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Literary Satire Gone Too Far?

The New Yorker’s cover this month features about every Obama slur possible on its cover. It’s obviously meant to be satiric but is it? My thinking is that if you put McCain on there as a Manchurian candidate, while ironic and satirical, it would also be offensive. Of course, media shouldn’t shy away from being provocative and even offensive at times.

What are your thoughts? (As an aside, I read three Susan Mallery books (the Buchanan series) and her characters all do the terrorist fist bump!)

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

27 Comments

  1. Tracey
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 14:56:15

    It looks pretty offensive to me. But the New Yorker is a very Republican magazine. I’m not surprised.

    Who’s the girl with the gun? And since when does a fist bump have anything to do with terrorists?

  2. Jane
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 15:25:25

    The girl with the gun is supposed to be Michelle Obama. The two of them did a fist bump on the night that Obama clinched the nomination and Fox News called it a “terrorist fist bump.”

  3. MCHalliday
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 15:42:11

    I’m not an American but believe the coming election is of great importance world wide. Obama portrayed as he is on this cover will not help his chances. I’m sorry for that. I’d head off right now to research the political leanings of The New Yorker’s publisher, although I can already tell.

  4. Meriam
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 15:58:31

    I thought the New Yorker had a decidedly liberal bias (I read it…). Also, quite recently, they did a very fawning and flattering piece on Michelle Obama. I don’t think a regular reader could doubt that their intention here is satire. (The title ‘The Politics of Fear,’ I think, reinforces this).

    I can’t wait to get my hand on this edition. It’s provocative, on the nose, articulating in a cartoon all the ways the Obamas have been portrayed (insidiously and otherwise) by the American media over the course of his campaign.

    As it says in this article:

    A caption? What would it have said? ‘The New Yorker would like to inform readers that the above depiction is supposed to be funny. We don’t really think Obama is a terrorist and we like Michelle’s hairstyle as it is. Just in case any of you should think us unpatriotic, we remind readers that the Stars and the Stripes should be kept away from fire at all times.’

    The editor attempts to justify his position here.

  5. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 16:00:46

    I think, *hope!*, that the readers of The New Yorker are savvy enough to get the satire. It’s a fairly brilliant send-up of what the Fox-led right-wing nutballs are pushing as the outcome of an Obama win.

  6. Priscilla P.
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 16:24:01

    This may have been meant to be satirical but it appears to be more slanderous. This could really hurt Obama as it upholds all of the rumors that have been floating around. I think the media has stooped too low and either party should be disgusted at such a portrayal.

  7. RfP
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 16:31:48

    The New Yorker is decidedly not a right-wing magazine!

    I’m sure there will be a group who radically don’t get it–in the sense that they think it proves the idiocies (Obama being a Muslim, Obama being a terrorist, etc). And there will be a *much* larger group who don’t believe those things but don’t get that it’s satire on the first group.

    It’s the chronic problem of satire, which I find interesting on a number of levels: why is it OK to cast aspersions but satirizing those aspersions is “going too far”? However, I agree with Kalen: New Yorker readers must be, by and large, used to satire. NYer covers skewer all kinds of things on a regular basis. (As do other arts-oriented magazines and most news magazines.) Even so, I’m sure some of their readers wil be perturbed because it’s election season and tempers flare.

    Think of it as a Jon Stewart piece. If you saw it on The Daily Show, would you laugh?

  8. carolyn Jean
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 16:44:14

    I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that the New Yorker is owned and run by a more right wing group these days. I honestly could be wrong, but that was my impression.

    More to the point, though, most people in media understand that an image is worth way more than nine billion articles.

    There’s this anecdote from back, oh, Bush the first was running, I think, and some democratic PAC ran this ad that showed Bush doing all these positive photo op things–helping farmers, nurses, whatever, and then the voice over said, Bush wants you to believe….etc, but the truth is…etc. Like the ad showed the propaganda and the VO told how it was propaganda. Anyway, the Bush campaign actually called the people who ran the ad to thank them. It’s well known that it’s the images that stick in people’s minds. Images are powerful. Words get forgotten and disregarded. At least in this context.

    I honestly believe the people behind this cover have to understand this.

  9. Gennita Low
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 17:04:20

    The New Yorker is right-wing? Huh. That’s the first I heard of that.

    I thought the cartoon was funny, especially since it’s on The New Yorker, which I’ve always thought to be a liberal magazine, but YMMV.

  10. carolyn Jean
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 17:07:03

    Its editorial is historically liberal, but its current ownership isn’t. Here’s some stuff on that.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/7/14/93047/1098

  11. RfP
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 17:30:11

    I don’t read it all the time, but I haven’t seen evidence that The New Yorker‘s editorial staff is turning more conservative. (A couple weeks ago they ran a significant exposé on the Bush administration’s plans for Iran.)

    You may be right that it will harm Obama; I’m just doubtful that it’s deliberate. I have trouble believing that editorial was leaned on by management but no one went to the papers. Emotions are running so high about this election that surely someone would have spoken out.

  12. SonomaLass
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 17:44:06

    I’m sure from everything I’ve read that the people at The New Yorker intended this cover as satire. Will that stop some people from taking it literally? Probably not.

    I think anything that gets these ideas out in the open for discussion is good — the rumors about Obama being a “secret” Muslim, supporting terrorism, et cetera, need the bright light of truth focused on them to make them go away. Otherwise, the Swiftboating of John Kerry is going to look like nothing in comparison, I’m sad to say.

  13. veinglory
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 17:47:31

    The New Yorker is not at all right wing. It is very about being cultured and high brow–in this case to a fault.

  14. Angela
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 22:35:34

    Hmm…well we black bloggers are not happy. Michelle Obama was already “satirized” in images rife with stereotypes about black female sexuality, then the “terrorist fist bump” and now this? I’m just really, really disgusted at how racist the Clinton campaign turned out to be, and how the media has gleefully pounced on the “foreignness” of black culture.

  15. Robin
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 22:55:54

    It's provocative, on the nose, articulating in a cartoon all the ways the Obamas have been portrayed (insidiously and otherwise) by the American media over the course of his campaign.

    Yes, that’s the way I read it, as well. As an “outing” of the culmination of all those hysterical lies about the Obamas in the hopes of publicly revealing their absurdity.

    I think anything that gets these ideas out in the open for discussion is good -‘ the rumors about Obama being a “secret” Muslim, supporting terrorism, et cetera, need the bright light of truth focused on them to make them go away. Otherwise, the Swiftboating of John Kerry is going to look like nothing in comparison, I'm sad to sa

    I think it’s a sad commentary on our level of political engagement that “discussion” has largely been a debate over whether the piece is satire or not. IMO we are so out of practice and afraid of actually *talking about* the big issues in the US that we’re basically working against the ideals of a democratic state at this point. Salon has an interesting take on this issue, arguing that the Bush administration has made liberals so terrified of right wing smears that we’ve lost the ability to see satire for what it is (and by extension capitalize on it). They may be on to something.

  16. carolyn Jean
    Jul 14, 2008 @ 23:03:00

    I don’t think people are confused on whether it is satire or not. I feel all the commenters here get that it’s satire. I think the issue is whether it’s gone too far. Or, what I see it as, A satire that appears to be liberal, but reinforces a republican campaign strategy. IMO it’s not a matter of not getting the joke.

    I would again direct people to this article where the right wing billionaire (the 37th richest man in America) who owns the New Yorker has a history of influencing editorial content in their holdings when the chips are down.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/7/14/93047/1098

  17. Robin
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 00:04:42

    I don't think people are confused on whether it is satire or not. I feel all the commenters here get that it's satire. I think the issue is whether it's gone too far.

    I agree that commenters *here* understand that, but I don’t think it’s universally believed that the piece itself is satire. At least that’s the impression I get from reading various comments around the webosphere.

    Or maybe it’s in part that some of the arguments about whether the satire has gone too far — that it’s dangerous — strike me as somewhat paradoxical, because satire, by its very nature, goes far. I mean, think of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” or the more modern “Dr. Strangelove.” It’s the provocation (often in the form of extreme irony, ridicule even) that is the hallmark of satire, especially political satire (one of my favorite literary satires is Henry Fielding’s Shamela, which is a very sharp send up of Richardson’s Pamela – and doesn’t the title say it all, lol), although I think we’ve also come to expect humor in satire. But not all satire is laugh out loud funny, unless you’re into really dark humor, of course.

    If some of the Left is really worried about this negatively impacting Obama’s chances, that strikes me as a really powerful fear of the Right, a fear that isn’t really being challenged or addressed. I honestly don’t think trying to ignore the totally irrational inventing of the Obamas in the mode this cartoon represents is going to make those images go away. I think we need to air them, to discuss them, to talk openly and extensively about why they’re wrong and how they’re being manufactured out of paranoia and political muckraking (and by “we” I mean the Left and people in general who have a stake in this election). Even if we take the most cynical interpretation of this cartoon and see it as more of the Right’s political smear campaign, why not take back the image making power? If the Right has that kind of power, IMO, it’s only because the Left has and continues to cede it to them (and I say this as a member of the Left who believes that this is exactly what has happened).

  18. RfP
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 01:57:31

    I think it's a sad commentary on our level of political engagement that “discussion” has largely been a debate over whether the piece is satire or not.

    Remember that’s how it gets framed. Everywhere. Here: “Satire Gone Too Far?” (sorry Jane). By radio. By newspapers. I haven’t seen the TV coverage, but I bet most of it’s identical. That facile media response is a huge part of the problem.

    The thing that this highlights to me is that the problem isn’t only with debating satirical merit versus talking about issues; there’s also a horrendous lack of nuance and humor in discourse. (Yes, humor. Some countries manage it. Including the US, in days gone by.)

    Salon has an interesting take on this issue, arguing that the Bush administration has made liberals so terrified of right wing smears that we've lost the ability to see satire for what it is (and by extension capitalize on it).

    Oh, absolutely. Unfortunately that train of thought never seems to stick or make a difference. The left has been incredibly incompetent at holding up its end of the conversation over the last many years (not only during this administration), and the result is a dangerously flat national discourse.

    The same thing is visible all the time online. Usually the two most loudmouthed groups are the no-holds-barred haters and the uptight self-righteous hectorers. And what the uptight ones go on about is mostly points of style–always a weak position in an argument. I think all sides have got flabby at having a genuine argument.

    A satire that appears to be liberal, but reinforces a republican campaign strategy.

    CJ, you’re saying it’s good satire, but Evil Overlord Newhouse chose it anyway for his message of hate and fear because EON knows all voters are complete sheep who won’t get it, so he doesn’t care that the *real* message makes him look stupid? OK, I suppose that’s possible. But….

    Funny juxtaposition. I’ve never imagined Daily Kos and New Yorker sharing a lot of readers.

  19. Leah
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 07:51:35

    I thought it was funny–like an SNL opening skit (generally the only funny one on the show). But then, that’s not me on the cover. I can see how others might be offended, especially if they just hang on to their initial reaction. I don’t think it’s going to have a wider impact on the campaign. though…or at least it shouldn’t. Most people I know here in Red State land are more concerned abt. their jobs, their inadequate incomes, their health coverage and their military family members. No one thinks Obama is a Muslim. RfP is right about the hectorers and the haters–and neither group is as representative as they might like to imagine. This should be a non-issue…but to counteract any unintended damage, perhaps they should do a similar one of McCain

  20. carolyn Jean
    Jul 15, 2008 @ 09:58:27

    Well, I would just reiterate my first post about the power of images. We can go back and forth on this, and of course everybody here is great, and has made excellent points!

    I’ve worked in advertising for years, and I feel very confident in saying the image will be the thing that will sticks deep in peoples minds, and that image will influence people in the end. Maybe not you all, but it will have a powerful influence. This is a psychological fact my colleagues and I exploit quite often.

    So I just hate that the EFFECT, unintended or not, right or wrong, understood rightly by liberals and conservatives or not, is to paint this patriotic couple as terrorists and non-Americans to a larger number of people than you would ever believe! Sad but true!

  21. Seressia
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 11:47:20

    No one thinks Obama is a Muslim.

    When I saw the image for the first time, I didn’t think satire. I thought “Obama-hater” and “fear-monger,” feeding people’s misconceptions. I don’t know or care what the New Yorker’s philosophical leanings are, I’m giving you my gut reaction–“there they go, making middle America afraid of black people again.”

    The problem is not what the New Yorker’s readers think. The problem is when someone sees this image, just the cover, and never pick up the magazine and read the article or turn up the volume to hear beyond the “satire” soundbite being replayed on TV. The problem is what will most average Joe people think when they see Michelle Obama in an Afro a la Black Power militants of the 60’s and 70’s and Barack in traditional Kenyan garb and they see the flag burning in the fireplace and Osama over the mantel?

    I think they’ll go, “oh yeah, he did wear that when he went to his Muslim homeland, and didn’t people say that he wasn’t even born in this country, and Michelle did do that terrorist (!) fist thump thing ON TV.”

    I think we’ve shown here and elsewhere that you can say something until you’re blue in the face, even present evidence, and people will still beleive what they want to believe–and it’s usually the worst.

    I’m waiting for the cover of McCain using a walker with a bottle of Alzheimer’s medication in his hand.

  22. (Jān)
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 15:07:40

    I have to agree with Carolyn. I read the New Yorker, but when I first saw the picture it was online without the magazine’s name, and I thought rather New Republic. It was only when I found it was a New Yorker cover that I knew it was satire.

    Most people in this country don’t know The New Yorker and its style or its liberal leanings. When they see this picture, they’ll likely have the same reaction I first did, of thinking it was meant to be a smear. I think that’s just a reflection of how dirty the media on both sides plays.

    The picture is, however, over the top enough that I think most people who see it and not know it as satire would find it distasteful.

  23. Hortense Powdermaker
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 15:59:58

    I subscribe to the New Yorker and assumed it was a satire of pop media racism, but then apparently the Obama campaign people didn’t “get” the joke either, since they condemned the cover.

    Jon Stewart has a funny commentary on this kerfuffle – a link to that segment of the Daily Show is here.

  24. RfP
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 19:11:15

    Tonight PBS will show Charlie Rose’s interview with David Remnick (longtime editor of The New Yorker). The video will be on charlierose.com after it airs.

  25. RfP
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 19:20:13

    Jon Stewart speaketh the truth. Verily.

  26. Meriam
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 19:35:42

    Yep, I just saw it. What he said.

  27. Sunita
    Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:34:15

    I fourth Hortense, RfP and Meriam re Jon Stewart.

    As for Si Newhouse, the publisher of the New Yorker, he *did* hire Tina Brown (for which I have yet to forgive him), but that wasn’t a swing to the right. And having Remnick succeed Brown was seen as a slight correction back toward the earlier incarnation of The New Yorker. There’s no serious evidence that I’ve seen or heard (as opposed to the conspiracy theories at DailyKos and the like) that Newhouse interferes editorially, and Remnick and Hendrick Hertzberg have struck me as pretty uniformly centrist-liberal. By which I mean, they think of themselves as progressives, but their political positions are toward the center of the Democratic party (which is more conservative than it used to be, I think).

    Also, the cover artists (Britt) has done some covers that I would consider pretty sharply satirical, on subjects from Bush & Cheney to Clinton & Obama to Ahmedinajad as Larry Craig, but they haven’t gotten nearly the attention. Perhaps because this hits the race button and because of what the commenters here have brought up, that the images will stick in people’s minds. I tend to agree with the observers who argue that the people who internalize this as information were unlikely to vote for Obama anyway, and the swing vote that doesn’t make a decision until November won’t remember it.

    I’ve been reading The New Yorker for ages, and this cover struck me as a sendup of the loony right rather than a slur on the Obamas. That said, I found it more discomfiting than funny. But I find a lot of race/ethnicity/gender satire problematic, so I’m not a good barometer.

    (Edited once to give proper attribution to Hortense)

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