NOTE: BagNewsNotes is now located at Please update your bookmarks.

You will be automatically redirected in a few seconds...

« Latest LA Times Poll: Six-Of-One, Half-A-Dozen-Of-The-Other | Main | Lieberman Co-Chairs The Disappropriation Committee »

Jul 13, 2008

The "What" Of What's Wrong With The Barack Osama New Yorker Cover


The contribution Errol Morris made to visual politics earlier this summer, in explaining his Abu Ghraib film, was to emphasize how much the elements of a highly controversial image tend to get missed or "looked past" in the strong emotional and ideological reactions to the overall picture.

With this illustration having the capacity to roil the nets for days, I'm sure you've already seen analysis as to why it's so bad.

(Some of that rationale includes: a.) Otherwise topflight, liberal-minded illustrator forgets that parody involves the employment of imagery to convey something opposite its literal meaning, b.)  Otherwise mistake-averse magazine becomes caught in blind spot after big city liberals get bitter and "cling to rhetorical guns" to express feelings of being jilted by overly centrist nominee, and c). Right wing mouthpieces who have so-far avoided turning into complete bottom feeders have just been handed enough cover for at least a week. )

What you're probably not going to see much of elsewhere, on the other hand, is the actual "what" of what's wrong here.  Here's my list:

1. Set in an Oval Office the revolutionaries have cleared of the desk (because revolutionaries don't do desks, so much as lairs), the self congratulations -- especially at this early, pre-convention stage of the campaign -- ascribes a massive sense of entitlement to the Obamas.

2. Minus the eye contact of the actual fist bump in St. Paul (and adding the arched eyebrows), Angela Davis Obama's expression is transformed from "I love you" to "You're SUCH an evil genius, baby ... and no one ever caught on!"

3. Besides Barack's pursed lips -- which have turned into code in the MSM for this arrogant (read: "uppity") black man -- the most damning element in this illustration, by far, is Obama's eye.  The furtiveness lends the perfect Machiavellian effect, and the fact it's directed our way suggests we should really know better what this guy is up to.

4.  Of course, the gun, the ammo clip, the cammo pants and the crossed legs (like crossed fingers) suggest what an angry, war-like creature Michelle is.

5. It's not just that Old Glory is on fire ("thank Allah I can finally toss that damn pin!"), the crumpled flag at floor level is reminiscent of the flag good old Bill Ayers was stepping on.

In my "ObamaPhobia" presentation at Netroots Nation next Saturday, I aim to show how various campaign images in the traditional media echo more extreme right-wing hate imagery -- conveying Obama as a man with a covert, anti-American agenda, or a deliberate and calculated mastermind, or a closet Muslim and Islamic Manchurian candidate.  In hitting the trifecta here, many will argue this illustration is simply a satiric representation of the sophomoric attacks being tossed at Obama from far right field.

If that's all there was to it, though, than why do I sense Rove is chortling tonight?

The reason -- besides the fact that the New Yorker demographic is a pretty narrow one -- is that visually-based racial, religious and character-based framing does carry cognitive weight across a spectrum of higher- and lower-level reasoning, and, more than anything, it gains strength and veracity through repetition.

So, forget about "don't think of an elephant."  Try not thinking about the guy's name in the turban-thing without not thinking about his brother's name in the portrait behind him.

(Update 2:37pm) : I've been fascinated absorbing the comments here and at the cross-post at Huffington.  Reading this again, the one thing I don't think I adequately framed above is why the parody fails.  It's not so much that parody needs to convey something opposite, but it does have to execute some form of emotional or intellectual or editorial transformation on the elements put forth.

Interestingly, a number of readers zeroed in on this, and even offered Mr. Blitt ways this might have been done.

Waterrat  says:

Something's missing.
Possibly a group picture on the mantle of Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh, Beck, Rove, Cheney, and Bush, all snickering with unfettered delight.

Choppedliver writes:

Since the artist meant to skewer not Obama but the media's emerging, misguided portrait of him, it seems the drawing is incomplete. What we see here should be the picture on Obama's TV screen, as he sits in an all-American home with his wife and daughters, eating apple pie.

And Ken Drum at Washington Monthly
writes (thinking audacity had something to do with it):

If artist Barry Blitt had some real cojones, he would have drawn the same cover but shown it as a gigantic word bubble coming out of John McCain’s mouth — implying, you see, that this is how McCain wants the world to view Obama.

To give us an appreciation, or a sense of outrage, or even a poke at any truth this picture might contain (especially the rapidly growing, but less openly discussed meme of Obama as Machiavelli, as opposed to Osama II), the illustration has to take us outside or beyond the manifest content here, and then show it to us again through a different window -- be that a different context or a different point of view.

As a more instinctual way of explaining the problem, warincontext points out (making me think about last night's last-minute Remnick HuffPo interview) that satire isn't satire if it has to be labeled as such.

David Remnick On That New Yorker Cover: It's Satire, Meant To Target "Distortions And Misconceptions And Prejudices" About Obama (HuffPost)

(illustration: Barry Blitt.  New Yorker cover.  July 21, 2008)


Brilliant! Says it all.

I get the joke and find it clever. But it's a risk without a reward of much substance. Many won't get it. After it's reproduced all over cable news for the next three days, I guess we'll get an idea of how this plays out. The good news is that most doctors won't put THIS issue out in their waiting rooms.

Inside jokes are not approprate for popular consumption, and for good reason. Try replacing, in your mind's eye, the words "New Yorker" with "New Republic". Makes all the difference, doesn't it? Just as it makes zero difference to the average media consumer...

Without the context of the article, I don't like it. There seems to be a "look at the artist's other stuff" defense. But looking at that other stuff, I see insight about actual issues, not rumors. In this illustration, I only see representation of what is being called a "whisper" campaign against the Obamas, though nothing so blatant can be called a whisper campaign.

Unless the article is about how these false rumors are being perpetuated, I don't see how Blitt's illustration does anything but perpetuate these fictions. As it is, I am stunned at how many people are falling for this tripe. There is no need for any endorsement of the conspiracy, but rather for a questioning of it. This illustration does not seem to do that.

This is gonna be trouble. This is Maureen Dowd 'cute'. I agree with Karen, much risk, little reward. It's message? Look what the 'dunces' out there believe. Why is it helpful to push the fact that ANYONE believes this? Why raise the possibility? I don't care who the readers of the New Yorker are. In my local barber shop, where I go to get my beard trimmed, there sits the magazine. Nah, it ain't good. It is not a disaster, and we will quickly pass on to the next circus event, but all and all, it ain't good.

The New Yorker's gag looks a lot like this offering from the hysterically unfunny ½ Hour News Hour-- (YouTube) -- with some cultural transliteration. Both pieces depend on their viewers accepting presumptions so "obvious" they need not be stated -- rubes believe weird stuff on the one hand, liberals are stupid on the other. Limbaugh's dittoheads believe liberals are stupid because that's what Rush says fifteen hours a week. The New Yorker's authority on rubes is less clear to me.

I agree with comments up thread, this image is going to be misread and misused.

Ill advised. Sadly, the article doesn't address any of the items in this week's cover, although the article is pretty hard on Obama while well within the parameters of the New Yorker. In fact, the article is very good and Mr. Obama's supporters should all check it out.

The real sadness is that the journalism of The New Yorker is so far away from the MSM that this cover is probably all 99% of literate Americans will ever experience from it. I have learned during this campaign that if I want to get the full scoop I need to read Mayhill Fowler and the New Yorker.

And the other problem is that the cover is not recognizable as satire, to me.

This is ghastly. But what I like most is the possible unintended indictment of this image by the magazine itself, by the image itself: note that the "1a" which I assume is intended to point to the Oval Office is on the floor and on the wall. Where it is on the wall, though, puts it right at the head of "The New Yorker" indicting this image, this magazine, as part of that very "whisper" campaign, perhaps putting this as the "floor" (footing, foundation) of the accusation...

It doesn't matter whether it was intended as a joke.
It doesn't matter whether one gets the joke.

It's the frigging IMAGE!

This smug, self-satisfied publication strikes again. They see nothing wrong because they're all so pleased with themselves. I know that sometimes there's good reporting going on but you have to wade through all the other stuff first.

10 years ago, something like that, they did a similar cover about same-sex marriage. When I wrote to complain I got an extraordinarily snotty letter from some sub-editor explaining that I perhaps wasn't intelligent enough to understand satire. I wrote to point out that the two grooms in the cartoon were drawn in what was obviously meant to BETTY the manner of Charles Addams. Hence they were monsters. The style carries the meaning. It's not the racist elements that will do the damage here - it's the effete self-congratulation of the pair.

Of course the New Yorker doesn't do satire - it's much too dentists' office safe for that - but they like to think they do. As if they're some edgy, downtown rag instead of somewhere to advertise expensive cars.

There's something seriously wrong with any editor who thought this was going to work. I don't see the National Review foolish enough to put GWB on the cover with a swastika on his podium, to "satirize" extreme left-wing views.

Compare with this image:

Haven't gotten to the article yet, but the main thing obviously is the illustration... and ya gotta love it! If they can't handle satire coming from "friendlies," run with it, and possibly turn it to their advantage, what the hell they gonna do when it gets real down and dirty as it no doubt will?

I was initially outraged but have since softened my view of it. Part of the reason people are experiencing such a visceral reaction is that everyone was caught quite off-guard. The duration of the controversy will indicate whether like the wing-nuts, we progressives lack a sense of irony. The Obama campaign issued an immediate condemnation and has now put it behind them. People upset about the cover should follow their lead. Remember, the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, NOT the right to go through life without ever being offended.

Now that I've read your analysis and thought about this more, I see more than the completeness of the captured-fear image and wink and nod over the stupidity of others -- others being NOT New Yorker readers.

Beyond the gleeful jab at the American heartland, there's something insidious here that I didn't immediately think of: the idea of Michelle Obama being angry isn't solely held by bigots, nor is the the idea that Obama may not be as genuine as folks think he is, but actually a politician (something actually touched on by the article inside the magazine) as contrasted with the "hope" message. The idea that the Obamas are entitled and arrogant is not solely possessed by Appalachia, it was/is a frequently heard complaint of Clinton supporters.

The "are you clever and liberal enough to get this cover" narrative distracted me from the fact that the concepts "lampooned" in the cover are held by more than just "hard working white Americans." While one laughs at the Angela Davis/Muslim imagery (it does, as you say plant that connection in the minds of many), I think it's easy to ignore the more subtle messages embedded in the cartoon....i.e., "you're being played." That message, whether intended or not, has a wider audience than most would admit.

Dang, Michelle's gun is an AK-47. The Obamas must hate America so much they won't even buy our weapons.

Well I just CAN'T wait for McCain's cover: Rambo?, a Lawrence Harvey look alike? a flipflop on his head? Can't wait for that cover. Equal opportunity and all that.
And in other news: Don't think of an Elephant. I think 'you are being played' is a pretty subtle and sophisticated reaction. I may be wrong about that, but more and more we are hearing that thinking is not the strong point of the voting public.
I don't know about rove 'rove flees country'.

db looks at the artist's other stuff and sees work about issues, not rumors. I looked at his other White House covers (HuffPo - "Barry Blitt Defends...") and saw works that take aim at the characters depicted (the "cartoons" themselves) This one makes fun of the viewer - or, better said, people the discerning viewer has heard about;in other words, he's "cartooning" folks several orbits out. This is a weird space. I'm still getting my head around it.

David Remnick's response: "We've run many many satirical political covers. Ask the Bush administration how many." I guess I need to compare this one with one they did that revealed the dark fears and self-delusion or just plain stupidity of Bush lovers or loathers.

I laughed when I saw this cover. Yeesh, people, get a grip. The Michelle-Malkiners and Sean-Hannityites of the world aren't going to get it. So what? Was there a cover that would have changed their minds about Obama? Um, noooo. Are we obligated to please them? Um, noooo. Are we allowed to laugh at them? Yes, yes, yes.

i`m not sure why this is "political satire" but i do know i should have finished my art degree...

It gets people talking about the whisper campaign and the hidden issues. That is the positive part.

Sometimes political art just has to do it's friggin' job. I have a cartoonist friend who does a huge number of strips, that I am sometimes reluctant to post on my blog because they are simply this inflammatory. But I admire the brilliance of what he sees, and bemoan that he can't get a job as an editorial cartoonist somewhere.

I think most of us who have been following politics in the last few years are simply exasperated that the American people are so. damned. stupid. The fact that they believe all the whisper campaigns and garbage the right throws at them are exactly what has led to what is becoming the more and more desperate state of this nation as our wealth flows into the pockets of the rich and our national power evaporates.

All while we get excited over shit like this.

I came here to see your take on Barack Obama's gaze, which I didn't find furtive but ... well, sort of a sidelong look of 'well -you- get the joke, don't you?'

Which was compounded because during the dap moment between Michele Obama and her husband on stage, I thought to myself, "That's how you tell a real couple." My wife and I, like all long-married people with a relationship like our, can say almost -anything- in about a millisecond, with a gaze alone. And that flash of an eye from Obama looked to me like he's saying, 'Yeah, this is just the kinda shit they pull.'

So I'm a little surprised to hear 'furtive.' I'm gonna have to think again', as you're far more sophisticated on this stuff than I.

But where are all the sexually satiated, freshly-impregnated white women with mixed-race blastocysts blooming in their ovaries?

It's a good thing that The New Yorker isn't the magazine you find on the racks while you are checking out at the grocery store.

I've always known that it is impossible for a stupid person to understand what it is like to be an intelligent person. But I think after reading some of these comments, that the intelligent are just as obtuse when understanding what it is like to be stupid. Ignorant is one thing, but stupid is another. And I see a lot of Stupid in our society lately. And they seem to be proud of it.

The cover illustration for The New Yorker is totally over the top. Will there be a cover depicting the McCains as Louis the XVII and Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution? I think not.

But Happy Bastille Day to you guys!!!! (Coming to a village near you. Soon.)

I have read New Yorker since I was a child and I am old, well not as old as McCain but old enough to know when I am being spun.

Who owns New Yorker ? I guess it is a little obvious... the RWNM.

As usual on the Bag an excellent analysis of a contemporary image.

Have we really all missed the fact that "Michelle's" fro changes the masthead to NFW?

Oh, sweet Jesus. When can we expect the pitchforks and torches? I can't believe the entire left blogosphere, including those whom I most admire, are in turmoil over this cartoon. It's a JOKE...and a damned clever one. It encapsulates, and eviscerates, every foul and imbecilic thing that has been said or implied about Obama and his wife since he began to rise from the foam, and the very over-the-topness decried by so many well-meaning people is the very thing that the artist was trying to get out there in the first place. Let's not pretend that the New Yorker is the equivalent of Reader's Digest, and that its appearance is going to raise the gorge of every American from Cheesequake to Sacramento. And even if it did...cartoonists don't have answer to the hoi-polloi. Even if they include liberals.

Oh, and by the way, despite what Kevin Drum thinks, real satire doesn't come with a user's manual.

Fanatical Obama supporters are reacting to this image in the same way as Muslim fundamentalists were outraged by the Danish "anti-Muhamed" cartoons. Hey, it's only a magazine cover ...

I love what ratfood said.

This cartoon is, I believe, a coy inside joke. It is also classist (if I'm not being too PC, here).

New York City is so wrapped up in itself and its wisdom and wise-choiciness (take that! Colbert), that they continuously are surprised when the rest of the country slaps them upside the head.

What this cartoon says to me, in addition to all the things The Bag listed, is that the New Yorker people think that all of us dumb oafs out there in the other 49 whatever......really believe this shit. 'Just look at how dumb they are.....we get the joke, but they won't.' The cartoonist is saying to his confreres, look how clever I am. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

What is it about some liberals that makes them have to prove that they are even more blase' than the other guys? The tragedy in this is idiocy is that the 20% undecideds are being bombarded daily - hourly - by emails, 'news reports' and talk shows filled with Obama hatred and lies.

Karen triggered my thoughts in a different direction. The depiction of Michelle sets up all those fears by men of strong, competent women, which Michelle definitely is. The ditto-heads and their testicle locks. Plus, Obama is being feminized by wearing a dress. All the triggers are there and one wonders if Blitt is even aware of them.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

My Other Accounts

Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 07/2003