Thursday, August 06, 2009


I winced when I saw the headline of Philip Kennicott's Washington Post opinion piece: "Obama as The Joker: Racial Fear's Ugly Face." Oh, crap, I know what the response to this is going to be: There go the damn liberals again! Seeing racism in everything!

But I think Kennicott is approaching a truth when he writes this:

The Joker's makeup in "Dark Knight" -- the latest film in a long franchise that dramatizes fear of the urban world -- emphasized the wounded nature of the villain, the sense that he was both a product and source of violence. Although Ledger was white, and the Joker is white, this equation of the wounded and the wounding mirrors basic racial typology in America. Urban blacks -- the thinking goes -- don't just live in dangerous neighborhoods, they carry that danger with them like a virus....

Forget socialism, this poster is another attempt to accomplish an association between Obama and the unpredictable, seeming danger of urban life.

I think that really might be why this resonates with the mostly suburban, exurban, and rural GOP: Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight seems to be able to create chaos anywhere and everywhere in a sprawling, uncontrollable mega-city -- and Obama-as-Joker is, for the right, a similar kind of urban terrorist.

Isn't "urban" a codeword for "black"? Yeah, maybe -- but it also means just what it means. To dwellers in rural or gated communities, the city teems with all kinds of evildoers, from street thugs to slick lawyers and bankers. Obama as Heath Ledger's philosopher-Joker represents all the things the GOP base fears about the big city -- violence plus ability to tap into limitless resources plus urbane (and brainy) sophistication used in the service of evil. It's a close relative of the old-school racialist notion that cities are cesspools from which rich rootless-cosmopolitan banker/socialist Jews sic poor, oversexed, violent blacks on God-fearing white people who have simple, basic lives and values.

The wingnuts have been desperate to portray the Obama administration as sinister practitioners of Chicago-style politics (GOP congressman Darrell Issa made that charge most recently). But Chicago hasn't seemed urban-sinister to heartland America since Prohibition was repealed -- and even its archetypal thugs are recalled as white and (mostly) Christian. New York, by contrast, still does seem sinister (and not at all white-Christian) to the GOP base -- and the Obama Joker poster puts him in Gotham, where the wingnuts think he belongs.

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