The New Yorker Obama Cover Illustration and a Social Critic’s Machine Gun

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!


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Joe Bob Briggs

    Colin, you are not only an excellent blogger, craftsman, artisan and dare I say, poet, but you are also a scholar of pop culture as demonstrated by your reference of probably one of the lamest blips of fame from this decade or the last (I can’t remember which, but if my life was on the line, I’d guess the 90’s).

    A colleague of mine said he saw you at the Toledo Lounge over the weekend and that you told him you hadn’t seen me in a year. I retorted that I had indeed seen you at your lovely Happy Hour and that it was probably he whom you were accusing of not having seen. He sheepishly admitted his relative insobriety and agreed with my assessment.

    I am not sure I followed up with you, but that Happy Hour was great. I really had an excellent conversation with the two new people that I met. I’m looking forward to the next one.

  • Obama is still an unfamiliar face and character to much of the nation. This is an ugly image of him. I understand the humor and the intent, but the unintended consequence to help form an image of him as a ridiculous figure in the minds of many who haven’t been paying a lot of attention yet. Give ’em more credit? Fine, but the subliminal effect of an early image that is less-than-presidential to negative in the extreme–that effect is real. I haven’t heard any acknowledgement of this by the folks at the New Yorker. They seem so pleased with their heady humor, and completely unwilling to consider that the image on the cover will be spread far and wide beyond their usual readership, and their briliant social commentary has consequences in the contest for the Executive branch. Would ANY right-wing distributor of media do something similar? Would they publish a comic image of McCain as a doddering senile old man with a walker and diapers as satire? I think not. Why?

    And yes, I’m traumatized by 2000 and 2004. This cover image plays right into the whole “smear and defend” tactics that have been winning battles lately. In the name of satire??? sheesh.

  • (At Phil Lepanto) Awwwwwwwwwww sheee-yit boy it’s ON! You can sweet talk me all day, but I STILL won’t let you hate on my man Joe Bob Briggs without a reply — NOBODY knew how to pick, rate, evaluate, dissect and describe drive-in movies like he did. No way was HE afraid to challenge the complacent — he was a man on a mission for the greater good, and he didn’t care WHO got mad along the way.

    He represents the finest of Texas, the light to GWB’s dark, and I hope someday to live up to his example.

    BTW, I think told your friend we hadn’t hung out in about a year, but that I’d seen you at the happy hour for a minute. Of course, never trust eyewitness testimony — mine in particular. Glad you had a good time at the Reef — I had a blast. Next time…

  • (At dossamosas)

    Hey man, excellent question. Let’s think of it this way — what if some group of Dem Swift-Boater equivalents were spreading rumors that McCain had lost it and was really being propped up by a Right Wing cabal. And Lefty blogs were repeating it as fact without confirmation, it was being spread by viral email and through online social networks, and was convincing a fair number of people no matter how often the campaign denied it. Sounds crazy? No more than the idea that a Senator from Illinois running for President being thought of as a secret Muslim Manchurian Candidate.

    In that case, the New Yorker SHOULD run exactly the cover you talked about. And in any case, The Onion probably will, if they haven’t already — Jon Stewart et al make a lot of “you’re old, dude” jokes about McCain already.

    I really stand by my thinking that anyone who doesn’t get this as satire was not terribly likely to have voted for Obama in the first place. I’d rather lose a couple of votes here and there than lose freedom to speak my mind — self-censorship IS censorship. Sometimes it’s appropriate (“my god, that dress looks TERRIBLE on you”), but we should ALWAYS take great care when we restrict the range of discourse that we allow. You and I were both in college during the height of Political Correctness, and left-wing censorship is no prettier than right-wing censorship.


    link to that McCain cartoon we were musing over, except it’s not going to be displayed on magazine racks for the next several weeks like the New Yorker cover will.

    Are either of these satirical cartoons really that good, anyway?

    Somehow, they don’t quite meet the Colbert correspondents’ dinner standard, IMHO.

    Another thing – mildly interesting that I don’t hear anyone crowing about the insult of that New Yorker cover to the oval office itself–you know, respect for “the office” and all. 😉

  • I loved it, especially since Michelle has an AK over her shoulder and is doing a fist bump with Barack. It reminded me of all the rumors about a video with Michelle talking about “whitey”. This election has had multiple moments of comedy, like Hillary whining about the boys treating her unfairly and how unhinged any speaker seems to become when they set foot into Trinity United Church. Plus, how Obama keeps throwing people under the bus (recent example, Bernie Mac). They’re running out of room down there.

    I too believe in free speech and Obama should’ve just laughed this one off. It concerns me a bit that they can’t take a joke.

  • Colin, I knew you were smart (ok, well, I was drunk when I officially met you, but that didn’t stop me from picking up on it). I aboslutely 100% agree with your take on the New Yorker cover. It gave me hope for the Dems again after being overwhelmed with the deluge of “outrage”. Well said, my friend – all around.

  • Yeah…but…not to be a total snob (because I came from the area of whence I speak) there’s a lot of America that just doesn’t get satire as an art form. But they do really resent having liberal elites make fun of them and pretend they’re smarter.

    Most of them are not readers of the New Yorker, which we could be thankful for, except that this is so hard core (spot-on, maybe, but so spot-on it turned my stomach) that now it’s news. And their boys Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly will be talking about it ad nauseum (oops, a Latin word — note to self: try “non-stop” instead) and each time they do, reinforcing it just a little bit more. And you can bet Rush and Bill won’t be presenting it as satire, except to remind them that the New Yorker (and by implication the Dems) think they’re stupid.

    Do the lib-ruls have to be so g-d clever that once again, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot? The way to deal with this is not to point out its ridiculousness or to reason with middle America, it’s to ignore it until it goes away. Every effort that reinforces this meme before the election is simply not helping.

  • I believe satire requires some wit, which was not an ingredient in the New Yorker cover. The cover was just offensive, and it has nothing to do with my liberal views. The New Yorker could have also touched a nerve by a cover of McCain in a delivery room holding a woman down and forcing her to give birth, with a choir in the background cheering him on. That’s how some people see him, that would touch a nerve, and I would find it equally offensive.

  • Look, if this magazine cover costs Barack Obama the election, we have WAY more serious problems to talk about. As I said above, I’d much rather risk losing a few votes than risk losing the fundamental right to speak our minds — self-censorship IS censorship.

    So we’re all supposed to sit around and say nice things and then Obama gets elected and everything works out? Bullshit — if some people have a bizarrely distorted view of him, it matters, and the best thing to do is drag it out into the light, regardless of whether or not it makes people who think that way feel stupid or talked-down-to — and a magazine editor is not really responsible for the feelings of people who don’t read his publication. Remember, the New Yorker editor does not work for the Obama campaign, he works for the magazine’s publisher and its readers.

    There are a ton of Americans out there who are looking for an excuse not to vote for Obama for reasons that we don’t really like to think about (shhh, don’t tell, but I heard that he’s a Negro), and they’re going to find that excuse regardless of what you or I write or say in public. I happen to believe that Obama picks up more votes because of his history and background than he loses, but that’s just my guess — and it’s exactly as good as anyone else’s guess, since none of us here has a working crystal ball that I know of.

    I just can’t see how this is Dems “shooting themselves in the foot” — you need to show me a significant number of voters who were turned against him because of this illustration for me to believe that. Otherwise, it’s just your guess against mine. To me, this is HEALTHY. A good thing. A positive. Free speech, baby — it’s yours for just as long as you’re willing to defend it.

  • (@ Gloria)

    The great thing about humor is that it’s in the eye of the beholder — and I thought this was funny as hell, and apparently so did the New Yorker editors. Just like I think the Daily Show is funny, and Colbert, and (back in the day) Dave Chappelle, and every now and then, even Rush Limbaugh (batten down the hatches!).

    The thing is, I don’t mind being offended. Period. In fact, I’d rather see or read something that offends me in a revealing way than to see something that just reinforces what I already believe. If it offends me (unless it’s just being gross for the sake of gross, for instance), there’s a reason — and that reason may well reveal something significant. The McCain-in-the-birthing-room magazine cover you describe wouldn’t bother me in the slightest — I’d love to see it, if were done in an interesting and clever way and made a valid point. Why should the idea of something so outside the norm of allowed discussion bother us? It’s just an image — it can’t hurt anybody by itself. As it is, our political culture is so sanitized already, so constrained in the range of topics discussed in public, and people want rein it in even tighter?

    As I said in the article, we should be very, very careful any time we restrict the range of allowed public discourse. In this case, I am HAPPY to risk losing a vote here and there if it means we keep freedom of expression — otherwise, what’s this democracy thing all about? Don’t NOBODY tell me what to think or what to say, and that should be true for all of us.

    In any case, as I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t think that anyone who’s swayed by this cover is terribly likely to have been a potential Obama voter. Just because some people won’t get the joke, we don’t get to make it? If that’s our version of “creative” culture these days, count me out.

  • Absolutely, although weren’t we having the same conversation about Swift-boating four years ago around this time? Turns out we did have some pretty serious problems in 2004 after all – and one of them is starting to look a little familiar: the Republicans kicking our ass by creating unsettling messages that made people too uncomfortable to vote Democratic. So now we’re doing it instead? [Yes, the New Yorker isn’t and shouldn’t be a tool of the Democrats and/or the Obama campaign, but it’s also not the Mississippian.]

    I don’t have that crystal ball, but I know too many people trying to reason with their relatives (myself included) who were sucked in by the Jeremiah Wright stuff and are still – STILL – forwarding that “Obama is really a Muslim” e-mail. This brouhaha keeps them thinking about it, not because they read the New Yorker, but because we now have something that has the liberals poking fun at the rednecks AND up in arms with each other – a real two-fer. You don’t have to be a George Lakoff acolyte or marketing genius to see this is handing Fox and its minions exactly what they want to see.

    Let’s not confuse self-censorship with self-discretion and self-restraint: we’re not a party of Tourette’s sufferers. We’re trying to win an election, and we’ve got a limited amount of time and bandwidth left to do it right. When stuff like this happens, we’re not talking to the “family values” crowd about McCain abandoning his disabled first wife for Cindy’s millions because the woman who waited for her POW to come home was no longer a babe. We’re not talking to blue-collar workers about McCain’s free-market-run-amok economic policies. We’re not talking about how, since we haven’t discovered the magic elixir to keep John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsberg alive indefinitely, we’re on the verge of losing any number of progressive battles for generations to come. Instead, we’re talking about our guy and reinforcing that he and his wife are different (and therefore more scary) than anyone who’s successfully run for President before.

    Say the most outrageous things that you want. Let Stewart, Colbert, Leno, Letterman (or their writers, as the strike taught us) and Parker and Stone take their best shot. Exercise every ounce of free speech the Constitution gives you and then some, and I’ll be among your defenders. But remember who the target is. It’s not the silly (voting) Americans who believe something about Obama that’s racist, untrue, or both. Their racism isn’t a boil that will burst if we poke it enough – we really just need to leave the festering people alone until their hate shrivels from pure isolation.

    If funny works, I’m all for funny. I just don’t think this works, and I’d trade a little restraint now to have the last laugh poking fun at President Barack Obama (do we think Chappelle could make a comeback for that?) And call me crazy, but I think the scary Stepford heiress Cindy McCain is a much better comedic target than Michelle Obama any day of the week.

  • >>>Look, if this magazine cover costs Barack Obama the election, we have WAY more serious problems to talk about.

    should have been at the beginning of my post. Either WP is eating your words, Colin, or I screwed up with my limited HTML skills (most likely).