Scoring <i>The New Yorker</i> Cover Debate

On Sunday night, hours before The New Yorker's latest issue had been delivered to newsstands, the internet exploded with conversation over the cover. It features a caricature of the Obamas as they exist in the minds of many of their right-wing critics: Barack is wearing a turban and sandals as he fist bumps with Michelle, who is decked out in fatigues with a "black power afro" that is about as radical looking as a jheri curl. They stand in the oval office, with a portrait of Osama bin Laden hanging on the wall and an American flag smoldering in the fireplace. New Yorker editor David Remnick insisted the piece was satire in the vein of Stephen Colbert, saying that he ran the cover to "hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's -- both Obamas' -- past, and their politics." Barry Blitt, the artist who drew the image (and also the famous Larry Craig-inspired cover parody of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a bathroom), said that he thought "depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is." The Obama campaign called the image "tasteless and offensive," as did the McCain campaign. 

As the image exploded across the blogosphere, it became apparent that many of those who were meant to get the joke did not. Some thought the cover didn't work as satire, while others thought it was a fantastic send-up of right-wing myths about Obama, and still others thought it shouldn't have been a big deal either way. And the conflicting opinions were not confined to liberals, or to Obama supporters. While some conservatives went so far as to praise the cover as accurate, others actually agreed the image was offensive. Below, a rundown of reactions.

Liberal racism

Conservative Ed Morrisey over at Hot Air gets that the joke is meant to be on him, but still calls the cover "a hateful, bigoted attack" then tilts at windmills trying to argue that "the Left" is the only side of the American spectrum with a race problem.

This makes the third bigoted attack from the Left on Obama. Two weeks ago, it was Ralph Nader acting as the arbiter of black authenticity, and last week it was Jesse Jackson wanting to castrate Obama. One side in this cycle certainly seems obsessed by identity politics, but so far it isn't the Republicans.

Someone should tell Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist that liberals have co-opted their precious "identity politics." Most of Morrisey's commenters liked the cover, and their views are summed up nicely by one who said, "I'm gonna frame that sumbitch."

Over at National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg thinks that the cover is "almost exactly the sort of cover you could expect to find on the front of National Review," adding that "if we ran the exact same art, the consensus from the liberal establishment could be summarized in words like "Swiftboating!" and, duh, "racist." In a related observation, Atrios says that "It's a sad state of affairs that conservatives are hard to satirize or parody because they're so insane, but that's where we are."

The trouble with drawing race

Count Rikyrah at Jack and Jill Politics among those who found the images particularly offensive. She writes that the cover proves Obama doesn't "need enemies" with commenters adding that it seemed like the cover was more successful at making fun of black folks than the noise machine behind the smears.

In a piece for The Root, Dayo Olopade notes that "Given the flare-ups surrounding race and representation that have rocked the 2008 presidential race, it's easy to treat the satirical cover -- of a be-turbaned Barack and a be-afroed Michelle Obama -- and other "racialist" images of the couple as a serious problem." Olopade notes that cartoonists are having a really hard time getting his image right. "Drawing a black man -- either seriously or satirically -- it appears, is damned difficult."

What about Ryan Lizza?

Some were concerned about the effect of the cover on the Ryan Lizza piece inside the issue. Steve Benen over at the Carpetbagger Report laments that the cover detracts from Ryan Lizza's lengthy detailed report on Obama's political background, which he describes as having "details and insights I haven’t seen anywhere else." The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner agrees, but thinks the Obama campaign is to blame:

What I do not understand, however, is why the Obama campaign has chosen to pick a fight with the magazine, thereby assuring that the story will have legs

Not buying the satire

Ta-Nehisi Coates isn't buying Remnick's Colbert comparison:

… this cover actually does reflect--not exaggerate, not satirize--the views of a sizeable portion of Americans. That image is exactly what Fox News thinks of Barack and Michelle. Compare that, again, to Colbert. No real conservative actually thinks bears are the greatest threat to America. But that's not the point. Steven Colbert's threatdown/bear riff exaggerates the right-wing stance on the environment. That's why it works as satire

Daniel Larison at The American Conservative argues that the image loses its satiric edge in reproduction:

In an era of instant, mass communication, the image will be, indeed already has been, circulated widely and will gradually lose whatever "ironic" edge it once had. That the image derived from a New Yorker cover and was intended for an audience of high-information, predominantly left-leaning voters who already support Obama will be irrelevant or will add to the "credibility" of what the image conveys.

Manning the barricades!

Not everyone thought the cover was a failure. Brad, one of the brilliant satirists at Sadly, No! thinks the cover is "a bloody awesome satire of right-wing assholism," adding:

[T]his is good satire. It mocks the racist right-wing caricature of Obama that I and many of my fellow bloggers have been watching develop in winger blogs and opinion journals over the past year. And if you're going to confront ugliness and stupidity in our discourse, you have to pull no punches in showing people just how ugly and stupid these creeps are. I say good work, New Yorker.

John Cole doesn't get why the magazine was the dominant issue of the day on liberal blogs, listing the economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and McCain's inability to let Czeckoslovakia go peacefully into the sunset of the early 90s. In The New Yorker's defense, he writes:

They did something edgy and something I think is pretty clever, and it isn’t their job to worry about the Obama campaign or what jackasses might do with their content. Their job is to put out provocative and interesting material, and having just read the Ryan Lizza piece, I am glad they put the cover out there.

Field Negro also gives The New Yorker a pass, saying "Obamaholics" are "shooting the messenger." Over at Radar, Choire Sicha suggests "maybe it is true that America is far too dim-witted to handle a little bit of cartooning." I wouldn't take that bet, but Timothy Egan at The New York Times says the only people who don't get the joke wouldn't vote for Obama anyway. But what will Obama do without G. Gordon Liddy?

Sicha links to a statement from Clarence Page, who also defended Rush Limbaugh's Magic Negro song, who says the cover is "just lampooning all the crazy ignorance out there."

And what about Michelle?

Blogger Gina McCauley was most offended by the depiction of Michelle Obama, saying that "Liberal creatives are having a field day this election season with their depictions of Michelle Obama. Proving that you can revel in racist depictions of Black people as long as you have a really good reason," linking to an ill-advised depiction of Michelle Obama being lynched by Klansmen. Having a really good reason and doing it well aren't the same thing. The joke about Michelle Obama's hair kind of rings hollow in a society where a black woman wearing her natural hair is an act of "militancy."

A.J. Plaid at Racialicious takes issue with what she sees as The New Yorker's "hipster racism," which she describes as "the use of irony meant to denigrate another’s person race or ethnicity under the guise of being urbane, witty (meaning "ironic" nowadays), educated, liberal, and/or trendy," arguing that "being on the right side" doesn't give one the right to take that kind of license with racist images. Like McCauley, she expresses concern about the cover's portrayal of Michelle Obama:

There's a eau de blame-Yoko-Ono-for-breaking-up-the-Beatles odor about it, the "powerful" woman of color exerting some imagined extraordinarily negative power through an intimate relationship over her otherwise likable—if not beloved—man that grinds my nerves.

Will liberals ever laugh again?

In an act of self-parody that mirrors the targets of his criticism, Gary Kamiya at Salon asks whether liberals will ever laugh again. Fortunately the answer is yes:

Beyond these considerations, there's something ridiculous about the whole debate. The New Yorker is the most prestigious magazine of its type in the country, with a circulation of over a million and a disproportionate influence, but it's not a network or CNN or Fox. If the New Yorker starts trickling down to supermarket racks in Des Moines, Iowa, as the critics seem to fear, the GOP is toast.

I hear Rahm Emmanuel is booking planes to make air drops over the Midwest as we speak. Liberal enlightenment aid packs will also include DVD sets of The Wire and poetry by Khalil Gibran. Fortunately there's no medium of distribution that will allow the cover image to be reproduced ad infinitum without the articles. So did The New Yorker cover work as satire? A good question to ask is who was laughing last.

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