Monday, July 14, 2008


The latest cover of The New Yorker has fans of Barack Obama in an absolute tizzy. And it's not hard to see why. I mean, just look at that grotesque scene! Don't Barack and Michelle just radiate anti-American hatred? The happy couple is resplendent in truly terroriffic garb, exchanging what a sane person can only construe as a terrorist fist jab. And they're burning an American flag, right there in the Oval Office! Michelle's even got a gun! A GUN! Can you imagine?!! Pointed upward, too, obviously so it can kill God. And don't even get me started on the subtle implication that Osama bin Laden was framed.

Such a tasteless, baseless caricature speaks poorly of the state of our discourse and can only divide us further.

So is it bad that I find this insanely funny?

Reading this Daily Kos thread, you'd think The New Yorker was angling to be sold alongside that Obama monkey T-shirt. Calm down, Kos-sacks. In your rush to be self-righteous, you've forgotten a few things:

First off, this is obviously meant to be satire. I'm as big an Obama supporter as they come, and my immediate reaction when I saw this was to laugh. Hard. It brought to mind a recent idea I had for a comedy sketch, in which Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Che Guevara and Karl Marx got together in the ninth circle of Hades and threw their full endorsement behind Obama. They all agreed, as many Republicans do, that Obama is an ultra-Marxist, and they place full trust in his plan to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, just like he's always promising. With all the exaggeration that has marked this campaign cycle, I've been searching long and wide for some all-encompassing representation of how wingnuts view Obama. Maybe a physical manifestation of it would finally show everyone how ridiculous it all is.

And yet, what happens when this long-overdue commentary arises?

"Tasteless and offensive."
This is the official Obama campaign response. Of course it's tasteless and offensive! You know why? Because the attacks it lampoons are tasteless and offensive. This cover succeeds because it makes that blatantly apparent.

Of course, one expects a campaign - especially one as proactive as Obama's - to denounce such potentially divisive material. But the sheer hysteria of the Kos crowd is head-scratching:

"I'm canceling my subscription. Boycott The New Yorker!"
Who are you, Bill O'Reilly? This attitude belongs among those who want to stifle free speech and want a simplistic view of the world. Aren't you aware that The New Yorker is one of the most intellectual publications this country has ever known? To paraphrase what someone finally countered on the Kos thread, "Those canceling their subscriptions to The New Yorker over this cover probably never opened it in the first place."

"It's racist!"
No it's not. Making fun of racism and bigotry is not the same as racism itself. The Obama monkey shirt is racist; this drawing thrashes those who would really think Obama is a caricature of any kind.

"This will only give ammo to those who already suspect Obama is a terrorist." Because they haven't already parsed every context-free photograph, utterance and incorrect citation they can find to manufacture lies about Obama, right? At worst, this cover will give the most adamant Obama-haters a convenient reinforcement of what they desperately want to be true. Those people are a lost cause anyway. No one with any chance of voting for Obama is going to look at this cover, stroke their chin, say "Hmmm" and change their minds. No one.

"Yes, I get it, but the average American won't take the time to think about it."
Wow! How's the weather up on Mount Condescension? Look, I agree that a disturbingly large number of Americans are unbearably boneheaded; much of that is their own unwillingness to open up their minds to something new. But most Americans deserve more credit than that. Think of it this way: even a mildly thoughtful person will know better than to flash this cover as proof that Obama is a bad guy. Hell, maybe the cover will pursue someone to pick up the magazine, whether out of joy or curiosity, and learn something they might not have otherwise.

"If this were on the cover of The New Republic or a Klan newsletter..."
Yes, that would be offensive - because then the satiric subtext wouldn't exist. Again, the whole point of this cover is to lampoon the very attitudes that far too many Americans take at face value. It's mockery - the same reason Stephen Colbert is funny as a blowhard and Bill O'Reilly isn't. And, much like this cover, Colbert doesn't feel the need to spell out his intent, because he respects your intelligence.

"This falls flat as satire" OR "This doesn't fit the definition of satire."
I can't think of more provocative satire I've seen this year. The reaction it's sparked is proof of that.

This cover will not harm the Obama campaign one whit, and nor should it hurt The New Yorker's reputation. Instead, I worry about the recurring trend that has hurt the progressive cause so badly in recent years: namely, being afraid of your own intelligence.

I've argued for years that liberals have the most wicked senses of humor, simply because we're more politically irreverent than conservatives. The willingness to mock deserving authority and think in subtleties allows for a richer tapestry of funny. Yes, that means sometimes things get misconstrued; but in general that's worth the risk. It's certainly no cause for self-censorship, or (worse) being afraid to laugh at something that makes a great point because you're afraid someone will take it the wrong way. Such an attitude, as well-intentioned as it is, can go too far. And it has led to the sad stereotype of the humorless liberal, one who is too intellectual for their own good, who takes things at face value as much as those on their opposite extreme. This kind of caricature scares people away from progressive politics in the first place.

This isn't a call to laugh at real racism, sexism or other stereotypes. But it is a call to be confident with your intellect (and that of others), and to stand up to detractors with brains and wit. After all, isn't that what attracts so many of us to Barack Obama in the first place?


Jason said...

While we completely disagree on the idea Sen. Obama being elected President being a good thing for the country we're in one accord on this issue. How can anyone even remotely familiar with The New Yorker not see this for intelligent, biting satire?

I agree with you that someone who had made up their mind to vote for Obama isn't going to look at the cover and change their mind. I do think, however, that outrage from the far left over this could sway some undecideds in the middle who don't want to be associated with someone seen as being on (as you put it) "Mount Condescension."

As I said on my blog, I saw someone at Huffington Post say that Republicans are more easily fooled and Democrats are more easily offended. Looking at the reactions today to this obvious satire, I kind of agree with that guy's comment.

Terry Troll said...

Yes, Jason, people familiar with the New Yorker probably understand but we live in Louisiana. I remember little from Journalism 101 but I do know that sarcasm and satire are very often not recognized by readers. I got three e-mails from regressive friends that I back and forth with yesterday. In all cases either they did not understand it was satire ("See what they think in New York?") or they didn't care. ("Someone is telling the truth at last.")
One of them is a retired chemical engineer.It is not stupidity.
I was an election judge and precinct chair in Texas before I moved to La and was very active in party politics. I would be willing to bet that 35% of the voters (underscore Voters) don't get it. All they will see is an e-mail with a major magazine cover and a tag line that is anti-Obama. I think that the staff that put this out has thier head up thier ass and have done a lot of harm.

Ian McGibboney said...

Jason, good points. I too get tired of the deficiencies of both sides.

Terry, the problem with Louisianians isn't intelligence; it's the stigma intelligence carries. It's so ingrained in the culture that people who would otherwise think critically have been raised to believe doing so makes them bad people. A minute fraction, I'd imagine, would honestly react to the cover as you say. The rest will do so because they want it to be true. These people should not be catered to in any case.

That said, however, I could find plenty of people in Louisiana who would get it as fully as anyone in New York City.

rhonda said...

sometimes the most important context of all is brought to the table by the reader. if you or someone you love has ever experienced true-blue discrimination of any sort, then chances are you are savvy enough to know the difference between the real and the (often hilariously) fake, and you're thick-skinned enough to know when to pick your battles anyway. i try my best to not post inflammatory things here or anywhere else, but i honestly think that most of the people i live among don't process this as satire because they wouldn't know discimination if it hit them straight in the face...or suckerpunched 'em in the back of the head and ran, like it normally does. how do you fully appreciate satire when you just don't grasp the magnitude of what it's lampooning in the first place?

"So is it bad that I find this insanely funny?"
--you wouldn't be ian mcgibboney if you didn't find this insanely funny. :)

Terry Troll said...

Rhonda, I learned about discrimination when I lived in St. Croix, USVI for a couple of years. Wonderful place and I would go back in a heartbeat. 88% of the population is black, some Hispanic, a little middle eastern and about 4% white. While I was there I did notice that a small percentage of the people did not like whites. Stress small percentage.I think, a smaller percentage than of the white people I work with now that don't like blacks. But, when you encountered them you knew it and they made sure you knew it. It is a little strange and a little intimidating. It did give me a new perspective on race relations and how I dealt with the people I encounter every day.
Bottom line I think Ian is right about the reaction but I am not sure about the minute part. Go to, find the article on the news page and read the reader reaction. Of course most of them are the refferd to "want to believes" but many of them just don't get it.

Ian McGibboney said...

I'm sorry, but I refuse to believe most people are so stupid not only to take this at face value, but also have their minds changed by it. I still say those who believe are those who LET themselves believe it. They WANT to believe it. After all, they believe everything else said about Obama even though those are flimsy and easily debunked lies.

Perhaps I overestimated the collective intelligence of society (I just watched Jon Stewart's man-on-the-street), but I say it's still not the majority. Anyway, we should not be catering to these people.