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Editorial: Who’s the joke really on?

If patriotic Americans countenance posters that depict their president as an anarchic ó perhaps even demonic ó figure in a movie, does that mean the terrorists have won?
For those who may not get the reference, we’ll spell it out more plainly: In the aftermath of 9/11, when George Walker Bush was president, some of his supporters deemed it unpatriotic to question his policies regarding the war in Iraq, that it was an affront to the very office of president, that those who expressed dissent might as well turn in their birth certificates, sign up with the Taliban and embrace Islamo-fascism. On more than one occasion, when the Post published cartoons satirizing the president, we received some angry calls. “Whatever you think of his policies,” the callers often said, “he still deserves respect as our president.”
Now, a president with a funny name, mixed racial heritage and a Democratic pedigree is in office, and anything goes.
Or so it seems when it comes to criticism and satirization of President Barack Obama. Critics have questioned his citizenship, his religious bent and his patriotism. He’s been depicted as everything from a closet radical Muslim to the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. And now, in a poster that’s showing up in cities and towns ranging from Los Angeles to China Grove, Obama’s features have been superimposed on the face of Batman’s nemesis the Joker, as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”? The misspelled label “facism” appears below.
Is this an over-the-top slander, tinged with racial overtones of white-faced minstrels? Is it mere political satire, in the mold of caricatures that have scorched presidents ranging from Abraham Lincoln to FDR to Obama’s predecessor, G.W. Bush? Or is it a harmless bit of street art, illegal under the ordinances of China Grove but ultimately harmless?
While political satire has a long and valuable tradition in America, there are some boundaries we cross at our civic peril. Any cartoon, radio or TV host or newspaper columnist who stirs the swamp waters of bigotry or, even worse, inflames fanatics to violence crosses that boundary. Certainly, the Joker poster is mean-spirited and disrespectful, and it may be racially offensive. But it’s quite a leap to suggest it dangerous. Rather than incite anyone to violence, it’s more likely to leave them scratching their heads over the logical connection between the Joker ó the archetypical anarchist who’s bent on bringing down the political powers that be ó and Obama, a consummate politician who’s much more Beltway insider than renegade outlaw.
As political satire, the Joker poster offers an eye-catching image, without offering any coherent message. So rather than squelch this provocative dissent, we’d suggest you deconstruct it. The Joker’s goal was to destroy Gotham’s governing institutions, not increase their reach ó as Obama’s detractors contend he wishes to do. The Joker is a no-government guy, not a big-government guy. While the Joker cartoon may offer a good visual, it’s bad satire ó creating headlines not because it conveys a powerful statement but simply because it’s controversial. Like the distorted claims about Obama’s health reform plans and his birth certificate, it’s simply one more attempt to divert, confuse and dissemble. If we fall for it, the joke’s on us.

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