Listening to the chorus of fainthearted responses to this week’s New Yorker cover, one gets the impression that satire, like everything else in our sad culture, must now come with a warning label and child-safety latch. Barry Blitt’s slightly overwrought but still amusing illustration, which is even pedantically titled “The Politics of Fear,” features the Obamas fist-bumping in the Oval Office. Michelle is rendered as an AK-47-wielding Angela Davis, Barack is tricked out as a pious Muslim, an Osama Bin Laden portrait hangs on the wall and an American flag burns in the fireplace.
Irony should cut like a rapier, not drop like a Steinway, but still, it’s not hard to appreciate what this pictorial intends. Yet it has got a few supporters of the Illinois senator barking mad.
Obama himself had no direct response to the cover, presumably because the task of appearing dull-witted and earnest fell to his campaign spokesman Bill Burton, who said: “Most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.” How Mr. Burton presumes to know what most readers will think is a question for another day, but the McCain camp, likely fearing any other interpretation might be seen as darkly motivated, swooped in to second his artistic criticism.
Some outraged liberals have gone so far as to cancel their subscriptions to the New Yorker — or at least claim that’s what they’ve done until Seymour Hersh announces next month that the Pentagon already bombed Iran over the 4th of July — while others are quick to insist they “get” the joke but still fear the reactionary hysterics and illiterate rubes it lampoons will not.
Eve Fairbanks at the New Republic is a particularly sensitive minder of low IQs. The Blitt pic, she says, is “no better than Perry Bacon’s infamous Washington Post story, ‘Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.’ Both outlets claimed not to support the allegations they were visually or rhetorically putting forward — obviously! — and yet a reader would have to have a fairly sophisticated understanding of each outlet’s ethos to immediately intuit the intended ironic distance.”
Is Ms. Fairbanks suggesting that the “ethos” of the Washington Post and the New Yorker is liberalism or sanity? Obama himself issued several press statements combating the same email-circulated rumors the newspaper felt obliged to address. It would have looked defensive and guilty — qualities that could have easily been extrapolated as partisan bias by the same point-missing nincompoops Fairbanks worries about — to slap disclaimers on its own reporting. Even a few conspiracy theorists can distinguish news from editorial content.