Utne Blogs > Media

The New Yorker Cover: Everyone Take a Deep Breath

 by Hannah Lobel


Tags: media, magazines, mainstream media, media criticism, politics, election 2008, magazine covers, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama,

Terrorist Fist Jab
The progressive blogosphere is a-ragin’ today about the rumor-mongering, naive, chaos-inspiring New Yorker cover of Michelle and Barack Obama terrorist-fist-jabbing in the Oval Office as a portrait of Osama bin Laden approvingly gazes on, alit by the flames of an American flag sizzling in the fireplace. 

Progressives are pissed, and to prove it, they’ve dug out their lit-crit hats to scold illustrator Barry Blitt on the inner workings of satire and why he missed the boat and fell into no-no land. (I think the man who came up with this cover

New Yorker Ahmadinejad cover

probably has a thing or two to teach us all about good satire.)

When I mentioned the hubbub to Utne’s art director, Stephanie Glaros, she told me the illustrator blogs were equally enflamed, but in Blitt’s defense. Thank goodness some folks have thick enough skins to rally to his side. Let’s just hope that some of that sensibility migrates from the art world to the political commentariat sometime soon.

First off, progressives need to stop playing thought police to protect those weak-minded ninnies from Hicksville. Here’s a prime example from Rachel Sklar at HuffingtonPost: “Who knows if the people in Dubuque will get this?” Really? Must it be assumed that everyone who doesn’t live in New York, Chicago, or [insert shiny metropolis here] is both devoid of rational thought and a sense of humor?

In a more thoughtful assessment, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the image doesn’t go far enough to separate itself from the views it intends to harangue. “My point is that that this cover actually does reflect—not exaggerate, not satirize—the views of a sizeable portion of Americans,” he writes. He points out that some 13 percent of Americans actually think Obama’s a Muslim. It’s a horrifying stat. But consider a few more: Just last summer, 41 percent of Americans still thought Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11. And while 62 percent of Americans believe in the devil, only 42 percent believe in evolution.

Here’s the thing about good humor: Not everyone’s going to get it. Comedy, satire, humor, whatever you want to call it, is absolutely essential to a vital culture of political criticism. If we muzzle our humorists—going so far as to inveigh against those who have the clear intent of lambasting ignorance—than we’re in for a very boring, very unreflective four to eight years if Obama moves into that toasty, Osama-adorned Oval Office.

UPDATE (7/15/2008): Rachel Sklar writes in to note that I missed the reference in her Dubuque line, which was readily available in the link she provided. Point taken: Looks like the gal in Minneapolis didn’t get it. But the connotation, wink or no, remains. Later in her post, Sklar writes, “Presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke” on the magazine's cover, suggesting that most other folks probably aren’t worldly enough to join in on the chuckle. Sklar isn't the poster girl for perpetrating this meme—she’s certainly not alone in it—but it’s there.

john thomas_1
7/20/2008 2:25:11 PM

What a thorny predicament is presented here. With all the lowest, gut-level, fabrications about Obama and his wife spattered across the page, those who read, (there seems to be less and less of us these days) find ourselves in a kind of reverse 'Emperor's Clothes' situation. If we don't go along with the "intelligencia" and loudly shout, "Of course I get it!" - we are consigned to the group of dullards who we so happily deride as irrelevant. If the New Yorker were only delivered to it's so-hip-and-with-it customers this would not be an issue. But, in an election so close, the growing near-illiterate masses walking by the grocery store magazine section will see nothing more than this image and most will have no idea whether this is a joke or not. Ditto for all the brouhaha served up by the mainstream media which guarantees that those who didn't see it at the store will get bombarded with the image when they get their daily dose of info-tainment propaganda on the tube. So what's the political effect here? All the "in-the-know" crowd will think it's "funny" and will not be affected (they say) by these images. Those who operate at the lowest levels of political awareness will just see a significant reinforcement of the worst mud-slinging in the campaign. The net effect is obvious.


carol neiman
7/18/2008 7:30:38 PM

As an immigrant New Yorker and longtime subscriber to its namesake magazine, I got the joke right away. In no small part that is because these days, I often receive forwarded emails from the land of my redneck Texas roots, emails that are clearly designed to imbed these cartoonish images in the brains of my fundamentally good-hearted but decidedly unsophisticated relatives. In the juxtaposition of those two worlds, and knowing full well their respective tendencies to smug self-righteousness, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I did have the brief thought that the cartoonist could have avoided all this had he merely put it all in an "imagination" balloon emanating from the head of a Joe Six-Pack character. But then, in place of all these nuanced debates about the state of mind of the heartland, we would be talking about how the New Yorker had insulted all those gun-loving, religious-clinging ordinary folks. For those who care to read the fine print, the cartoon DOES in fact have a caption. It's on the inside page with the credits, and it goes like this: "The Politics of Fear." Beneath all the kerfuffle, that's the serious message. We ignore it, misinterpret it, and subject it to superficial punditry at our own peril.


don bates_2
7/18/2008 4:19:17 PM

What I hope most people are not missing is the article in the same issue that profiles Obama's early years in Chicago politics. If you want to have a better sense of who the man is and why he should or should not be President, give it a read. It's long but more important it's a brilliant piece of journalism not only about the candidate but about Chicago politics. As for the cover, I found it mildly amusing and mildly racist although I think I get the drift of the editors -- to point out the ludicrous nature of the coverage of the Barack's fist bump, the association of the candidate's name with Osama, etc. Now, of course, I expect the New Yorker to portray McCain and his wife. Fair is fair. And justice must be served.


margaret motheral_3
7/18/2008 3:11:39 PM

Right now I'm dealing with the fact that I have been run out of my home and made ill by the fact that the oh -so- important- high- up there folks in the City government of Philadelphia DID NOT do there job had allowed building on a contaminated site next to my house with zero regard for me. They have constantly give themselves all kinds of congratulatory meetings about how wonderful they are, yet when I tell them about this problem , they are too busy with meetings and then blame the every day worker for the problem. So the New Yorker cover tells me that there are a bunch of people with power that don't know what the freakin they are freakin doing. Too many award dinners must make the brain soft. Margaret Motheral Philadelphia


lisa_1
7/18/2008 11:45:48 AM

A lesson in safe visual satire: http://thismodernworld.com/4402 -Lisa Gulya


pam_1
7/16/2008 10:57:17 PM

I saw Obama on Larry King (CNN) and he was asked about the cover and if he was offended. He said "no." So if someone if trying to get a rise out of Obama, it will take much more than this to do so. He is a class act all the way......


lisa_1
7/16/2008 12:58:02 PM

Since I was stuck in an airport Monday night, I couldn't avoid CNN's endless discussion of this cover. I can understand why some people are upset, but as the bathroom illustration Hannah put up indicates, the New Yorker covers provide equal opportunity mockery. Remember the "Watch Your Back Mountain" cover in 2006, after Vice President Cheney shot his hunting companion? I'm pretty sure the homoerotic suggestion of that illustration was anathema to its subjects, Cheney and President Bush, and their supporters. I support Hannah's point that you need not be an urbanite to understand the cover's humor. I think the New Yorker creates its cover art with its subscribers in mind, so I found CNN's "person on the street" questioning about the cover pointless. They don't seem to design with the newsstand display in mind. Also, critics should understand the New Yorker's style--they never put captions on their cover illustrations, so why should this case be any different? -Lisa Gulya


jake mohan
7/16/2008 9:34:16 AM

I like Gary Kamiya's piece in Salon yesterday, which echoes some of Hannah's points. http://www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2008/07/15/new_yorker_cartoon/


erik helin_3
7/15/2008 4:04:01 PM

Well it's nice to know that Slate's Jack Shafer is in the corner of reason on this one (http://www.slate.com/id/2195317/). Man, it never ceases to amaze me how much people, the media especially, just don't get it. And, further, how much politicians play off of this misunderstanding. In Shafer's article he references the political tactic of umbrage as the new thing to do. The New Yorker cover is just another example. This year's political race is like a European football (soccer) match between rivaling factions; it's two sides with excessive pride (often with some undertones of racism)watching a long, exhausting game filled with players taking dives to illicit sympathy from officials and viewers (umbrage). The irony is that by the end really not much ground is gained because the sides always seem so evenly matched. So, it typically ends in a narrow victory or a tie.