July 15th, 2008
Okay, I’m guilty: the first thing I did when I saw the New Yorker Obama-in-the-White House cover was laugh — I’m a sucker for satire, and that sucker is spot-on. If the target was to parody the crazy-forwarded-email-meets-Fox News view of the Democratic-nominee-to-be, they scored a very difficult headshot. To see what they were getting at, listen to New Yorker editor David Remnick (a man who hates to have to explain a joke) on NPR.
Of course Obama had to be officially offended, much as I’d rather he blew the whole thing off, but then we all know how sensitive politicians have to be to things that might appear ludicrous in the grand scheme (see: lapel pins, flag). But really, the fact that so many people have flipped out over this illustration tells us that the New Yorker really hit a nerve — in my life, it’s come up on two different email lists and one extended reply-to-all-among-friends discussion in a single day. So the New Yorker’s folks found an interesting seam in the culture, and they’re paying the price messengers usually pay for delivering awkward news (remember, even Dave Chappelle could only handle his own show for two seasons).
From liberal/progressives, I’m hearing a powerful fear that the New Yorker is feeding into a narrative that hurts Obama, which to me is a clear result of 2000 and 2004 — both years in which Democrats feel as though the White House was snatched from their grasp unfairly and/or inexplicably. In this case, it’s also unpleasantly mixed up with red/blue cultural issues, since I’ve heard the word “rube” come up more than once (in the condescending “those people will believe ANYTHING!” sense). And a poll on at least one conservative site suggests that there’s an audience out there that’s perfectly willing to take this image of Obama as fact (of course, there have also been plenty of people willing to spread Onion articles as fact). I’ll just suggest that anyone who really connects with this cover wasn’t too likely to vote for Barack Hussein Obama in any case, period.
As for free expression, I’m a pretty strict Voltairian — I may disagree with you, but I’m sure as hell going to do everything I can to make sure you can say what you think. Though a satirist always risks blowback, both from those who don’t get the joke and from some who do, when it comes to social criticism, I tend to follow what we might call the Joe Bob Briggs Doctrine: think of the social critic as a machine gun spraying fire across the cultural landscape, and “when a target screams, you’ve found the sacred cow. Then you go back and shoot it 20 more times” (see also: South Park). Sacred or not, this time somebody hit a whole herd. Let’s eat some (Irish) babies!