Drive-by Cover Cartoon: The New Yorker Magazine Whacks the Obamas

The New Yorker magazine’s July 21 cover cartoon by Barry Blitt depicting Barak and Michelle Obama as armed Muslim terrorists burning an American flag in the White House Oval Office caught the country by surprise and shocked many Americans. In a society that has become inured to the flagrant excesses and criminality of Big Media corporations, that’s saying something.

The New Yorker has enjoyed a reputation as being a cut above the rest, a publication where not just adults but well-educated, politically sophisticated adults are in charge, a magazine with an urbane tone that reflects a certain commitment to intellectual rigor and professionalism that is often lacking elsewhere in American journalism. That’s what makes the Obama cover more worrying than it would be had it been published elsewhere.

Google “Barak Obama Michelle New Yorker Cover” and you’ll find a sponsored link for The New Yorker Store hawking “New Yorker Cover Prints. Buy the Obama Cover Print the Press is Buzzing About –” On Sale Now.” Click on the link and you can take your pick of a large framed cover for $280, a large matted cover for $200, a small framed cover for $156, a small matted cover for $100, or a custom box of cover note cards for $29.95.” If you want to remember this particular moment in journalism history and, after seven and a half years of Republican foreign and economic policy, you still have a home, wall space, and money to burn, The New Yorker has a price for every budget.

The Obama campaign was not impressed.

The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree,” said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.

Perhaps because they so often dodge the most difficult issues while selling themselves to special interest groups, U.S. presidential candidates, all of them, insist on being taken seriously. On that point, rivals can be counted on to support each other.

“We completely agree with the Obama campaign, it’s tasteless and offensive,” wrote McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds in an e-mail.

McCain told reporters that he had seen the cover on a television report and said he agreed with the Obama campaign.

“I think it’s totally inappropriate and frankly I understand if Senator Obama and his supporters would find it offensive,” said McCain.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, responded to questions about the cover saying, “Obviously I wouldn’t have run a cover just to get attention–I ran the cover because I thought it had something to say. What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama’s–both Obamas’–past, and their politics. I can’t speak for anyone else’s interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama’s supposed ‘lack of patriotism’ or his being ‘soft on terrorism’ or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers. That somehow all this is going to come to the Oval Office. The idea that we would publish a cover saying these things literally, I think, is just not in the vocabulary of what we do and who we are … We’ve run many, many satirical political covers. Ask the Bush administration how many.”

Satire lampoons some feature or features of an individual, group, or situation, and depends on exaggeration to make he, she, them, or it seem preposterous. By definition, satire is supposed to be edgy. But there is edgy, and then there is over the edge and into the abyss. Some topics of discussion are so fraught with intense emotion that a certain amount of restraint is, obviously, wise. There are few combinations more complex and incendiary than race, religion, and terrorism, and cartoons are hardly ideal vehicles for addressing such topics. But they can be a surefire way to draw attention to a publication and to boost its sales.

Remnick must have known Blitt’s cartoon would play to fear and bigotry and, in the minds of some, stoke fires that produce far more heat and smoke than light. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of all this is the realization, brought home yet once again by The New Yorker cover’s portrayal of Barak and Michelle Obama, who are Christians, that many supposedly liberal editors and publishers in the West are quite comfortable with the wholesale dissemination of stereotypical imagery depicting Muslims as terrorists, and some of them aren’t above trashing African Americans in the process. Moreover, does it seem likely that The New Yorker would publish a similar satirical image depicting a Jewish candidate for president of the United States of America in a correspondingly denigrating and stereotypical fashion? That’s a question Ishmael Reed has already answered in an eloquent fashion.

Remnick is not alone among liberal Jewish mainstream media figures in taking the public dialog to places the vast majority of Americans would rather not go. Whad’ya Know? host and comedian Michael Feldman regularly holds forth on National Public Radio (NPR). On a recent program, Feldman’s comedy routine included a worse than tasteless jab at former president Jimmy Carter. Feldman joked that Carter was hosting a telethon for al-Qaida to boost the terrorist organization’s lagging prospects in Iraq. Presumably, Carter’s courageous efforts to facilitate dialog and peace between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have qualified him, in Feldman’s mind, to be smeared as a supporter of terrorism. But if you think that’s anything but funny, wait until you see the The New York Times July 18 op-ed by Benny Morris in which the accomplished Israeli historian brazenly attempts to legitimize nuclear genocide against Iran. With content like this pouring forth from allegedly liberal mainstream media outlets such as The New Yorker, NPR, and The New York Times, many Americans who hope for and work for change and for peace in the Middle East are asking themselves, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Plainly put, the barrage of attempts by American Jewish media figures and outlets to discredit prominent American leaders who are perceived by Zionist fanatics as insufficiently pro-Israel, anti-Arab, and anti-Muslim, and to legitimize a preventive (as differentiated from pre-emptive) attack on and war against Iran, begins to look suspiciously like a psy-ops campaign by an Israeli fifth column intent on selling their audiences an attack by Israel and the United States on Iran. This American isn’t buying it.

Many analysts doubt that an air attack with conventional (other than nuclear) weapons would be capable of destroying Iran’s underground nuclear sites, which are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency as Iran, unlike Israel, is signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There is something about the specter of impending nuclear war that tends to focus the mind on things that matter. A nuclear preventive attack is that rare event, a crime the world has not yet witnessed. In the words of Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an attack on Iran would have “unintended consequences” and its impact would be “difficult to predict.” Mullen is a man not given to hyperbole. A preventive nuclear attack on Iran would be a criminal act of almost unimaginably monstrous proportions. Such an attack and the resulting war would almost certainly and at the very least result in the deaths of many millions of innocent civilians. Think of preventive nuclear attack as the very antithesis of the ethic of reciprocity, the spiritual principle expressed as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which is central to every major world religion.

As it happens, I have a New Yorkercover hanging in my living room. I like my humor dry, perhaps a bit understated, ironic. I was a subscriber during the late 1980s, so my framed December 5, 1988 cover by the celebrated British cartoonist Ronald Searle cost me no more than the frame and the subscription price of the magazine itself.

One good way to ensure that we continue to enjoy something like freedom of expression in America is to practice self-restraint when there is a temptation to abuse liberty as license.