Entry from July 18, 2008

Barry Blitt’s now-notorious New Yorker cover of Obama as Osama, fist-bumping with Michelle as Angela Davis while an American flag burns in the fireplace, seems to me like those old Jules Feiffer cartoons that you were sure must be very deep, even if they weren’t very funny. Or perhaps they were funny, but only in the very rarefied precincts of the Upper East Side, among the sophisticates who read The New Yorker and delighted in the opportunity to laugh at things the rest of the world didn’t “get.” The odd thing about this cartoon, however, is that the audience which alone could find it funny — that is the ever-swelling crowd of Eggheads for Obama who make up both the magazine’s staff and much of its readership — apparently did not find it so. Well, if they don’t think it’s funny, and if the rest of us who pay no attention to and therefore have no anxieties about the lunatic ravings that it seeks to satirize don’t find it funny, who does find it funny?

In other words, it is ironic, but it is ironic to no purpose. Irony is the means by which words or images are given new meanings by new contexts. The same cartoon would have quite a different meaning if it appeared on the cover of some racist or virulently anti-Obama organ. For it to appear on the cover of The New Yorker is merely to say what its critics are now saying: we don’t believe this stuff but we’re terribly afraid that there are lots of people who do. For those of us who don’t share that fear, the attempt to discredit it by dragging a putative right-wing insinuation into the light of day in the hope that everyone will see how ridiculous it is must fall foul of the fact that everybody already knows how ridiculous it is, which makes it not funny to everybody, except for those who are stupid enough to take it seriously, which makes it not funny to them either. What is the purpose of a satire that no one, not even the anxious cartoonist himself, presumably, finds funny?

Behind the outcry among the overwhelmingly pro-Obama media over the cartoon, there lies the What’s-the-Matter-With-Kansas, Thomas Frankish sort of left-wing paranoia which imagines that all those Republican voters out in Kansas and other flyover states are credulous dupes, too dazzled by the fantasies of Machiavellian conservative spin-meisters to know their own interests. Therefore, the cartoon could be seen as a Rove-ish trick designed to make the sort of idiots who voted for President Bush really believe that the Democratic nominee is some kind of terrorist. Yet the Bush-as-stupid trope also originated as a comedian’s gag, a bit of satire that many on the left have come to believe is true. For it is not the ordinary Americans in Kansas but the hyper-intellectual paranoiacs who are the most credulous of Americans, at least those of them — and by the loudness of their voices they seem to be many — who have allowed themselves to be persuaded that the president is either an idiot or a war-criminal or, rather illogically, both.

The most disturbing thing about this media storm is the utter humorlessness not only of the hard left and the media, which we already pretty much knew about, but of the Obama campaign itself, which professed to be mightily offended by the cartoon. And suddenly I am struck by another possibility: that the posture of taking offense was the Obama campaign’s repudiation of the support of the eggheaded, Kerry-loving, cheese-eating faction that so many Americans look on as elitist. At the risk of being seen to have jumped on the paranoiac band-wagon myself, I wonder if giving the offense in the first place was The New Yorker’s way of offering him that opportunity to disclaim the elitist tendency he was so damaged by when Hillary Clinton successfully identified him with it during the primary campaign. Oh those cunning liberals! I hope all you innocent natural conservatives out there are not deceived by their tricks!


And speaking of the President’s alleged criminality, yesterday’s editorial in The New York Times on behalf of the “shield law” for journalists now pending in the Senate — the Times is strongly for it, by the way, in case you were wondering — includes the following lines:

The White House, as ever, is playing the fear card, orchestrating a barrage of warnings that the law would “wreak havoc” on national security and “completely eviscerate” the ability to investigate terrorism. Such hype and manipulation is predictable from an administration so obsessed with concealing its own abuses. The Senate must not be cowed. Only through robust reporting has the nation learned the hard lessons of President Bush’s illegal programs to eavesdrop on Americans and run torture prisons abroad.

“Hype and manipulation”? Dear, dear. Where would we be without our noble journalists and editorial writers, ever averse as they are to the slightest suggestion of hype and manipulation, to protect us from these wicked qualities in our elected leaders? Not that there could be anything remotely hype-like about the Times’s reckless accusations of “illegal” behavior — of which this is very far from being the only example — against those leaders or that, if there were, there could be any attempt thereby to manipulate voters by the propagation of such conjectural and irresponsible charges! For thus to characterize the administration’s good faith efforts to protect us from further terrorist attacks would be a powerful argument in favor of the sober earnest of the administration’s allegedly “near hysterical” contention that journalists would use their privileged legal status irresponsibly, to endanger our security.

By the way, I’m being ironical, folks.

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