I Learned it from Reading Slate, Rupert!


Slate's Christopher Beam has a horrible secret. It was he who started this "terrorist fist jab" nonsense, when he quoted a commenter at the right-wing website Human Events accusing Michelle Obama of being a Hezbollah sleeper agent. Or something. This led to the now-infamous Fox News fembot comment that "everyone seems to interpret [the gesture] differently," but some have suggested that it is a secret terrorist greeting. Beam's apologia for introducing the "fist jab" meme makes for interesting reading:

The morning after Obama locked up the nomination, I was writing a "Trailhead" item that mocked the media's difficulty in figuring out what to call the now famous gesture. "Fist-pound," "knuckle-bump," and "fist-to-fist thumbs up" were among the funnier examples, but one of them?"Hezbollah-style fist jab"?was particularly risible. It came from the Web site for Human Events, a hard-right weekly. Unfortunately, I failed to note that its provenance was not the magazine itself but a reader comment posted below an unrelated column by Cal Thomas. I linked the phrase to the column but didn't explain that the words weren't Thomas'.

Many "Trailhead" readers clicked through to Thomas' column and, not finding the phrase there, assumed that Thomas or his bosses had wiped it from his column. What really happened, it seems, is that Human Events removed the reader comment after many other readers posted comments taking offense and/or debunking it. These latter comments remained, while the comment that provoked the outrage vanished into thin air, creating further confusion about its origin.

From anonymous web comment to New Yorker cover to denunciations of David Remnick as an insensitive elitist. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates advises that "White people step away from the sepia-toned crayons" and stop drawing the Obamas, and upbraids Remnick for not understanding satire, which, he writes, must trade in "exaggeration" to be successful. And this particular New Yorker cover "exaggerates nothing." Well, I'll leave it to our clever commenters to quibble with Coates' definition of satire, but an image of Obama in the oval office, turban-clad, burning the American flag beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden strikes me as, well, a pretty obvious exaggeration.

Besides, Coates argues, the "broader body politic" will not get the joke and, therefore, the cartoon is dangerous. It is a familiar (and unconvincing) argument. As Remnick observed, this is the most frequent criticism the magazine has received: "People say, well, I get it, but I'm afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it." Satire, then, mustn't be too complicated, lest its meaning be ambiguous, lest it turn the country rubes even more racist.

Strained headline reference here.

Update: Ta-Nehisi Coates emails with a clarification and a few sensible points: 

For the record, I don't think that the cartoon is dangerous at all, and I highly doubt that it'll convert anyone who was going to vote for Obama into a McCain voter. I do think it's bad satire though, not because it doesn't exaggerate Barack Obama, but becase it doesn't exaggerate the smears about him. It's literally is just a reflection of those smears. Nothing else. It's almost like a joke that's all setup and no punchline.

Anyway, I feel sort of dumb for even writing that post. I got lumped in with all the other nitwits who are running around talking about how they're now going to cancel their New Yorker subscription. You don't have to agree with my argument--indeed and completely open to my reading of the cartoon as being off. But I want to be clear about what my argument is. I don't think the cartoon does any damage. I don't think it's "racist." I don't think the NYer is part of some nefarious plot. I just, Didn't. Like. The picture. Seriously, nothing more than that.

If you haven't read Coates's terrific piece in The Atlantic on the "audacity of Bill Cosby's black conservatism," take 20 minutes and do so now.