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Trust the Idiots

July 17th, 2008

new yorker

President Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office, his back to us. He’s finishing up a phone conversation with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. An Islamic call to prayer fills the room from a nearby minaret. Obama says goodbye and gets up from the desk. We see him wearing a one-piece tunic and a kaffiyah. He rolls out a prayer mat. His wife, Michelle, bursts through the door. She’s mad as hell, screaming at him. There’s no way she’ll wear a burqa. She’s much happier with her military fatigues, afro and AK-47. Obama pleads about the need for “change,” but she’s not having it.

The phone rings again, this time it’s Osama bin Laden. Obama greets the terrorist as a brother and bin Laden makes some suggestions on how to deal with an unruly wife (“cut off her tounge, beat her senseless and if that doesn’t work, take away her Lifetime Televsion”). “It’s not going to work,” Obama says, looking at his tunic. “She wears the pants in the White House, literally.” The two men commiserate, then there’s a call on the other line.

This time it’s former President Bill Clinton, now wearing a turban and a beard. He’s thrilled with the new regime —Hillary’s head hangs on his wall, he’s got his “Harlem Harem” and a lifetime supply of no-longer-illegal Cubans. Obama brings Clinton in on a three-way call, the men joke as old friends. Michelle gets angrier by the moment, even throws an American flag in the fireplace, but her husband won’t let her interupt. She’s got something important to say. It escalates, but in the end, Clinton’s an attention whore and steals the line.

“Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night.” 

***

There’s not that much that hasn’t been said about the latest “New Yorker” cover. You’ve probably seen it a billion times by now — Barack and Michelle Obama, in the Oval Office, fist bumping in a scene much like the one described above. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns were quick to condemn the cover as “tasteless and offensive.”

Context, context, context.

The Washington Post noted that if the joke had appeared on television, say, on “Saturday Night Live,” the American public would have been more accommodating. Heck, get Obama himself to play the role, much as Bush and Gore lampooned themselves on the show in 2000. If Obama needed to, because race and religion is a bit more delicate than simple self-deprecating humor, take a teaching moment akin to when Al Sharpton hosted SNL — explain to the audience that although Barack Obama is not a Muslim, the vast majority of Muslims aren’t like this (and certainly don’t conference call with bin Laden).

But “The New Yorker” isn’t “Saturday Night Live.”

One of the biggest gripes about the cover is the lack of the headline “The Politics of Fear,” and therefore the lack of context. These critics, most of them Obama supporters, hate the cover because they don’t expect people to “get” the joke. Instead, Joe Q. Idiot will see his worst fears about an Obama presidency in full, glossy color, thereby damning another democratic candidate.

“The New Yorker” masthead is all the context you need. If the cover appeared on “KKKToday” it’s a different story.

“The New Yorker” is a magazine aimed at the liberal elite, people who see themselves as “smart.” The New Yorker sales pitch is essentially “read our magazine, feel smart.”

“New Yorker” readers aren’t the only smart people in America, but they lost the last two elections. That’s where the response is really coming from.

“Some on the left, however, are so terrified that Americans, in their cosmic stupidity, cannot distinguish between satire and smear that they reject satire,” Gary Kamiya writes in Salon. “After Obama wins, they decree, there will be time for all the sophisticated ha-ha. But right now, imagery must be as tightly controlled as at an exhibition of Stalinist realism paintings.”

Why should it be a problem, for reasons other than magazine sales, if the part of the public doesn’t “get” a magazine cover? It’s the Obama campaign’s job to shape — and respond to — his narrative, not “The New Yorker’s.”

I didn’t find the cartoon “tasteless” or “offensive.” The McCain campaign really had no choice but to echo the Obama campaign, but I’d have expected a more nuanced response from the Senator from Illinois. Political satire is an important part of the American narrative. By historical standards this cartoon is pretty tame (hey, it is “The New Yorker” after all).

A lot of that has to do with race — Obama is the first black candidate to receive a major party nomination, so a lot of (white) comedians, as the “New York Times” notes, are scratching their heads to figure out what’s within the realm of good taste. In short, the Times writes, Obama will get a pass unless he does something stupid.

I’m more concerned about cartoonists. A good cartoon can make a point in a few words and communicate an idea to many more people than just about any other medium. Look no further than the Mohammad cartoons in 2006 for proof of that. That’s where the real “politics of fear” comes from — those who condemn the cartoon understand its power, much more so than the actual words inside the magazine.

“Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS,” Philip Kennicott writes in “The Washington Post.” “Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege.”

My hypothetical sketch would work on “SNL,” but what if a print cartoonist did something similar? Would it make a difference if it were TIME Magazine or MAD Magazine?

MAD is probably the only publication where something like this would fly (full disclosure: I do occasional freelance work for MAD). The New Yorker is by smart people for smart people. MAD is by idiots for idiots.

With cartoons, I trust the idiots.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072

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