That New Yorker Cover
Last Friday I was in the middle of Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece on Obama’s early days in Chicago when Patricia took the issue to the hairdresser’s and left it there. So I bought another copy at the local Bartell’s. The guy behind the counter saw it and said, “Getting the souvenir issue, huh?” I smiled. What the New Yorker has to do to become a topic of conversation.
I tend to like Barry Blitt, the cover artist whose drawings often accompany Frank Rich’s column in the Sunday New York Times, but this one didn’t do it for me. It could be I have no sense of humor about Obama, or racial matters, or the politics of swiftboating in the Bush era, but, more, it made me think back to Philip Roth’s essay from the early 1960s, “Writing American Fiction,” about the difficulty of making credible — even then — an American reality that always seems to be outdoing the best efforts of any novelist, let alone satirist. I’m surprised more people haven’t brought this up. Is it a satire if you’re merely expressing in cartoon form what others are expressing verbally or via mass e-mails? Sure, what they’re expressing is a lie, but lies work. Lies are taken seriously — often by the mainstream media. It’s built into the system. If the goal of the media is to be objective, to be a kind of he said/she said forum, then the more outrageous the lie the better. It moves the markers of the debate. The swiftboating of John Kerry is a classic recent example and Michael Dobbs’ piece in the Washington Post in August 2004 is a classic recent response from the mainstream media: “But although Kerry's accusers have succeeded in raising doubts about his war record, they have failed to come up with sufficient evidence to prove him a liar.” The lie becomes the debate. That’s the danger.
Can you even satirize a Fox News correspondent calling the Obama greeting a “terrorist fist bump”? That feels like a satire on its own. Since knocking fists is the main source of congratulations in Major League Baseball, which, the last time I checked, was our national pastime, you could do a many-paneled cartoon called something like “More Terrorist Fact Findings from Fox News,” with, in separate panels, a baseball (“Terrorist Danger Orb”), a referee signaling a touchdown (“Terrorist Victory Dance”) and an apple pie (“Terrorist Goulash”). Like that, but funnier. Blitt’s cover? It can just go in those mass e-mails still being sent out with the heading: See?
Hendrik Hertzberg is generally right: Those who will be influenced by the cover wouldn’t have voted for Obama anyway. But that doesn’t mean the cover’s good satire.
Lost in the discussion is Lizza’s article, subtitled “How Chicago Shaped Obama,” which is recommended reading: a reminder that Obama is less the second coming than pure political animal. It’s also a good primer on the history of politics in both its Chicago and racial forms.