Who’s lampooning whom? When satire gets mistaken for ‘racism’ we all lose out.

newyorktimesYet again, the smug and dullard Politically Correct Brigade have succeeded in silencing another satirical artist, this time a New York Times editorial cartoon about the Indian Mars mission. When the hysterical, reactionary voices started braying in unison that it was ‘racist’, instead of the editors showing courage and integrity and supporting their original decision to publish, they backtracked and issued this feeble apology.

A large number of readers have complained about a recent editorial cartoon in The International New York Times, about India’s foray into space exploration. The intent of the cartoonist, Heng Kim Song, was to highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries. Mr. Heng, who is based in Singapore, uses images and text – often in a provocative way – to make observations about international affairs. We apologize to readers who were offended by the choice of images in this cartoon. Mr. Heng was in no way trying to impugn India, its government or its citizens. We appreciate that readers have shared their feedback, which we welcome. — Andrew Rosenthal, Editorial Page Editor

It reminded me of another recent story from the UK, when a mural painted by the famous artist Banksy, was hastily removed by a local council in England due to it being potentially ‘racist’. Stupidly and arrogantly missing the point that it was an intelligent satire on racism and racists.

banksy
Banksy’s mural

When I first saw the New York Times cartoon, I saw comi-tragic truth. Having spent the last seven years or so studying and living in India, abjectly poor, illiterate people with cows or donkeys is a common everyday sight everywhere you go. Perhaps not so much in the middle-class, AC enclaves of Bangalore or New Delhi but still not that far away from them either.

I remember recently at one prestigious designer shopping mall in Delhi seeing wealthy Indians being chauffeur driven into the mall in AC luxury, apparently oblivious or ignorant of the huge rubbish dump directly opposite on which stray dogs, children and adults scavenged the rubbish for a pittance.

In India, one gets used to a life of pot-holed, dirt roads, of a lack of adequate rubbish collection or sanitation, of intermittent electricity, of child beggars and stray, mangy dogs, of long, uncomfortable overnight bus journeys, of railways that have not been invested in, of everyday corruption and incompetence by officials, of a lack of a properly functioning police force, of massive gender inequality, caste discrimination, illiteracy and poverty.

So, sorry no, I do not see anything ‘racist’ in the New York Times cartoon. To have a space programme that costs billions of dollars when people are struggling to make ends meet is bad enough, even in rich, developed countries. But to have one in India is just a horrible, horrible joke and the smug, wealthy Indians that made such a decision deserve to be lampooned for it. The cartoon is not satirising ‘backwards India’ at all, it is poking fun at those who ignore the reality of millions of Indian’s lives to fulfil their sick fantasy world of neo-liberal, capitalist, media manufactured modernity and progress. We have far more to fear about those who destroyed Banksy’s mural and demanded an apology from the NYT, than about either of these artworks. We are adults not children, thank you.

Author’s Update (13/01/15): In the wake of the Islamist murders in reaction to the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, this post seems even more timely and relevant. Many people have written about why Charlie Hebdo is not racist in reaction to the apologists for murder. As one writer said:

That’s what’s tricky about two-layer satire like Charlie Hebdo’s: the joke only works if you see both layers, which often requires conversant knowledge of French politics or culture. If you don’t see that layer, then the covers can seem to say something very different and very racist.

I prefer to quote two French writers on this, first:

It might feel insulting, but unless you are fascinated with french culture, have especially studied it or lived some time in France, you don’t know us. You don’t know our history, our politics, even our geography. That’s fine, I myself have a pretty sketchy knowledge of all these stuffs for many countries in the world.

Not knowing is fine. Spreading false informations, or giving your opinion about things you don’t know, is not.

Second, French-Muslim philosopher, Abdennour Bidar:

Dear Muslim world: I am one of your estranged sons, who views you from without and from afar – from France, where so many of your children live today. I look at you with the harsh eyes of a philosopher, nourished from infancy on tasawwuf (Sufism) and Western thought. I therefore look at you from my position of barzakh, from an isthmus between the two seas of the East and the West. “And what do I see? What do I see better than others, precisely because I see you from afar, from a distance? I see you in a state of misery and suffering that saddens me to no end, but which makes my philosopher’s judgment even harsher, because I see you in the process of birthing a monster that presumes to call itself the Islamic State, and which some prefer to call by a demon’s name – Da’esh. But worst of all is that I see that you are losing yourself and your dignity, and wasting your time, in your refusal to recognize that this monster is born of you: of your irresoluteness, your contradictions, your being torn between past and present, and your perpetual inability to find your place in human civilization.

Basically, if you can’t get the joke, don’t blame the joker for your lack of irony, humour and knowledge.

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