Sunday, July 20, 2008

Defending the New Yorker cover

After reading this article on WireTap magazine criticizing the recent New Yorker cover with the Obamas. Among other things, the article considers the image to be not satire but racism veiled as irony. One comment suggested that the image ought to be contained in the thought bubble of a bigot, to make explicitly clear that the image is "satire". But after reflecting on what the image says, as I should have already, I have come to appreciate the image as I think it was intended - a satire that challenged its readers to make their own judgments, and that implicates all of us in perpetuating the stereotypes it depicts, rather than blaming them on an imaginary bigot.

Good satire challenges the reader's own responsibility to the issue. If the New Yorker cover had a thought bubble from a "Fox News Exec" or a white hillbilly to clarify that the New Yorker does not believe these things about the Obamas, the reader would be excused from considering their own responsibility in propagating the false allegations and stereotypes. "Oh," we might think, "the New Yorker is not saying that I think this, or that our society is painting this picture". By blaming the racist images on another, the cover would excuse us from confronting our own complicity in propogating these ideas, and from considering how we out to respond to them on a personal level (Actually, the same cartoon with a thought bubble around it would be the real piece of racism).

Satire looses its bite when we contextualize it out of its meaning. The most famous piece of satire in perhaps all of English literature is Jonathan Swift's, "A Modest Proposal", in which he suggests that Irish babies ought to be eaten to control the island's population. At no point does he suggest that he's only joking. He also does not provide a literary thought bubble, such as "The following is what a bad person might say". He presents his case about baby eating and relies on the intelligence and morality of the reader to figure out that his piece is satire.

This New Yorker cover challenges us to confront our own stereotypes and make our own judgments. It neither blames the stereotypes on someone other than the reader nor relieves us of the responsibility of thinking about, understanding and then responding to the image ourselves.

When I first saw the cover, I, too, was shocked. But upon reflection, I think have learned a little about stereotypes and my own and my society's often unknowing role in propogating them. And isn't that exactly the point of good satire?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Governance without Government with Al Gore

Maybe you have seen Al Gore's Challenge to the American people. We should come together as a county and abandon oil in 10 years. There are some interesting aspects in the speech that relate to expanding notions of what counts as governance.

For example, the video looks a great deal like what such a speech would look like if an elected leader had made it. American flags fill the back of the video. He is wearing a dark grey suit and a plain dark red tie, a favorite of Presidential candidates and Presidents alike. The video's framing suggests an official act of government.

Mr. Gore's language also links his challenge to Presidential acts of the past. He explicitly compares his challenge to President Kennedy's successful appeal to send an American to the moon.

The address is almost Presidential. It has the potential to guide viewers to link this challenge with official acts of government, and to view Al Gore's appeal almost like an appeal by government. With Congress and the President suffering historically low approval ratings, what does it mean when other leaders reach out to the country? It reminds me a little of how many of us found more comfort from Rudy Giuliani than the President after the attacks in New York City of 2001.

In both of these cases, it seems the institutions of national government have not filled the needs that many around the county feel. And so we turn to others who we think will lead our governance better than our government is doing.

Its curious that there is a distinction between governance and government, and that the latter is not always doing the former, and that the governed will search for their own sources of governance when their government is getting them what they want (and there are probably plenty of dangers with a situation like that, as well as opportunities).

But abstractions aside, its a little frightening that its happening now. Why is the national government having such a difficult time responding to an increasingly urgent crisis?

Here's the speech (And here's to hoping that we accept the challenge!):

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Online organizing against lifting the ban

Online organizing, with petitions, facebook groups and I recently heard about a Twitter petition, are one way to raise your voice (although don't stop there!).

Here is one petition against lifting the ban on drilling for more offshore oil. If you find others, please post them in the comments.

Only a dysfuctional system would drill for more

CNN reports that Al Gore has come out strongly opposed to drilling for more oil.

"It is only a truly dysfunctional system that would buy into the perverse logic that the short-term answer to high gasoline prices is drilling for more oil 10 years from now," Gore said.

Mr. Gore puts very well what many of us have been wanting so badly to articulate. Another way to say it is to adjust an old truism - The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And the definition of insanity that gets you put away for being a danger to yourself and others is doing the same destructive thing over and over and expecting a different result.

To cure an addiction, you don't give yourself "just a little more" of your drug of choice, you find ways to take yourself off of it entirely.