David Boaz thinks it’s “ridiculous” to see racism in the Obama-as-Heath-Ledger’s-Joker posters that have appeared recently. I have no idea what the creator’s actual intent was, but I certainly raised an eyebrow and wondered what was going on there—and not because I’m disposed to see all criticism of Barack Obama as inherently racist. I think a big part of the reason is precisely that, as Boaz notes, the image doesn’t really make sense on its own terms. If Ledger’s Joker has an ideology, it’s a kind of individualist anarchism—with his own professed motivation being to expose the shallowness of our social mores and the folly of our faith in authorities and central planning. And it’s precisely because the link to the film character doesn’t work—or at best seems incredibly lame, just asserting that Obama is a “joker”—that you end up thinking: “Ok, so what is the artist trying to do here? What’s the message conveyed by slathering whiteface on the black president?” Suppose the artist had gone with a more obvious—and I think effective—reference by morphing Obama into Andre the Giant with a big “OBEY” caption, riffing on Shepard Fairey’s famous image. Even if Obama were shown with Andre’s skin tone (admittedly still not quite as aggressively suggestive as the literal mask of whiteness in the Joker poster) everyone would just get the surface message in a way that made it less natural or urgent to look for some racial subtext.
I think a similar effect may have been at work in the reaction to the now-infamous New York Post “monkey cartoon.” Again, I don’t know what the cartoonist intended—if it wasn’t meant to be racist, then it was sure phenomenally easy to misread that way, but it also seems weird that the Post would deliberately invite the kind of shitstorm that ensued. I do think two things contributed to the racist reading, though. First, the cartoon turned on a somewhat obscure reference to a regional news story about an escaped monkey being shot—a reference someone outside the NY Metro area probably wouldn’t pick up. Second, even if you got that part, it was a really stupid joke: “Ho ho, the stimulus bill’s so bad it must have been written by monkeys!” It’s so lame that you tend to think something else must be the real punchline.
Something similar may explain why some progressives find it so easy to ascribe opposition to Obama to racism—a move conservatives tend to see as an exercise in bad-faith demonization of dissent. Partly, of course, it’s that there are some loud and angry critics who clearly do have some ugly racial issues, and if you’re not yourself a non-racist Obama critic, it’s easy (if lazy) to suppose that they’re just being a little more obvious about what all conservatives are really thinking. But also, if you’re a progressive who finds most of Obama’s agenda pretty timid, and if you regard most of the conservative criticisms you see as stupid and unconvincing—whether because you’re generally unsympathetic to conservative arguments, or because anything you hear a talking head spout on TV is, at best, a dumbed-down version of a smarter argument you’d only encounter if you habitually read conservative publications—then as with the cartoons, you’re going to start wondering what’s really going on.
Media fragmentation probably contributes to this, because more and more conservative argument is turned inward—base-rallying stuff pitched through conservative venues, rather than aimed at a general audience with the goal of convincing someone who might not have a strong opinion either way. The more rhetoric is internally directed—just pointing out the obvious to the faithful—the less it’s likely to seem persuasive, or even reasonable, to an outsider. Whatever rational grounds for opposition may exist start seeming less intelligible, and therefore more pretextual, to outsiders. That, in turn, makes it easier to see opponents driven by malice rather than some kind of reasonable disagreement or understandable error.
Update: I should add, the particular argument Boaz is responding to, where the Joker is a representative of urban chaos, and therefore of blackness—or something—really is ridiculous. That said, some people profess to be weirdly clueless about symbols that have widely understood shared meanings in our culture, to the point where I’m deeply curious about how they made it through high school English. In case you had somehow missed this: the default meaning of blackface (and by extension whiteface) in our culture is that the wearer is doing an exaggerated and comical imitation of a member of another race. The default meaning can be overridden by an alternative one—like the Joker reference—but the override is likely to misfire if it doesn’t actually make sense. You do not have to be on the prowl for racism to then see the default meaning; you just need to be a competent and properly socialized participant in American culture.