibJab video was hysterical–and not just because it’s skewers are equal opportunity. It’s because the satire reveals and revels in something that is kind of really true about Obama, who is the subject of the piece. By contrast, the real subject of the satire on the New Yorker cover is nowhere to be seen–and, to be honest, nowhere in consciousness. We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

This is not a lack of irony on the part of readers, as Remnick and others have lamented. Rather, the image is not ironic at all, playing off a doubleness contained within the image or within the readers’ experience of themselves viewing the image. Instead, it is a kind of postmodern archness which is anything but ironic. Indeed, I think it’s kind of smug.

On the other hand, the JibJab video really does reveal something that’s kind of true about Obama, as much as I love him. If stretched and distorted and made into a grotesque–which is what satire does, witness Swift–then you really feel the truth of the criticism that Obama is just a little too good to be true, and that too good to be trueness depends heavily on a lack of specificity that lets us project our fairy tales on to him. He will inevitable disappoint (witness Dowd’s grouchiness). In this sense, the video becomes not only about something that seems vaguely real about the Obama candidacy, it becomes about us as the viewers of the video (and more specifically as viewers of Obama). We see the truth about ourselves and our fantasies in ways that make us uncomfortable but also make us want to laugh.

None of this necessarily makes me happy, about the New Yorker, I mean. I used to think that The New Yorker was the repository of all that was smart and superior and intelligent in the world. But the guys over at JibJab are way smarter. Score another one for video. Where the smart people are.

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Reference: Maureen Dowd, My Hero

Actually not, since half the time I think Dowd substitutes irratibility for thoughtfulness. Still, I thought this article was an interesting reflection on some of the gender issues I’ve also been taking up the last couple of days. According to Dowd:

“There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing. “

This strikes me as unfairly harsh. Clinton is a few country miles from Nixonian. But it does suggest that Clinton’s own construal of the gender war that’s going on over emotion is suspect. Clinton defended herself by saying male leaders are allowed to cry while women aren’t. All tears are not, in fact, equal, nor do they communicate similar things.

Men do, in fact, cry on the campaign trail. Strategically, no less. Cynically, no doubt. But the prospect of a man gaining points by crying because the trail is so hard and the people so unheeding is unfathomable.

Dowd goes on:

“Hillary sounded silly trying to paint Obama as a poetic dreamer and herself as a prodigious doer. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said. Did any living Democrat ever imagine that any other living Democrat would try to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire by comparing herself to L.B.J.? (Who was driven out of politics by Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire.)”

“Her argument against Obama now boils down to an argument against idealism, which is probably the lowest and most unlikely point to which any Clinton could sink. The people from Hope are arguing against hope.”

Author! Author! Of course, I’m always most impressed with Dowd’s brilliance when she agrees with my own brilliant opinions.

Barack Obama Sings America

Let it be said now. Barack Obama channels Walt Whitman.

Nevertheless, something there is in a political woman that doesn’t like poetry in a man. MSNBC reports today that Hillary has chosen to attack Obama by mocking his eloquence. She’s been stumping in New Hampshire, saying “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” One of many jabs that Hillary uses to demonstrate her superior manliness to Obama and his fluff, the quote comes originally from Mario Cuomo. Another Clinton favorite: “I’m a doer, not a talker.”

May be. Though it does seem to me that Hillary is a little tone deaf on this one. She is, after all, campaigning and not governing, as if she has forgotten that she has to campaign after all. I’m also not so sure it’s a wonderful move to deride the citizenry for having false hopes. (Who does she have writing this stuff?) All of this is of a piece of Hillary’s general effort to demonstrate that she has the cojones to be president. And that her own cojones…among other things…are a lot bigger than Edwards or Obama.

Indeed, I was fascinated with the way last night’s debate among the Democrats degenerated toward a variety of male stereotypes—as if we can’t get past the masculine image even at this moment when the stereotypical image of masculine leadership seems to be less stable than ever.

In one corner, we had Edwards the pugilist, who seems bound and determined to be fighting everyone and everything. “You can’t nice these people.” Another jab at Obama’s apparently suspect masculinity. I wished someone would give Edwards some valium, or else a good book to read. In another corner we had Richardson the affable elder statesman (who, in my estimation, pushed himself a notch closer to the vice presidency). Clinton played the hardnosed greybeard realist with her nose to the grindstone. She’s apparently been working non-stop for 35 years. Does it occur to her that when she says this most Americans say “Why don’t you take a vacation. I would. In fact, I’ll be glad to give you one.”

Which left Obama to be….What?….again, something that seemed new, that didn’t seem to quite fit in.

Still, I’m getting far afield from my original purpose. I’m intrigued by the role that literary metaphors are playing in the political campaign so far, and especially in Hillary’s latest attacks. The Huffington Post had a much quoted blog a few weeks ago to the effect that Obama was poetry and Clinton was prose. Hillary’s attack picks up on this dichotomy and falls into typical masculine stereotypes that men who like poetry are just a little too effeminate for comfort, at least for political comfort. Hillary’s attacks called to my mind Maureen Dowd’s skewering in the New York Times of John Kerry in two different op-ed pieces because he not only read but also wrote poetry. Didn’t this signify somehow, Dowd seemed to imply, that Kerry was too unreliable, too unserious, or at least not serious in the right ways, to play with the big boys. See June 8 2003 and March 7, 2004 in the New York Times.

Picking up on my post from yesterday, I’m intrigued with how the candidates use literature as a means of communicating something about themselves, and whether what they reveal about their literary tastes and interests says anything about them. I went on the respective candidates’ Facebook pages to see just what it said about their literary interests.

About Hillary I discovered….zilch, zero, nada. Indeed, Hillary’s Facebook page offers absolutely nothing about her personal interests at all. As if in playing out the traditional masculine split between public and private, she has to absolutely deny that she has any personal interests whatsoever. Or maybe it is just that her personal interests only extend to becoming president of the United States.

Of all the candidates, Obama’s is the most extensive, the most diverse, and the most dominated by literary texts. He names Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, The Tragedies of Shakespeare, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Parting the Waters, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Self-Reliance by Emerson, The Bible, Lincoln’s Collected Writings.

My God, the guy actually reads. I mean, I have no doubt that these pages are massaged and picked over by staff for the kinds of messages that might be sent. (More on Mitt Romney’s choice of Huckleberry Finn—an apparently quick correction from an earlier choice of a novel by L. Ron Hubbard that earned guffaws from the blogosphere last year– and Mike Huckabee’s choice of The Holy Bible in another day or two). But Obama has to have actually read this stuff, and he has to actually read books for his own interest. Having read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson not only helps him with the literary crowd—he doesn’t really need the help, they’ll mostly vote for him anyway—it also helps him with moderate and educated evangelicals who found Robinson’s novel immensely complex and moving, testimony yet again that the connections between literature and religion are hardly dead. They’re just quiet.

By comparison, I guess I was disappointed at the fact that Hillary didn’t list anything at all. I dug around for awhile—unscientific word searches on Google—and finally found a reference at the NEA where Hillary suggests her favorite book as a child was “Goodnight Moon.” A lovely choice. I read it ad nauseum to my kids, but am now far enough removed from the cuteness that I get warm fuzzies at the sound of the title.

Has she read anything since? She did not list a favorite adult book on the NEA. I also just found a blog on the same topic at Huffington Post that says Hillary chooses Little Women and The Poisonwood Bible. However, I can’t find anything else readily available that confirms these choices. Still, I think they are worthy choices if true. John Lundberg finds them too predictable. I’m not sure that I agree but they do suggest a certain prepackaged quality of control and safeness to me. The bitter attack on fundamentalism in the Poisonwood Bible won’t win her fans with the hardest core of fundamentalists, but, again, they wouldn’t vote for her anyway.

I admit to disappointment in having to dig so hard to find out anything about Hillary’s literary tastes. Whereas Obama strikes me as a person to have in your book group. What a great conversation that would be after eight years of a president who can’t be bothered by literature. Too much nose to the grindstone for the imagination to have much play for Hillary. Somehow it says something to me that Obama is presenting himself as a literary man while I have to dig and dig to figure out if Hillary reads anything other than the bible she apparently carries with her everywhere—and which still does nothing for her with the biblically literate electorate.

Still, I’m wondering if Hillary’s graybeard, workaholic, no-time-for novels, approach to this political campaign will really win out in the end. America famously honors novels more in the breach than in reality. Real men—and Hillary in some ways has to prove that she’s man enough for the job—have no time for literary folderol. Obama’s depth and complexity run the risk of seeming, well, wimpy, something both Clinton and Edwards have keyed in on.

I’ll take a risk here and say that Obama can get away with it because he’s …black. Odd leap, I realize, but bear with me. In white America’s racial codes, black men are portrayed as hypermasculinized, all body and no mind. There’s a lot of scholarly material out there on the historical fears that white Americans have of black American masculinity (I’ve drawn on some of this and use it in my book on masculinity and religion in the Harlem renaissance—freely admitting that “book” is a hopeful word for the 400+ pages that now sit in my computer, just starting as we are to sniff around for a publisher). Obama’s literariness and his lyrical eloquence serve to humanize him for a white audience that, while improving, is not so very far removed from the appeals of Willie Horton ads. Henry Louis Gates, after all, has pointed out that historically blacks used literacy—the ability to read and write literature—to demonstrate their full humanity to white audiences. I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that Obama’s literary card softens residual white fears of a black male planet.

Obama’s poetry, his admirably diverse literary interests, serve the purposes of showing him once again as a uniter, someone who brings all things together. He brings black and white together. He brings Herman Melville and Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare together. He brings male and female together. He brings his hard political and his soft literary sides together.

Obama’s literariness strikes me as genuine and authentic—though I realize that in this day and age even authenticity is pre-packaged. His literariness quite clearly matches and even enhances his political imaginary. Obama’s literary “softness,” deadly to men like John Kerry and John Edwards–and perhaps deadly, too, for political women like Hillary Clinton–plays to the idea that he can be all things.

He is large. He contains multitudes.

He too sings America.

Side note: I’ve added Liz Laribee’s blog, peaceamillion, to my blogroll. Liz is one of the funniest, and best, young writers that I know. Of course, I don’t know that many young writers. Sorry, Liz. The truth will out. No seriously. Everyone should go delight in Lizworld.