In Thursday’s Washington Post, culture critic Philip Kennicott had this to say about the "Obama as the Joker" poster that’s been popping up everywhere:

. . . The poster is ultimately a racially charged image. By using the "urban" makeup of the Heath Ledger Joker, instead of the urbane makeup of the Jack Nicholson character, the poster connects Obama to something many of his detractors fear but can’t openly discuss. He is black and he is identified with the inner city, a source of political instability in the 1960s and ’70s, and a lingering bogeyman in political consciousness despite falling crime rates.

Are you kidding me?

I realize that many critics like to analyze things to death. I’ve done it myself. But to twist the latest in a long line of politician-as-familiar-pop-culture-character depictions into an emblem of "racial fear," as the headline calls it, requires a level of overanalysis that borders on paranoia.

As it happens, I agree with Kennicott that the poster isn’t very effective. The word Socialism doesn’t fit all that well with a guy who just liked to go around blowing stuff up. But that doesn’t mean we need to go burrowing for some sort of super-secret hidden connection that throws the worst possible light not only on the anonymous artist, but on Obama opponents in general.

Kennicott only dug himself a deeper hole in a subsequent online chat, in which he affected a bland incomprehension of why so many people were bothered by his analysis.

Arlington, VA: Philip, I read your column and I have to say, take it easy. Maybe you need a little time off. It’s a poster, Philip, nothing more. Not that long ago we had a poster appear associated with Bush 43 showing an image of him with white powder under his nose and on his lip with the caption "Got Coke?" Whether anybody liked it or not, the republic somehow survived. This is not a big deal unless the media makes it one. It will pass. Take it easy.

Philip Kennicott: I agree I should take it easier, and I’m passing on this suggestion to my editors. I think you’re right about the general sturdiness of the republic in the face of withering political caricature. We have a long history of it, back to images of Andrew Jackson as emperor, and beyond. I tried to analyze the poster, and draw out some of the racial imagery, without declaring it a major blow to the body politic.

For a guy who likes to observe cultural artifacts under an electron microscope, Kennicott displayed an astonishing ability in this conversation to take things strictly at face value.

What’s really going on here, I suspect, is the same thing we saw going on when Nancy Pelosi tried to paint health-plan protesters as neo-Nazis, or when the media spread rumors of Palin rallies turning into breeding grounds for racial violence. It’s the same tired old academic cliché that holds that any opposition to liberals on ideological grounds must secretly be masking a fear of "The Other." The masses hate anyone whom they think is different from them in any way, the theory goes, and anything that conservatives say about political differences is just hiding that fundamental hatred. Thus Kennicott tells us, "The charge of socialism is secondary to the basic message that Obama can’t be trusted, not because he is a politician, but because he’s black."

The irony that people like Pelosi and Kennicott can’t or won’t see is that with their shallow, knee-jerk responses, they’re doing exactly what they accuse us conservatives of doing: creating a fear of The Other. Only this time, The Other is us.

— Gina Dalfonzo

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