To watch the contortions over that New Yorker cover cartoon of the Obamas is to understand whom it is impermissible to offend in the America of 2008.
The cartoon is a caricature of Michelle as an urban terrorist in an Angela Davis afro with an AK-47 slung over her back and a bandoleer of ammo in the Oval Office doing a fist-bump with a Barack decked out in turban and Muslim garb. On the wall hangs a portrait of Osama bin Laden. Blazing away in the fireplace is the American flag.
"President Obama and First Lady -- as Seen From the Right-Wing Point of View" might have been the caption. Phil Klein of American Spectator nailed it: "This cartoon is intended to make fun of conservatives as ignorant racists and essentially marginalize any criticism of Obama as moronic."
Unfortunately for the New Yorker, the cartoon misfired. Blow-ups are likely to be as pandemic in right-wing dorms this fall as were posters of "Che" Guevara in left-wing dorms in the 1970s.
Indeed, to a goodly slice of the media, this cartoon is no joking matter. Michelle and Barack had been dissed!
For 48 hours, editors Rick Hertzberg and David Remnick fended off attacks, assuring media interrogators the cartoon's purpose was not to satirize the Obamas but to satirize the caricature of Michelle and Barack in the mind of the paranoid right. Remnick insisted to The Huffington Post, "It's not a satire about Obama -- it's a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama."
Why did progressives recoil? Because the more savvy among them sense that, like much humor, this cartoon was an exaggeration that contained no small kernel of recognizable truth.
After all, Barack did dump the flag pin. Michelle did say she had never been proud of her country before now. Barack did don that Ali Baba outfit in Somalia. His father and stepfather were Muslims. He does have a benefactor, Bill Ayers, who said after 9-11 he regrets not planting more bombs in the 1960s. He did have a pastor who lionizes Black Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan. Put glasses on him, and Barack could play Malcolm X in the movies.
And assume the point of the cartoon had been to satirize the Obamas. Why would that have been so outrageous?
Journalists, after all, still celebrate Herblock, the cartoonist who portrayed Richard Nixon with the body of a rat climbing out of a sewer.
Bill Clinton is still denounced as a racist for saying Barack's claim to have been consistent on Iraq was a "fairy tale" and for comparing his South Carolina primary victory to Jesse Jackson's.