Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

July 15, 2008

That Obama Cartoon: What You Think


I'd say the takeaway from the publication of the above New Yorker cover and the small whirlwind of controversy Sunday and Monday is that its depiction of Senator Barack and Mrs. Obama has more to do with new-era politics than it does old-school caricature. The cover itself and its meaning, and how that meaning will be used and reinterpreted by various political agencies, will almost certainly fade from public view before those things are clearly defined. It's probably gone already. Let's hash it out one more time.

Is it good art? I think it's OK. It's handsome. The contrast between Michelle Obama's lively visual impression and the Senator's more placid one is probably the most interesting thing about the cover. The general satirical point being made seems to me pretty clear unless you have an agenda or are too stupid to breathe or are willing to be stupid as far as politics go or are mad at the cartoon and want to see it in a certain light or are just really sensitive or fake-sensitive on these issues. Besides, no artist should have to take into account other people's stupidity or agendas when making whatever point they wish to make. However, that general, satirical point? Not much of one. Further, it's unclear whether the artist intended to make fun of the notion on display and/or the people that hold the notion. The cartoon doesn't really suggest anything insightful or new about the subject. It's an illustration of an unfortunate political and cultural reality more than it is a cartoon that engages the ideas fueling that reality. It tells us nothing we didn't know before, even if you allow the intent was to bring about objections from both sides of the political spectrum.

The potential political fall-out is a bit harder to figure out. As some of you may recall, perhaps the most promising and least promising election news items of the late primary season emerged from the great state of Indiana. The bad: there were numerous reports Hoosiers engaged in open racism in their treatment of Obama staffers and fervent supporters. The good: polls seemed to indicate voters appreciated Senator Obama not biting on facile gas tax relief rhetoric, an approval that may have bumped the Senator into close contention for the state. The closeness of that contest basically clinched the nomination for Obama over Senator Clinton. I believe we live in an age where people can process semi-sophisticated rhetoric when they want and wallow in base, horrible prejudice when they want, and it's likely the cartoon has been and will be absorbed in any number of ways along those lines. If someone that wanted to stir things up didn't have this cartoon, they'd find something else to use.

Where this cartoon is likely to find commonality with a number of incidents between now and November is the way it's been processed as a news story. In becoming news, the broader question of whether or not people will vote for Senator Obama based on their fears of his "otherness" (from their perspective) both gets a public workout as a cultural impulse to resist and gains in legitimacy as a political outcome. It becomes a possibility, a script to follow, and although in the end it won't be expressed that way, having it talked about may either help folks become numb to the outrage that might otherwise be a natural reaction to that viewpoint's expression. We'll see.

A more immediate impact, I'd argue, is that however many minutes and column inches and Internet time has been spent on this issue in the last 48 hours diverted attention away from, depending on your point of view, Obama's immediate, recent past of pandering to the middle of the electorate or the Senator's weekend of staking out foreign policy ground on things like Fareed Zakaria's show and in a major written op-ed piece. That's the new reality of political campaigning. Staying on message involves not just building a way of talking about things that connects with people and communicates policy, it's something that must be done while either avoiding or, perhaps, embracing the landmines of an inopportune speech introduction, a wife's tax return, the out-of-left-field acquaintance's sermon, a tendency to look goofy while giving a speech, a few words someone says thinking the microphone is off -- all the things we'd rather talk about than everything that's wrong and what we might possibly do about it.

As far as this distraction goes, the potential prejudice that can be read into the cartoon will likely mitigate its potential for long-term damage or, if you're still being cynical, quickly exhaust its extended effectiveness. In that way, we're better off now than we were four years ago. While it's shameful to think this election may feel the impact of people out there thinking Senator Obama is a secret Muslim, or masking their distaste for the candidate through something like a summary judgment as to his supposedly arrogant demeanor, it was also incredibly stupid that the 2004 Democrat primaries turned on one guy screaming funny at the end of a rousing campaign speech.

The good news, if there's any good news in basically acknowledging our collective inability to be serious about, well, anything, is that while Senator Obama's historical significance may be the avenue for a lot of base politics, it may also serve to dissuade some folks from going all the way down the path of inconsequential nonsense as blithely as they might indulge in otherwise. Senator McCain's experiences as a POW may engender a similar orientation -- albeit at a lower decibel level, race being the source of a greater national wound than the 1960s societal split, no matter what that generation insists. Laughing at Governor Dukakis riding that tank or Bob Dole pitching off the lecture platform doesn't say something potentially kind of rotten about you the way laughing at Senator Obama in a dishdasha might. They're equally unfair, though, distractions from the real decisions that need to be hammered out, and the kind of self-indulgences in our practice of civil responsibility we really can't afford anymore.

In the end, it's not surprising at all that a New Yorker cover cartoon has briefly intruded on the presidential campaign. There's no way in this day and age a substantive article inside the magazine could.

I'd recommend everyone go see what Ruben Bolling had to say on the matter. He comes at it from the perspective of having done a very similar cartoon.

Here's what some of your thoughts on the matter. Thanks to all that participated.


Paul Pope:
The Obama thing is interesting. My 2 cents.

The New Yorker is a fabulous magazine in almost every respect, and it is essential reading for anyone living in New York and interested in what's going on. I love it and read it when I have time. They publish excellent fiction and reviews. Not to mention cartoons! Before anyone thinks the cover image somehow reflects a right-ward shift of editorial policy on the part of the editorial staff, it is worth noting that about a month ago, TNY ran a lengthy op-ed piece on the what it called death of Neo-Conservatism, tracing a well-researched and interesting history from Goldwater up through G Bush, tying in all of the problems resulting from applied Neo-Con policy and basically declaring the right wing of American politics dead. They write about figures such as Castro or Hugo Chavez in very moderated lights, entirely skipping the subjects of absolutism or dictatorship, which I find somewhat strange and disingenuous. They have also routinely been doing very good reporting on the important issues of detainee's rights, military prisons, etc, and have to my knowledge never said anything favorable about the Bush administration. So I would not call TNY a right-leaning magazine.

It seems to me the cover -- which I find very funny -- is intended to parody the right-wing view of Obama as the Conservative's Worst Nightmare, a hodgepodge of every Leftist-Radical Islamist cliche orbiting the heads of the conservatives. Or -- to take a more moderate-Left-leaning view -- that Obama, whatever he professes, is a wolf in sheep's clothing of some sort (I don't think there is a spoken majority opinion on the part of TNY's editorial staff regarding Obama, but he comes under critical scrutiny in certain articles -- which is a good thing) (They did absolute hatchet jobs on Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney in the fall, making them out to be the frighting evangelicals they may well be, for point of comparison). What is the problem, exactly? Is Obama somehow endowed with a special set of rules? There is a sense that "one of ours" attacked "one of our own." If anything, it seems a lot of the outrage can be traced to left-leaning people who see this as some sort of defection or heresy on the part of a magazine which ought to spill it's ink attacking Republicans. This claim that the magazine somehow delivered a low blow to Obama or that the image has somehow employed unapproachabe social-racial shibboleths seems to be a hollow and pretentious POV for anyone -- or one's handlers -- who intends to grab the Presidency. This seems a glaringly hypocritical stance in our current media climate, where such a principle would have to be applied across the board, not just in the case of one's favorite candidate (who in this case happens, among millions of other things, to be an African-American). For example, I don't hear much outcry from anyone when Ted Rall uses much cheaper and less sophisticated rhetoric in his Village Voice cartoons, aimed as his work usually is, in the direction of the Republican-conservatives.

I wonder if you are somehow sensing a connection to the Dutch cartoonist case. If anything, this again reconfirms the power of the pen, and how this ancient tool of protest and satire can be used to such controversial and potent ends. I applaud The New Yorker for this.

If anything, the best hope for the country now comes in the form of what I would call the Skeptical Left, particularly those in the media who are willing and able to speak out about the lies, hypocrisy, and corruption in current American (and world) politics. For that matter, I'd like to see more of it aimed at China's human rights record and it's history regarding Tibet, and more challenge presented to those who are not at all concerned about such things, looking only at the Olympics and more guiltless fun. I am wholly in favor of such gad-flying. It is the power and the freedom of the press and I feel only contempt for this notion that you shouldn't publish satire which make politicians feel bad. To hell with them, right and left.


Wes Umstead:
It seems to me that good satire should tell me something I didn't already know about the target. This cover seems to be saying, "Many Americans are narrow-minded, gullible people who will believe even the most shamelessly baseless propaganda." Which leaves me thinking, "Yes. And...?" In other words, I feel like this point has already been made ad infinitum, and there's nothing particularly striking about the execution of it here. Perhaps it's supposed to be striking because it's topical? In any case, it doesn't work for me.

Alternatively, perhaps it's the context that's meant to be striking. Would the image raise as many eyebrows if it were on the cover of The Nation or The Progressive?

As for the cover's possible effects on the campaign, Don Hazen says:
The cover turns the magazine into a potential Molotov cocktail, to be gleefully tossed by Fox News and the conservative blogs, into the already combustible tinderbox of race and Muslim stereotypes just below the surface of America's public discourse.
This bit from the AV Club's interview with Matt Taibbi also seems relevant:
I'm out there on the campaign trail all the time talking to people who are going to vote in this election. I was talking to this woman in Louisiana last week, and she's standing at a McCain rally, she's actually there supporting the candidate in person, and I say, "What is it about Barack Obama that you don't like?" She turns to her friend and says, "What was that thing about his wife? That anti-American thing?" The other one says, "I don't know. Which thing do you mean?" And she's like, "That thing, where she's anti-American." And the other one is like, "Oh, I don't know. I don't know what you mean." And so she says to me, "Well, I heard this thing about her being anti-American." That was as specific as she could be about why she didn't like Barack Obama, because she heard a thing somewhere about his wife. People are voting on the basis of shit like that.
It seems to me that Hazen and others are arguing that the cover will be another "thing" that the right can use against Obama.

This calls to mind an appropriately comics-centric example: I remember reading that Spiegelman took Crumb to task for his "Goddamn Niggers" and "Goddamn Jews" strips. Specifically, he cited the fact that neo-Nazis had reprinted the cartoons in their newsletter, apparently unaware of Crumb's intended tone. Will the Obama cover be used in a similar way? Will it have any real effect on the campaign? Those are good questions... I'm not sure.


Matt Bors:
I didn't find the cover offensive. The level of outrage generated by it almost seems to be a parody of our outrage culture. Unfortunately, it can't boast of being particularly inventive. Plenty of editorial cartoonists, including myself, have been using this kind of imagery to mock the Right's caricature of Obama since he declared his candidacy. Blitt did a great job with the cover but there's nothing particularly new here except the prominence that a New Yorker cover brings.

You asked if it will have a harmful effect on the Obama campaign. If we live in a nation where the election is decided by a New Yorker cover then it's not a country I want to be a part of anymore. A better question would be, if the cover could possibly be harmful to Obama, should a magazine refrain from printing it? Magazines, illustrators and cartoonists shouldn't hone their message to fit the electoral strategy of a particular candidate. The idea that ignorant racists will now be motivated to not vote for Obama is pretty laughable. Were they planning on voting for him until they saw that cover in the Borders magazine rack?

If there is a belief that everyone left of the KKK should abstain from clear and intelligent satire to avoid a misunderstanding from people who aren't smart enough to think, count me out.

Another week in American media where an issue that affects no one is written about on every blog and discussed with pundits on every TV station.


Gabriel Roth:
Much of the commentary on Barry Blitt's cover has been along the lines of this, from Time's Michael Scherer. Scherer quotes 270 words from William Rehnquist to make the point that "Despite their sometimes caustic nature ... graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate."

Rehnquist was asserting that cartoons count as protected speech under the First Amendment. Scherer, on the other hand, is arguing with a straw man. Jack Shafer does something similar: "Has the public's taste for barbed drawings waned since the Paul Conrad, Herblock, Pat Oliphant, and Bill Mauldin heydays, or have the voices of the would-be bowdlerizers gotten stronger? Shall we don blinders and erect barriers so nobody is offended or misled? Only weak thinkers fear strong images."

The argument against Blitt's drawing is not that cartooning is worthless, or that there's no place for satirical illustration. The argument is that this specific cartoon is a failure of imagination, and that depicting a calumny is not the same thing as satirizing that calumny. Scherer's attempt to defend cartooning is in fact weirdly patronizing to cartoonists everywhere: if cartoons constitute a form of political expression, if they have any meaning at all, then they can legitimately inspire disdain. The First Amendment protects the right of the speaker to speak, but it also protects the right of the listener to boo.

I'll bet you Blitt's illustration appears, unmodified, on merchandise for sale at the Republican convention.


Jason Michelitch
I think it's a solid entry into the long tradition of New Yorker covers trying to be funny and failing.

That said, I don't think the cover is offensive and I don't think it's going to hurt Obama (whom, I should note for disclosure, is my candidate of choice).

First off, anyone who is going to buy the ridiculous racist rhetoric about Barack Obama being a "secret Muslim" and Michelle Obama being a "militant" isn't going to be swayed one way or another by a New Yorker cover. And even if they were, the cover isn't pushing that viewpoint, it's satirizing it (badly). There are far more immediately accessible venues to receive and share that viewpoint available to those who are going to revel in it, such as the "Will it still be the White House?" buttons going around, or endless lying or idiotic pundits who repeat it all ad nauseam on the very same "news" programs that will be running stories about this cover.

Kevin Drum makes the initially interesting point that the New Yorker cover might have shown more guts and a better sense of satire if they had used the same image, but put it in a word balloon coming out of John McCain's mouth. I say initially interesting, because after my knee-jerk anti-McCain reaction wore off, I realized this wouldn't be a very funny cartoon either.

I am disappointed that the Obama campaign felt the need to make any kind of public condemnation of the cover. I'd prefer if they just let it slide off, showing a thicker skin or maybe even a sense of humor about it. On the other hand, you have supposedly legitimate TV "news" coverage that seriously questions whether a fist bump is a terrorist/radical signal, and so I can understand that it can get tough to keep your head about such things. Still, it would be nice if there wasn't always a new manufactured controversy waiting around every corner these days. If anything, it's going to be the attention paid to nonsense issues that will hurt Obama in the long run, since, regardless of whether you agree with his views or not, I think he's in a better position to appeal to a majority of voters in a straight issues debate. But I don't think that this cover is anything special in terms of nonsense issues. If it wasn't this, it would be something else. Welcome to America.


Bryan Young:
After seeing the cover for the first time spread across the news, I thought that it was at best a test of freedom of speech and at worst a cartoon in poor taste. The image struck me enough to seek out the comments of the author who stated that his intention was to illustrate the absurdity of claims made by the vast right wing conspiracy against Obama are. That he's a secret America-hating Muslim with a terrorist black supremacist for a wife seems absurd enough as it is, but the artist is right, it's twice as absurd when you see it. It will certainly affect more than a few news cycles, so only time will tell if it's going to damage our freedom of the press in this country or provide a productive platform to discuss the issues the artist raises.

And, let's face it, whether I agree with the artist or not, it is providing a stimulating conversation.


Tim Hodler:
This is what I think, but unfortunately it's not interesting enough to help you any:

Everyone will have forgotten about this by next Monday, if not sooner.

Oh, and by everyone, I mean everyone but the people who are responsible for picking the cover art at The New Yorker. But that's a pretty small group.


Dustin Harbin:
Regardless of the satirical content, is there a need for the cartoon? Maybe it's just the Muslim connection that makes me think of it, but it reminds me of the whole Danish cartoon controversy. While it's hard to say that I disagree with the idea that cartoonists should talk about whatever they like, it seems like a lot of talk and energy devoted to a so-so idea. Maybe if it were a better cartoon I'd care more. But it seems like its value as satire is muddy at best, and there are more important things to be worried about than some issue of The New Yorker. I live in North Carolina.


Tim Lowery:
Americans do get irony, but lets admit it this illustration failed in a Big way. Just to cry out this is just the PC police that is all hot and bothered is to deflect that this possibly was wrong-headed (in an art-directed sense) cover. Don't believe me? Go here and view the opinions of those outside the usual comic and New Yorker demographic.

and here.


David Jones:
For what it's worth, I think it's an amusing image and a clever jab at people's perception of Obama. But I also think the editors and artist probably overestimated the intelligence of their audience at large, so it can be said, at least in my opinion, that it shows misguided judgment, not to be confused with poor taste. It's no surprise that this has provoked such a reaction; and I suppose from The New Yorker's perspective that's a good thing -- better bad press than none at all!


Nick Marino:
Thanks for mentioning the cover cartoon on the blog. I didn't even know about it until you said anything.

To me, the cover is a conglomeration of stereotypes clustered into one nonsensical image. As opposed to being a clever commentary on misinformation and ignorance, the image actually appears to celebrate the fear-mongering that is sure to take place as election draws near.

I doubt this will have any negative effect on the Obama campaign, however. Way I see it, the cover is a New Yorker PR disaster waiting to happen.

If the point of the cartoon is to confront the unfounded fears about Barack and Michelle Obama and show just how ridiculous they are, I think this cartoon misses the mark.

(And on a personal level, I imagine that the image is probably very hurtful to the two of them. It's not like running for President is something you just casually do whether you're patriotic or not.)


Rod McKie:
We were talking about the cover on the Wisenheimer this morning.

One or two posters took the view that it was just stupid people with a satire-bypass that wouldn't 'get' the cover, but I don't think it's that simple.

Over on the TCJ forum in a post I didn't see until after I posted mine, Danny Hellman makes the point that people with their own agenda will use the cover in a way that the illustrator and the magazine didn't intend. That's a very good point and it ties into my own thoughts about how the drawing will be interpreted now that it is out there.

The New Yorker's target readership will get it because they can contextualize it in a second. The subscribers who have the thing delivered are not the problem though; the problem is that many, many, people won't get it because they are not hard-wired that way -- most cartoonists and satirists and John Stewart fans and arty types are, and the regular New Yorker readers are. But the problem is the thing has effectively moved from being Private Art -- for a select few -- to Public Art -- on display on newsstands and that means it is open to an infinite amount of interpretations. And the deliberate misinterpretations that Danny Hellman alluded to.

We should bear in mind that it's not just stupid people who can't read and understand visual language. A panel of literary critics on BBC radio were recently talking about how they don't know how to read, or interpret, graphic novels. They didn't know whether to read the words first and then look at the drawings or do it the other way round, or read them all together. I made light of what I saw as their stupidity at the time, because to comic book and comic strip fans like me, interpreting these things is second nature.


Stephen Weiner:
I think it will hurt Obama and is in poor taste.


Howard McGee:
I am not an Obama supporter, but even I found the Barry Blitt cover of the Obamas offensive and over the top. I have accepted that more than likely that man is going to be the next president of our country and the last thing we need is someone feeding the ignorance of many small minded Americans with that type of mental image, in this country at this time. I realize it's to late to recall the publication, but some sort of nationwide clarification and apology should be issued.


Terry Dunham:
I have a point on the New Yorker cartoon. As it is, it is not satire. There is no mention of the "right wing" so it looks like this is the view of the New Yorker. In order for the gag to work, the characters have to have the impression that they are being viewed through the eyes of some other entity, other than the publication presenting the cartoon.

Why couldn't this image be presented:
-in a frame of a television?
-being drawn on an art pad by Rupert Murdoch?
-or at least have the fox news logo on it?

That would be obvious that the laugh is on Fox News, unfortunately, this cartoon is hard to laugh at.


Justin Fox:
I've been trying to figure out what my problem with the cover is. I was trying to decide if it's simply my gut political reaction kicked into overdrive, an actual failure on The New Yorker and the artist's part, or if I really am a stupid person other people are tired of having to talk down to. I say this because the cartoon looks like a complete failure, unless the only goal (outside of generating sales) was the rather questionable one of generating debate, without putting an actual point forward.

The problem is, there's no satire to get or not get, process or not process. There's irony (that only exists so long as the masthead is in place), but there's no satire. The image is nothing more than a well-drawn illustration of the "things to consider" email. It barely exaggerates the points made in the seemingly never-ending feedback loop of slightly modified forwarded emails purporting to have more evidence of Obama's secret life. I fully expect to receive an email from a concerned relative using the cover as proof that even The New Yorker gets it.

Now, does this mean that The New Yorker should start talking down to people and simplifying it's approach to covers simply because it's an election year? This one in particular? No. Should The New Yorker even consider whether its covers help or hurt a campaign? No. But if The New Yorker and the cover's proponents are going to use satire as an explanation, there ought to be some satire in the piece. If I go to my blog and type up the common list of scurrilous rumors about the Obamas, it wouldn't look satirical. If I were to make a drawing illustrating those rumors, it still wouldn't appear to be particularly satirical.

And it's the same here. There's nothing in the image that demonstrates the absurdity of the rumors. There's nothing that points out that the people who report these rumors or takes them seriously are misinformed or deserving of ridicule. There's nothing the artist adds that suggests a satirical position on the subject at all.

Does it hurt the campaign? A little. It hurts when it comes out on a slow news day like today. It hurts because (as everyone at The New Yorker knows) it forces the campaign to respond to it. They have to respond because the target of the image is meant to be the very people Obama is trying to appeal to. It hurts because it engenders the sort of in-fighting I'm sure tomorrow's Comics Reporter will be full of, between the people who think the cover is clever, the people who think it isn't and the people who think it's a lot of sound and fury over nothing. Liberals, progressives, Democrats, and nerds love fighting amongst themselves, and this cover hits us right where we live: You're-so-stupid-you-don't-get-it-ylvania.


Colin Panetta:
I'm not too interested in The New Yorker's side of things. I get the feeling that this was a miscalculation on the part of The New Yorker. I'm sure they realized that a good amount of people would get up in arms about it, but not to the extent they have, and not with the negativity that they have. Or, maybe they're -cough- just really good at selling papers.

The biggest part of the story for me is Obama's people's response. Obviously, this cover spotlights the very things that they're trying to make Obama not look like during this crucial time for his public image. I certainly understand it freaking them out. But I would think that they would want to come up with a response that would transcend both sides of the issue, rather than just siding themselves with the lowest common denominator. Super weak.

The only thing that worries me about this cover is the fact that I think that the conservative small town folk from the place I grew up, the very people it's lampooning, love it and are showing it to their friends and slapping it on the backs of their trucks. But you know what -- maybe that's just the nature of really great satire.

No matter what's going on here, I would just like to congratulate The New Yorker on publishing the best Mad Magazine cover in years. I love it so much, and if I were Obama I would wear it like a badge of honor. After November.


Sean T. Collins:
I think the political blogger Matthew Yglesias has the best take I've seen so far: It's not a particularly great cartoon, nor a particularly outrageous one--the problem with it is that it's really no more outrageous than the actual rumors it purports to satirize. It's essentially just an illustrated version of that email forward your racist grandma sent you, or the "whitey" tape that some awful Hillary dead-ender invented, or that Fox News idiot rhetorically asking if the Obamas' celebratory fist bump was a "terrorist fist jab." In a context as outrageous as the anti-Obama smear factory has become, the satire is rendered ineffective and inert.

Now, do I give a shit? No. This kind of outrage-of-the-day is what has me sorely tempted to delete all the political blog syndication feeds from my RSS reader until after the election. However, I will add this to my ever-growing pile of evidence that with the exception of maybe like half a dozen guys from the whole of human history, political cartooning is a mug's game capable only of telling its intended audience exactly what it already wants to hear and irritating everyone else.


Marc Sobel:
You know, my initial gut reaction was, oh that's terrible. That's tasteless and offensive. But then I stepped back and thought about it a little more and I think my reaction was based on my fear that Obama might lose the election because people, however ridiculous it sounds, believe these rumors that he is a Musilm. But then I figure if you're smart enough to be reading The New Yorker, you're probably not that ignorant, so the impact is minimized.

It does sadden me that we are such a racist society that being a Muslim is perceived as a negative in the eyes of the mainstream media. I know that most people understand the difference between radical Muslim groups who operate as terrorists and everyday Muslims, but still, stereotypes are reinforced by images like this in the media.

Then I thought about the whole Danish cartoons controversy and how unbelievable the over-reaction was (people actually lost their lives over cartoons!) and I thought, maybe this kind of thing is harmful in some way. I mean, I support the idea that cartoonists must always be free to express themselves, regardless of who they offend, but does that mean The New Yorker, which circulates to thousands of Americans, should put that kind of image on their cover?

I guess, in the end, it's really not that big a deal, and I doubt it will have any impact on the election, but I can certainly see why the cover generated so much discussion. I think it touched a nerve of fear for people who are sensitive to politics, and feel deeply passionate about Obama.


Darryl Brathwaite:
With regards to the cover of The New Yorker depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as terrorists: The piece fails as satire for the same reason that Ward Sutton's pretend-conservative strip in The Onion used to fail when it first started out. The reason is that the strip is not over the top, and instead reads as the straight-faced opinions of the demographic that these works both sought to make fun of.

The New Yorker piece fails not because New Yorker readers know better than to believe that Barack Obama will burn flags and put a picture of Osama Bin Laden in the White House. No. It fails because there are people who actually believe that. So instead of being over the top and exposing the ridiculous of these right wing talking points, the artist here simply repeats the talking points. It looks, therefore, like an endorsement of these radical points of view.

In extreme political satire that has worked, such as The Colbert Report, you will see the artist raise points that are so entirely ludicrous that people just don't confuse it with reality.

I guess it's just not over the top enough and too close to real people's views to be "satire."


Jamie Smith:
This New Yorker cover managed to score on two simultaneous fronts: one, mocking right-winger talking points by exposing their stupidity, and two, instigating a full-scale implosion of hypocrisy amongst the liberals -- that is an achievement of rare talent. I will be preordering my copy of Blitt's new book The Audacity of Satire immediately.


Tim O'Shea:
Honestly, my first reaction was "Damn, savvy marketing move on The New Yorker's part." I honestly think this was the first time I've ever seen an editor of the magazine interviewed on a nightly news program (ABC News with Charlie Gibson).

As far as Obama's campaign reaction, I was surprised. By reacting to it at all, I think they are drawing more attention to the subject. Does anyone honestly thing a typically liberal (and I say this as a moderate liberal myself) publication like the New Yorker would ever be a mouthpiece for Obama's opponents?

While I realize that many anti-Obama factions are scooping the image up, I view it much in the same way that misguided Republicans wanted to use Springsteen's Born in the USA as a rallying tune back in that song's heyday.

That being said, if you have to explain the satire as much as David Remnick has had to in the past day or so, it may be that the satire was not as clear as he may have originally thought.

One last thought, it's interesting to watch the coverage of the controversy. This piece in the SF Chronicle gets some good quotes from Art Spiegelman, but neglects to mention that his wife is art editor Françoise Mouly--making him maybe not the best person to stick up for the publication.


Matthew Springer:
My first reaction to the Obama cartoon on the New Yorker cover was anger. As an Obama supporter, the image inspired that knee-jerk reaction; a few seconds later, I grasped it was satire (or rather, I hoped it was intended as satire, or spoof, or humor, or whatever term is most appropriate).

Upon reflection, I think what bothers me most about it (as a Democrat) is an observation B. Clay Moore made yesterday via Twitter, and I'm paraphrasing: Satire is all well and good, but it runs the high risk of being embraced by those who do not grasp the satire as a true observation, or rather, a piece of art/comedy/commentary meant to support their ideology.

I don't think I'm explaining that well. Try this: I guarantee that the image has already been printed out by Republicans and right-wingers and is residing on their refrigerators and cubicle walls.

Also troubling: The comedy is not based on truths, but is based on mistruths that Republicans have quoted as truths -- Obama's "muslim" leanings, Michelle Obama's "hate Whitey" militant stance, etc. I think for a large chunk of the audience, it isn't satirizing mistruths, but rather caricaturing ideas they have already accepted as truth. So it's not, "Oh, ho ho, how funny that people are saying these silly things about the Obamas," but rather, "Oh, ho ho, these facts about the Obamas are true, and someone has gone through the trouble of providing a convenient single caricature that captures every lie I have swallowed about them."

But that's all politics. As art, to the extent that I can comment on that, without some kind of deep schooling on the New Yorker and editorial cartooning in general? It seems very "on the nose"; it almost doesn't go far enough to illustrate the comedy, but then, that might be more down to personal taste than anything.

I mean, at the end of the day, from our perspective as fans of cartooning, that's really what the conversation should lead to: Is it effective? Is it funny? I'd say personally I find it to be relatively effective, though probably not for the reasons the author intended, and not that funny, because it seems sorta tame and snooty, like someone trying to be edgy without being edgy because being edgy is distasteful to them.

Finally, it sorta brings up the question of satire's value, in the sense that it can be co-opted; does the fact that a satirical piece can be grossly misunderstood by many or most of the audience make the satire less valid? Probably not, or at least, I can probably think of examples of mockery/satire/spoof that I find funny but others totally misunderstand. Interesting to think about, to me, anyway.


Tucker Stone:
1. I pretty much found the New Yorker's cover strange mostly because it was on the New Yorker -- I realize it might be blasphemy, but when it comes to gutsy satire, I haven't looked to the New Yorker to pull that off in years. (Years meaning Never.) What's most interesting to me is how full-guns-blazing satire this is, considering that they only openly endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in 2004, after 80 years of hemming and hawing. Is The New Yorker accepting its pretty much acknowledged role as a full-dyed-in-the-wool liberal publication? From this cover, I'm guessing that's it for them with fence-sitting. As satire goes, I think that, had this shown on up on a publication more famous for satirical covers (like Vanity Fair, Radar or The Economist), it still would've gotten play, but there wouldn't be such a "omigod how could they" reaction.

2. In a way -- and I don't really buy into much political conspiracy stuff -- there is a level of oddness to the timing. Barack is currently dealing with the backlash from his decision to vote in support of the immunity bill for the telecoms involved in the warrantless wiretapping "scandal" and he's completely reversed his stance where he gets his election funds from. The National Review (which is as much of a conservative publication as the New Yorker is a liberal one) just said "Has there ever in recent political memory been so much calculation and bad faith by a politician who has made so much of eschewing both?"

Like I said, I don't buy into the Wag the Dog-type mentality, that politicians are just so gosh darn savvy that they've got distractions prepared in the wings for when things look bad for them -- but right now, the discussion in the polit-circles isn't that 22,000 people (and counting) are turning against Obama for voting in support of the telecoms bill he promised to filibuster. They aren't talking about his changing stance on public financing. They're talking about a cover that's an obvious satire -- and Obama has The New Yorker to thank for changing the subject of the political conversation.

3. I live in New York, and work in an office where the political debate goes about as far as "Do you guys think it's okay for me to break the law and vote for Obama more than once?" So far, I haven't noticed anybody crying. But that might be because everybody I work with checks Gawker and Defamer all day, and this is what they said -- which is pretty much fucking genius, regardless of how you feel about Gawker and the Nick Denton empire.

In summation: I await the opinions of smarter men than I, so that I may adopt them as my own.

posted 8:15 am PST | Permalink

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