Monday, July 14, 2008

Satire or slam?

Is Barry Blitt's newly-unveiled The New Yorker cover satire or yet another instance of the mainstream media parroting (and making legitimate) the worst of the racist, xenophobic, Muslim-hating slander against Barack Obama? If early Web buzz is accurate, a lot of people think that the image qualifies as the latter. Trying not to jerk my knee on this one, I tried to weigh the possible objectives behind the controversial cover. In the end, I can only say that I believe The New Yorker failed at...something. I'm not sure what, but whatever they were trying to do, it didn't work. (Unless their aim was to court controversy. In that case: Well done!)

If the cover was meant to be a bit of cleverness on the part of The New Yorker--a poking fun at those who believe the tinfoil hat/Manchurian candidate conspiracies about Obama--then it fails. The imbeciles who still believe Obama is a Muslim are not even alluded to by the cover. The victims of this "satire" are not incurious rightwingers, but the Obamas themselves...oh, and Muslims and black people, which the cover image succeeds in portraying as scary, America-hating "others."

If the cover is meant to illustrate the contents of the magazine's cover story--as cover images are wont to do--then it fails. The article contained within the pages of The New Yorker details Obamas beginnings as a young Chicago community organizer and novice politician. It is this disconnect that makes me question the intentions of the magazine's editors the most. The cover seems incredibly gratuitous, being that it relates to the inside article not at all. If the cover story were to detail the many attempts to paint the Obamas as radical friends of terrorists, the art would seem to stand as a satirical illustration. Alone? Not so much.

And about that cover story...Its contents convince me that the sum of the cover image and article were meant to tarnish Barack Obama in some way. In my eyes, admittedly the biased eyes of an Obama supporter, there is too much sly allusion to how well Obama plays the political game, his cockiness, his uneasy relationship with black folk in the form of the civil rights industrial complex...too many interviews with people who clearly have axes to grind...oh, and Bill Ayers and Tony Rezkco make obligatory appearances. I realize that Obama has his flaws and that good journalists have a, duty, to reveal them as they relate to the candidate's ability to run the country. But this piece of journalism seemed specifically written to dismantle specific aspects of Obama's public persona that are seen as benefits.

If the cover and associated article were meant to diminish Obama in the eyes of supporters, then in my case, they failed. I spent most of my years in Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood that the Obamas call home. I frequented the Southside haunts the article mentions (the grocery co-op, the Calypso Cafe) and I watched Obama's political rise. I voted for him as my senator. To be honest, I've been rooting for him since he ran against Bobby Rush and the self-professed leaders in the black community (local Jesse Jackson types) gathered round to question his blackness and call him uppity. They didn't realize it, but they were demonstrating to me why a new brand of politics--Obama's brand--was sorely needed. The New Yorker article reminded me of one of the reasons I have always liked Barack Obama. His intelligence, his ambition, his commitment to do things differently...In his political style, Obama is the maverick that John McCain pretends to be.

The only possible objective for the offending cover image--the only one that The New Yorker has successfully fulfilled--is to fan the flames of controversy. Though editor David Remnick says:

Obviously I wouldn't have run a cover just to get attention — I ran the cover because I thought it had something to say. What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's — both Obamas' — past, and their politics. I can't speak for anyone else's interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama's supposed "lack of patriotism" or his being "soft on terrorism" or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers. That somehow all this is going to come to the Oval Office.

The idea that we would publish a cover saying these things literally, I think, is just not in the vocabulary of what we do and who we are... We've run many many satirical political covers. Ask the Bush administration how many.

See, David, it is not so "obvious" that The New Yorker is free from "prejudice and dark imaginings." When you start thinking that your Manhattan geography, your tony circle of liberal friends and your lip service to progressive issues makes you immune from perpetrating the "isms" embodied by that cover image, you tread a shaky (privileged) track. The New Yorker incident is just one more bit of proof that self-professed liberals are as capable of racial tone deafness as their maligned opponents--worse, they lack the self-awareness to recognize and apologize for their missteps.


Anonymous said...

This New Yorker cover was just plain odd. I didn't even think it was good satire, because satire has to be about a secret truth. For example, it is satire to show Elliot Spitzer holding the scales of justice, while looking at a prostitute. The satire is that he really was an attorney general, and lady justice is supposedly about justice. So he is prostituting justice, and this is satire. I made this up as an example.

Uh, oh, this is kind of convoluted, but the Obamas are portrayed as something they so clearly are not. If there is a satire to Obama, it would be him faking it as a revolutionary as he sits in Harvard yard. Now that WOULD be funny. The joke would be he is an utterly conventional man, with a stay at home wife and kids, no different from a 1950s Dad. He could be wearing one of those 50s Dad hats and a skinny tie and white shirt. "Father knows best" would also be a good satirical theme, as feminist Hillary scowls in disapproval.

I was surprised to read that 12% of Americans still think Obama is a muslim. Geez, there are some really out of it people in America.

Let's see what the New Yorker can come up with to depict the McCains. That should tip us all off as to the sincerity of the so-called "humor."

heartsandflowers said...

Great post. It was a cheap shot and when the magazine publishing industry is declining in ad revenue the editors face challenges to keep circulation up. So they were being rather short-sighted in trying to drum up controversy for a quick boost versus the long term and permanent tarnishing of their image. You know I have my reservations about Obama and how many other people can get to him to subvert his plans for the country. When these attacks occur it makes me want to circle the wagons though. There is no equal scrutiny of McCain by the media and the RNC is taking in more money now. I wonder how many people truly want this country to be in a better place and are willing to put sweat equity to get it done. There are certainly enough people - even more so-called liberals who are clearly out to sabotage Obama. That is the ultimate example of cutting off your hand to spite your face.

Stuck in my head said...

I agree that they fell short on the satirical success of this cover. All they have done is feed into the ignorant beliefs of what so many believe about this man. Many will see the cover, not read the article, and assume that the images they see about the Senator are accurate portrayals since most satirical images hold some truth.

cluelesswhitewoman said...

Spot on, Tami -- it's just one massive fail.

@anonymous -- I didn't even think it was good satire, because satire has to be about a secret truth. Absolutely agree! It just crams as many bizarre stereotypes as possible into one image. Not satire -- just simplified repetition of controversies.

I'm not terribly surprised by 12% thinking he practices Islam, though. There ARE some really out-of-it [and/or gullible] people :-)(I'm mildly concerned that some of those gullibles might see this image and inevitably conclude "omg black militants were behind 9/11!"... blarg.) said...

Hi there Tami!

Thanks for calling attention to this!

I have been seeing this image all over the blogosphere very recently and it is OUTRAGEOUSLY racist and offensive...

So if this publication wants to do a feature on's okay to show Michelle Obama squatting on all fours with a dog chain around her neck? What more does it take before we start FLOODING these publications with complaints?

Phone number:
(This is the number for the Subscriptions Department but people can ask to be connected to David Miller.)

Or they can write a letter:

David Miller
Associate Publisher
The New Yorker
4 Times square
New York, NY 10036

fax: 212-286-5024

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

rikyrah said...

It was racist drivel. Leave out all the' Obama is a Muslim' mess.

Let's just get to the heart of the matter:

The completely racist attack on Michelle Obama.

How many stereotypes could they put there with her?


The Angela Davis Afro.
The Military Fatigues?
The Black Panther requisite Machine gun.
The stereotyped lips.
The 'terrorist fist' bump.

The wild and crazy look in her eyes. Someone pointed out at JJP. Her look in Minneapolis was one of a loving wife, congratulating her husband. This was of a crazed revolutionary, whose 'plotting' has succeeded.

How much more do they get to insult Michelle Obama before we say HELL NO.

It was RACIST to the core.

New Black Woman said...

I'm more offended that a magazine of "class" would even stoop to this level to bring attention to misconceptions about Obama.

I'm sure they could have found a more tasteful way to go about this.

MacDaddy said...

I agree, Tami: The objective was to fan the flames of controversy. But it won't hurt to that they'll make some money,too.

sdg1844 said...

bell hooks said "beware the white liberal." It's all coming out in the wash now that a Black Man has a real shot at becoming POTUS.

I don't get to your site as often as I'd like. You're always thought provoking Tami. Keep up the good work.


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