By now we’ve all seen it, heard about it, read about it: The New Yorker‘s cover this issue featuring the Democratic presidential candidate in Islamic garb, giving the “terrorist fist bump” to his partner-in-crime Michelle Obama, decked out as a black Pantherette. Osama bin Laden’s visage is hung above the mantle — which no Muslim would actually do, because Islam views it as idolatry to hang pictures of humans and even animals in the home — while Old Glory burns in the fireplace.
But as Jonah Goldberg wrote on National Review‘s The Corner blog: “What I find interesting about the New Yorker cover is that it’s almost exactly the sort of cover you could expect to find on the front of National Review. Roman Genn could do wonders with that concept. Of course, if we ran the exact same art, the consensus from the liberal establishment could be summarized in words like “Swiftboating!” and, duh, “racist.”“
The cover is so over-the-top that my friends over at the SuperSpade blog were literally left speechless.
Wlady Plesczynski, longtime editorial director of The American Spectator, blogged that the cover was “too clever by half, taking some generally known unserious tropes and having a field day with them, as if at some level the magazine actually thought such a caricature had some basis in fact.” That is exactly right. If the cover were an attempt to pre-empt and ridicule conservative attacks on Obama, two things went terribly wrong in that thinking:
1) this will only embolden — it certainly won’t scare — conservatives. Now that a liberal publication has fired the first salvo, one far worse than any that Republicans have conjured up to date, it’s far more likely that we’ve entered Open Season than any chance of conservatives shying away from playing the race angle.
2) most Americans are, in the words of a former colleague, “only neglibly literate.” While the inside-the-Beltway types will see the cartoon for what it is — a poorly done jab at the right-wing — I doubt that the people in “Flag City, USA,” many of whom actually do believe that Obama is, or was, a Muslim, will see the nuance. More likely they’ll just take it as proof that see, I knew that Obama he was some kind of Muslim; my friends were right all along — even The New Yorker said so.
This reminds me of a recent music review I wrote. The artist had a song on her album that really seemed to go after feminists; when I wrote it up that she seemed to take a more conservative approach to life, her fans went on the attack, saying that I just “didn’t get” the satire. They argued that, much like Archie Bunker wasn’t supposed to be a character you cheered, but a representation of the buffoonish racism eminating from lower-to-middle class white America, the artist in question was really making fun of the people who make fun of feminists.
This didn’t strike me as a particularly effective form of argument; rather like shooting one’s self in the foot to make a point about gun control. I wonder if liberals don’t suffer from this “too clever by half” problem more generally.
When conservatives mocked the portrayals of Obama as the angel of a ‘new kind of politics’ it was always obvious where their real sympathies lied and who the joke was on. The problem with The New Yorker cover is that it’s not at all clear who the joke is on. Instead, as Goldberg said, this issue of The New Yorker looks like the National Review‘s editorial team took over TNY’s offices for a week and put out a rogue issue on their own, like when we used to print The Michigan Delay, a parody of the daily paper, when I was at the conservative Michigan Review in my college days. But even then it was perfectly obvious who we were after; nothing The Michigan Daily could do could ever “spin” the fact that we’d zapped their vapid argumentation and formulaic writing, and done a pretty good job at it. The New Yorker cover begs itself to be spun and manipulated by the very people it supposedly targets.
And just as Archie Bunker became a television icon that white Americans related to and appreciated for saying the things they couldn’t, this cover will probably be appropriated for conservative t-shirts, handed out for pro-McCain volunteers to wear on Election Day.
Too clever by half, indeed.
— James David Dickson