There has been much hand-wringing in the press about the current New Yorker magazine cover that shows Senator Obama in the Oval Office in full radical Muslim garb, sharing a fist bump with his wife Michelle, who is decked out like a 1980’s militant black panther, while an American flag burns in the fireplace and a portrait of Osama ben Laden hangs on the wall.
There was even an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times wondering, given the vociferous reaction, whether this cartoon was not proper satire. I beg to differ.
I would argue that the New Yorker cover has pushed so many buttons precisely because it is not only effective satire, but in fact constitutes a triumphal cry of “our side is going to win in November”. The underlying message is so strong that the political right is up in arms, and Obama himself is cautiously keeping his distance.
Let’s look at the context, starting with the actual target of the satire.
Fox News has always been, by design, in the business of being a class clown. Obviously what it does is not “news” in the way anybody would actually use that word, but a kind of extreme political editorial, a fairy-tale view of the world from the far right, dressed in the form of a parody of a news show. One could argue that the Fox brand of humor is, in a way, more outré than what Stephen Colbert does.
Colbert always lets on that he is merely pretending to be a doctrinaire idiot; he gives his audience clear signals that it’s all just an act. But the folks on Fox News are never permitted to drop the act. They have had to get on the air day after day and say the most inane things, often in direct contradiction to the facts already known to their viewers, while never being allowed to let on that they know they are looking and sounding like idiots.
This worked as an effective (if bizarre) form of political discourse as long as the administration they were supporting had a plausible story. People were traumatized by the attacks on the World Trade Center, were not sure about the Iraq war, were hoping that the Administration’s extreme brand of economic laissez faire and, um, unusual methods of prisoner rendition and interrogation were based on something substantial, some form of expertise.
But now so many of these things have been unravelling at the same time. The war, the economy, the interrogation techniques now found to have been unwittingly borrowed from cold war communist secret police, the out of control oil prices, mortgage-loan crisis and resulting housing panic, the simultaneous fall of the dollar and the Dow, all building to a crescendo, resulting in the most unpopular presidency in modern times.
Poor John McCain. He didn’t create this mess. Yet his talking points as the presumptive Republican candidate force him to reiterate the very positions on the war and the economy that have driven much of our population, Republicans and Democrats alike, into a state of fury at our current president.
And into all of this steps Obama. Serene, calm, oratorically brilliant – ok, yes, handsome – managing to look in complete command while maintaining a general tone of humility. Note how gracefully he pointed out during his trip to Afghanastan, when asked whether he had any advice for its leaders, that he was there to listen and to learn, and that any criticism of Kabul was the prerogative of the current U.S. president.
Obama talks about his Christian faith a lot, but he does it without seeming to brandish those beliefs as a military weapon. Contrast this with President Bush, who so often quotes the bible in order to justify beating plowshares into swords.
People are just feeling the normalcy of it all, a well-spoken, articulate and enthusiastic voice coming from the political center (not really the left, much to the disappointment of some).
And so Fox News made a mistake. Not realizing how much the ground had shifted under their feet, they did their usual clown act, playing up the idea that a fist bump between Michelle and Barack Obama was some sort of coded radical Islamic greeting. Even a few years ago, they might have gotten away with this, gotten people to play along – the way an entire nation had been willing to pretend to go insane, to fantasize that they had caught a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple, and that the appalling sight, the unspeakable horror, of seeing a lovely young woman’s nipple, even if everyone was only pretending to have seen it, was the single important issue of the day. This bout of consensual make-believe insanity, with Fox News leading the way, had served to get everyone’s mind off the war, and of things like real people actually, well you know, killing and dying.
But that was back when the backdrop was an administration that was being somewhat effective in selling itself as a sternly potent father figure, at least to some of the population. Now that this dog won’t hunt (to quote our vice president), Fox News is in the unfortunate position of being a court jester without a king.
When the Fox News folks started to do their fist bump nonsense, they simply ended up looking like idiots. It didn’t reflect at all on Barack Obama or his wife in peoples’ minds. Instead, a lot of viewers who had been going along with the Fox joke in recent years were now left scratching their heads and saying “gee, I never noticed before just how idiotic those guys on Fox News are.”
And that is the subject of the New Yorker cover. As odd as it might sound, the cover actually has nothing whatever to do with Barack Obama. That is why it works, and that is why it has angered so many on the right.
The fact that the image on the New Yorker cover is so patently at odds with the Barack Obama who is actually out there running for president – and that voters know this – means that the Karl Rove machine isn’t going to have enough to work with to effectively swift-boat the coming election. Essentially, this New Yorker cover is a pure victory lap for the Democrats.
And that makes it a little too powerful a satire for some peoples’ tastes.