Untruth to Power

On the New Yorker cover (to which I'd rather not link):

I won't do the offended two-step here, because I'm no good at it. But really, what's most obnoxious about this image isn't in the image itself but in the vibe of superiority. "We," the sophisticates reading the NYer, are so much better than "them," the trogs still reading email fwds at all (let alone ones so coarse as to include sublimated racism!) that our mockery of their ignorance will go right over their heads. That they will miss the point will only validate what we knew all along: we are so great! Too great for them to ever understand! Persuasion would be pointless! When they use this cover as further "evidence" supportive of their hatefulness, well, at least we'll be able to smugly sneer over it! Once again, our superiority will be affirmed! In fact, that sneering is an end unto itself, is it not? It keeps us warm at night and nourishes our children, body and soul!

Satire, particularly political satire, works best from a position of morality, not pointed amorality. Not self-absorbed and thoughtless arrogance. That's the real issue here. Thoughtless irony isn't irony- its just an excuse to say what you don't have the courage to say straight. Truth via untruth is a legitimate tool of artistic expression, but the danger is the way it slides so seductively into self-congratulation. A good satirist polices himself first. He holds himself to a higher standard than this--or at least his editors usually do.


Grendel said...

I agree with both of you. Also, it opens a space for other magazines, ones not so smugly and knowingly self-ironic, to do likewise or worse. "Well!" they will trumpet. "The New Yorker did it!" It's not even good.

Pete said...

has anyone read the article inside yet? Apparently it is almost as obnoxious as the cover.

HGF said...

Beautifully said, Pete. Nico Pitney at Huffington Post (sorry: the link is too long to make fit in the comments) offered three of the artist's previous covers by means of comparison. Among them is the awesome Ahmedinejad-as-Larry-Craig cover, which skewers Ahmedinejad's propoganda about a gay-free Iran by analogizing his take on his country (he's reading the news) to a publicly and legislatively anti-gay, privately more swinging senator. Craig's putative hypocrisy grounds the image and gives it its edge.

Here, though, as Pete points out, there isn't that grounding in morality: the right-wing spin is basically collated into one place and left to speak for itself. Lazy, as Kclou says. Blitt defends himself, "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." But he doesn't depict the concept as it is--he "improves" things radically by depicting Obama and his first lady in the White House: we won't learn the truth of the rumors, the image suggests, until it's too late. That's what makes it insidious. Much more to the point would have been depicting the Obamas in all this regalia in a hotel room in Denver or somewhere on the campaign trail hiding just behind a (Wizard of Oz-type) curtain from the electorate. "Could the Obamas really hide all this?" the image would then ask. And the answer would be, Preposterous! You can't fool all the people all the time.

Let's hope that's still true.

Grendel said...

In this economy, the media has a lot invested in making this a close race. I think Obama realizes this.

Trevor Jackson said...

My reaction went like this:

1) Is that Osama on the wall?

2) (shrug) Ha?

3) Uh-oh.

4) (at the collective head explosion of lefty bloggers) Jesus.

I recognize why Obama says it's offensive. I'd be offended too and a little tired of the constant casual racism even as it's called out here. But, c'mon, the fist bump in the pic? That's a little funny.

Anybody that looks at this and thinks, "They think it's satire, but it's actually true!" was never, never going to vote for Obama and they're likely not surrounded by too many fence-sitters. This is a small stone in a big pond. It deserves to be called out as a lazy joke, but as a brush fire it certainly doesn't need the smokejumpers.

I wish this summer was over.

kclou said...

There's a lengthy article on Salon that worries the left is losing its sense of humor. I don't know. If the cartoon were really good--really funny--I don't think this group would be as upset.

Something else I've been thinking about, which the article mentions: how much does/should the context matter? That is, if this cartoon appeared in The Weekly Standard instead of The New Yorker, how would it be viewed? I think very differently. I think that suggests something flawed about the cartoon.

Pete said...

I don't think either of these statements really makes any sense: The left has a sense of humor, the left does not have a sense of humor. Of course a peg is a peg, and doesn't have to make sense so much as stoke curiosity.

It is true, I think, that the shallowness of our modern media environment precludes nuance and gives respect, or at least airtime, to moral outrage. Being "offended" is probably the single best way to get coverage these days. Being humorless--for both sides-- is a tactical question more than a characterological one.

But I do wish we could talk about these things in a context larger than panty bunching (beyond the borders of blogs like EG, anyway). Because really, that's the bare edge of so many issues that have otherwise gone unexamined this election cycle.

the plunge said...

I'm with Jack Shafer. It's a cartoon. If we're worried a cartoon swings the election, we have other things to be worried about.

Grendel said...

Jack Shafer writes: "Rather than appreciating the joke—The New Yorker was cataloging and sending up the most extreme and common of the anti-Obama smears—the Obama campaign issued a roar of indignation ("tasteless and offensive")."

What I don't see is: Where is the joke? A joke is supposed to be funny, right? Or at least make you consider something in a new light, juxtapose things you hadn't thought of, poke clever fun at someone? SOMETHING? Just because it's a cartoon doesn't mean it's a good cartoon, and just because it's being called a joke or satire doesn't mean it works as a joke or satire.

If it were a cartoon of W in a dunce cap and frat t-shirt torturing a hooded detainee, surrounded by empty beer cans, Bibles, soldiers' coffins, a Constitution or a map of new Orleans sticking out of a shredder, and Dick Cheney eating a baby, and Laura Bush waving from her wrecked car, and Karl Rove on his cell phone with Satan (shown in a little flame-licked bubble underneath the White House), I would have the same reaction: That is lame, that does nothing to make me think about anything except how uncreative it is. A successful joke or satire should do something interesting with such material, not simply give it one summary image.

How about one with Manchurian McCain in a gay-looking sailor suit, with an F report card jutting from his pocket, and a little antenna sticking out of his head, connected to a North Vietnamese controller, and his foot on the neck of his sick ex-wife and kids, saluting his wealthy heiress wife as she turns a spigot pouring beer down the throats of drunk drivers?

I'm not worried the cartoon will throw the election. I object to its lack of imagination and novelty. And to the fact that it actually lowers the bar on discourse in the election, discourse which was already, I would have thought, at its bottom, dumbest level. It gives cover for anyone wanting to lower the bar even further. It doesn't speak to a good, human thing in anyone. It doesn't summon a satisfying gut check about anything. It's just lame.

Pete said...

I don't think anyone's worried that a cartoon will throw an election. This is another problem with the pantybunching rhetoric-- it swings far enough and all it really does is set up the Slatey-type "take it easy, guys" response, which sounds reasonable in comparison but misses the point by an equal margin. I don't want to have to choose between thinking the sky is falling because of a cartoon and that it doesn't matter at all. But according to the larger conversation here, those are the only options.

In the past month, McCain or one of his surrogates has said each of the following: Mccain doesn't know how to use a computer, a terrorist attack would help his prospects, the best solutions to whiney America's problems are psychological solutions that also happen to serve Big Oil. Each of these statements might have sunk another campaign beyond salvage. And he keeps on keeping on. Just yesterday, he basically assumed Obama's position on more troops in Afghanistan, prompting little coverage as such.

(I should say, in the instance of surrogates saying any of the above, it's worth noting that they were staying on script, more or less, strongly echoing statements made by McCain himself in the past. Whatever the larger ground rules for surrogacy are or are not, these seem like the circumstances in which it is most fair to hold a candidate accountable for what others say.)

In the context of McCain getting that many free passes from the media--practically a new one everyday-- a cover like this one raises the hackles just a little bit higher than it otherwise might.

On the larger point- I think what's happening is temporary. I think it's based on a calculation in which McCain loses and the media shields itself from accusations of complicity in that. They want the appearance of a fair shake. Come convention-time, I expect them to fall in love again with O-Bomb. The coverage on 6/3 was nothing if not predictive of the coverage on 8/28- and hopefully after that, too.

Pete said...

By "larger conversation" I meant the media conversation, not this actual conversation here. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

Also-I forgot in my list McCain's "botched joke" about killing Iranians. Now that's satire. Or not.

HGF said...

One of my favorite blogs is BAGnewsNotes, which analyzes images coming across the news wires. He sometimes cross-posts at HuffPo. In his post on this cartoon (see http://bagnewsnotes.typepad.com/
bagnews/2008/07/the-politics-of.html), he does a typically good job just reading the image for what its elements say.

Wil Medearis said...

When I saw the cartoon, I laughed, and for the same reasons I laugh at Stephen Colbert: it pushes a type past the point of credibility. It is funny because absurd, as long as you find absurd funny (I do). I mean, there is a freakin' American flag in the fire, why does no one acknowledge just how over the top that is. I can almost imagine the cartoonist thinking, what can I do to make this even more obvious, oh! How about put the flag in the fire! I'm not suprised Huffington freaked, she's pretty much a fruit loop--but I expected Obama to embrace the cover, which, had it not blown up the way it did, he probably would have.
I can't help feeling like the outrage over the cover, by the left at least, is somehow (some sort of weird psychological transference or something) tied in to their sudden realization that (gasp!) Obama was (and clearly so, if one was paying attention) a centrist all along.
For what it's worth, the article inside is solid.

Pete said...

Yes- the article was solid, thanks for bringing that up. It lends the cover a mite of nuance-- but of course only after you've read it.

Maybe in all the hubbub, we've witnessesed something more terrifying than we can truly know: the influence of "The Family Guy" on humor is now so pervasive as to have sludged over even the New Yorker's little corner of the culture.