Bad Comparison of the Day

So Niall Ferguson had the bad sense to write the following about Obama in his Financial Times’ column:

President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.

Unsurprisingly, the bloggers I read are shocked/astounded/angry that Ferguson thought it was appropriate, and that his editors didn’t cut it from the piece when they had the chance.  It’s a stupid comparison, but I’m trying to guess how Ferguson failed to understand why the comparison was so inappropriate – perhaps because he’s not American, he doesn’t grasp our delicate way of discussing (some would say ignoring) race.

I can see him saying, “But Barack Obama is black! And so is Felix the Cat!  And both are lucky! It’s so simple!”  But the fact is there are hundreds of cartoon characters that are white or black or whatever that one would ever be inspired to draw a comparison with.  No chance, say, of the “Popeye is white! And he’s a sailor! He’s just like John McCain, who is also white and was in the Navy in his youth!” meme taking hold any time soon.  And god forbid anyone tries to say Bill Richardson is like Speedy Gonzales.  That’s about as taboo a comparison as you could make in America.

Barack Obama being lucky, which he may well be, has nothing to do with his also happening to be black — just as John McCain having been a sailor back in the day has nothing to with being white.  Further, there’s nothing about Obama’s blackness that is remotely like the black-and-white cartoon coloring that made Felix the cat black.  Sylvester also had black fur, just like Pepe le Pew.  Daffy Duck has black feathers! And he’s a blathering idiot! Does that make him Alan Keyes?

There’s no reason to bring that sort of word play or whatever it is into the conversation.  Ferguson could have gotten away with an Obama is lucky and that’s like Felix the Cat, just like folks got away during the campaign last fall with comparing Sarah Palin to Tracy Flick, Reese Witherspoon’s character in Election.  Character traits are one thing.  Skin color (or fur!) is just completely irrelevant.

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