Crying ‘Onkel Tom’


The German lefty paper Taz is stirring a P.C. fuss overseas with a satirical headline calling the White House “Onkel Baracks Hütte” — “Uncle Barack’s Cabin.”

Never mind that lots of people and papers around the world are thrilled that Obama is the Democratic presidential candidate. And never mind that Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s 19th century novel was anti-slavery. The moniker “Uncle Tom” has been widely applied to subservient, pliant black folk who knuckle under to the white establishment. It could be argued that it’s apt when applied not to Obama but to people like Condoleezza Rice, but it is impolite.

The fact is that Die Tageszeitung (the paper’s formal name) wasn’t slamming Obama but was being satirical, and that’s obvious to a lot of Germans. Stowe’s novel isn’t known only in America — I’d bet that more German schoolkids than American schoolkids are familiar with it — there’s a Berlin subway stop that’s long been named Onkel Toms Hütte. But the moniker as applied to Obama in a story that clearly wasn’t calling him an Uncle Tom has pissed off the German establishment and disheartened some of the paper’s P.C. supporters. As Der Spiegel‘s David Gordon Smith reports:

Offensive or satirical?

The Berlin-based daily Die Tageszeitung is normally considered a bastion of political correctness. The paper, which was founded in 1978, has always seen itself as a left-leaning alternative to the mainstream press and is known for its outspoken positions on issues such as globalization, the environment and xenophobia in Germany.

Gary Smith, executive director of the American Academy in Berlin, a private center which promotes trans-Atlantic relations, told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday that the cover left him “speechless.”

” ‘Uncle Tom’ is a racial slur, and the Taz editors clearly sacrificed substance and principle for an unreflected laugh,” he said. “A journalism that prides itself on treating stereotypes with irreverence needs to think harder about its own deployment of stereotypes and racial allusions. There are countless ways to address the issue of race in this year’s election more intelligently.”

Yeah, so what? Taz‘s deputy editor-in-chief, Reiner Metzger, had this response:

“The headline is intended to be satirical. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book that all Germans know and which they associate with issues of racism. The headline is supposed to make people think about these stereotypes. It works on many levels.”

He said that the issue of race surrounds Obama in the presidential election campaign. “The fact that he is African-American plays a constant role in the campaign, but no one talks about it explicitly. One can play with that fact.”

Metzger said that the Taz is famous for not being politically correct and is well-known for its ironic and cheeky cover headlines. “I’m sure 99 percent of our readers would understand it correctly. As for the rest, well, tough luck. You can’t please everybody.”

When’s the last time you heard an editor of a major U.S. daily say that?