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Monday, July 14, 2008

This is the actual cover of The New Yorker, out this week. Not helping:

There may be no better example than this of how stupid some smart people can truly be.

The cover is insulting on several levels. Let's skip the obvious for a moment.

As a satire, it fails by overreaching, underestimating and condescending. It is what police officers call an "orgy of evidence" - the mischievous, "we just got on over on you blue-eyed devils" look on both of their faces, Angela Davis 'fro and Black Panther machine gun on Michelle, the Muslim garb on brother Barack, burning American flag, Oval Office locale, "terrorist fist jabs" and, most sickeningly, a portrait of Osama bin Laden above the fireplace mantle. However far enough away from 9/11 we need to be in order for a joke about the President honoring that murderer to be funny, we ain't there yet. And as far as artists of any color or creed making an image like this of the Obamas and weakly claiming satire, we ain't there yet.

The "orgy" means, to me, that either the artist, Barry Blitt, is not clever enough to have made his point with a more subtle image or that he constructed this with malicious intent. The latter is unlikely, considering Blitt's defense of his work:
I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is.

That'd be all fine and dandy if we didn't live in the Internet era. When The New Yorker began in the early 1920s, it might have been thought-provoking, even funny, to publish such an image. (Blatant stereotypes about Black people were fodder for mainstream entertainment back then, too.) But in today's world, what the hell were they thinking?

I know I harp on this a lot, but the very first thing I thought of when I saw this cover tonight was, "There's no way a Black decision-maker saw that before it went out the door." There's simply no way on this earth any conscious Black person doesn't raise holy hell when that cover's presented in a layout meeting or whatever the magazine has as an equivalent.

I often recall an instance when, in a previous job, I was blessed enough to be in the presence of a major television host before he was to offer a on-screen commentary. (This is a guy you have definitely heard of, and whom I still very much respect.) The situation was this: Bill Cosby had just aired African America's dirty laundry and told us to clean it up - and this host, a White man, wanted to express his heartfelt agreement with Cosby's sentiments. Once my superiors in the room had offered their opinion, I broke it down thusly - if I'm a regular Black dude at home watching you and you say that, I say to myself, "who the hell do you think you are?" I told him it would be an embarrassment of epic (and now YouTubian) proportions and pleaded with him not to do the commentary. He listened to me (and others), and didn't do it.

The New Yorker needed someone in that room who would've done the same.

The satire also fails because it assumes that even if rubes in the flyover states see this on Fox News and "Morning Joe" (where it will undoubtedly be Issue #1 on Monday morning), there's no way that they'll not see how ridiculous their own preconceptions of the Obamas are. Well, newsflash for Britt: if these folks are willing to believe that Obama's a Muslim, that Michelle hates America, that Osama and Obama are one and the same...do you really think they'll get your overwrought satire? Also, did you believe that these same folks weren't looking for yet another image to attach to scurrilous e-mails and flyers? Or that malicious conservatives weren't looking for the first excuse to hurl more invective in Obama's direction? When will these folks realize that it doesn't matter how something is intended - there are people out there willing to twist and manipulate things to such an extent that people will see black as white, and up as down.

I don't know what is more puzzling - the fact that Britt and his colleagues thought that certain people were sure to get it or that certain people weren't. It accomplishes the simultaneous feat of insulting Americans' intelligence and overestimating it.

Now, let's get to the obvious.

It's apparent to anyone that the image is meant to be deliberately racist. That the purpose of that is satirical is not enough, sadly. This is what I'm talking about when I talk about "stupid smart people" - they were so witty and eager to turn stereotypes on their head that they didn't stop to think about what they were doing. What they did is akin in many ways to George Bush's fatal errors in Iraq: he invaded and tried to change a culture he didn't understand. Here The New Yorker was handed powerful symbols that they didn't know how to handle properly, and it's evident now that they are blowing up in their faces.

And while it's not the magazine's duty to lionize all liberals, you have to regard this as a case of friendly fire. This looks like the cover that The Weekly Standard wouldn't have the courage to run.

Rachel Sklar gets it:
What's that they say about repeating a rumor?

Presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke, but still: this is going to upset a lot of people, probably for the same reason it's going to delight a lot of other people, namely those on the right: Because it's got all the scare tactics and misinformation that has so far been used to derail Barack Obama's campaign — all in one handy illustration. Anyone who's tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who's tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism— well, here's your image.

Well, at least we know what will be on Karl Rove's Christmas card this winter.


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