Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 15, 2008

The New Yorker cover cartoon of the Obamas

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

As many of you probably know, the New Yorker Magazine has generated a huge uproar over the cover of its latest issue which depicts Barack Obama dressed up as a Muslim fist-bumping his wife who has a machine gun on her back and a bushy Angela Davis type afro. An American flag is burning in a fireplace underneath a portrait of Osama Bin Laden. Here’s one fairly typical response from the liberal left, Don Hazen the publisher of Alternet:

New Yorker magazine hits the newsstands today with a shocking cover — a caricature of Barack and Michelle Obama depicting the presidential candidate in a turban, fist-bumping his wife who has a machine gun slung over her shoulder, while the American flag burns in the fireplace. The cover is shocking in that it depicts the Obamas in bizarre, caricatured images and associations that reflect the very stereotypes with which the conservatives, particularly Fox News, have been trying to frame both the Obamas. Thus, instead of satire, the cover becomes a political poster for conservatives to reinforce their messages. Sen. Obama was shown the cover image by a reporter covering the campaign on Sunday, and while seemingly taken aback, he declined to comment.

Predictably, centrist opinion has urged Hazen and other complainers to lighten up since it was clearly a joke. For example, Slate Magazine chided the left as follows:

Calling on the press to protect the common man from the potential corruptions of satire is a strange, paternalistic assignment for any journalist to give his peers, but that appears to be what The New Yorker’s detractors desire. I don’t know whether to be crushed by that realization or elated by the notion that one of the most elite journals in the land has faith that Joe Sixpack can figure out a damned picture for himself.

Meanwhile, David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, tried to explain himself in an interview with Huffington Post, another outraged liberal-left outlet:

Q: Prior to greenlighting the cover, did you consider that it might be co-opted by Obama opponents as anti-Obama propaganda? If so, did that possibility give you pause?

A: It always occurs to you that things will be misinterpreted or taken out of context — that’s not unusual. But I think that’s the case of all political satire, whether it’s Art Spiegelman or Thomas Nast or Herb Block or Jon Stewart. I bet there are people who watch Stephen Colbert and think he’s a conservative commentator, or maybe they did at first….a lot of people when they first saw Colbert said, “What is this?” What he was doing was turning things on [their] head.

Missing from much of the discussion has been the magazine’s politics which Hazen accepts as “liberal” based on the title of his article: “The Bad Frame: Why Are the New Yorker, Salon and Other Liberal Media Doing the Right’s Dirty Work?” The complaint with Salon has to do with an article they wrote “Barack is a Muslim and other stories” that depicted him as a paper cut-out doll next to Muslim garb.

While Salon is arguably part of the “liberal media”, it is much harder to make that case for the New Yorker. Indeed, as Daniel Lazare pointed out in a May 15 2003 Nation Magazine article titled “The New Yorker Goes to War”, there was little to distinguish it from Fox News and the Murdoch press when it came to the “war on terror”:

The New Yorker has not been the only publication to fall into line behind the Bush Administration’s war drive, but for a number of reasons its performance seems especially disappointing. One reason has to do with the magazine’s track record. One doesn’t have to be a William Shawn devotee to agree that the magazine has published some astonishing journalism over the years–Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Jonathan Schell’s pieces on Vietnam and Pauline Kael’s wonderful demolition job on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to name just a few. During the Vietnam War, it was one of the few mainstream publications to try to unmask the sordid reality behind the brass’s regular 5 o’clock press briefings. And if it published too many long and hyperfactual stories in the 1980s about wheat or geology, at least it preferred being trivial and obscure to the glories of being a team player in Washington, which is a moral stance of a sort.

Though its style may have been genteel, The New Yorker succeeded in challenging middle-class sensibilities more often than any number of scruffier publications. Another reason to mourn the magazine’s lack of resistance is that it represents an opportunity lost. Just as the magazine helped middle-class opinion to coalesce against US intervention in Vietnam, it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at stake in the Middle East. Rather than unveil the reality behind a spurious War on Terrorism, though, The New Yorker helped obscure it by painting Bush’s crusade as a natural and inevitable response to the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack and, as a consequence, useless to oppose. Instead of encouraging opposition, it helped defuse it. From shocking the bourgeoisie, it has moved on to placating it at a time when it has rarely been more dangerous and bellicose.

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown’s irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick’s 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile’s ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.

Perhaps the only link with the magazine’s liberal past has been Seymour Hersh who has written very good articles exposing the Bush administration. He can best be described as their token investigative, left-of-center journalist but all the others are card-carrying centrists or worse. But even Hersh was initially not immune to the war fever gripping the magazine as Lazare pointed out:

A month later, the magazine published an investigative report by Seymour Hersh blaming a Pentagon culture of “political correctness” for the failure to assassinate Mullah Muhammad Omar. According to Hersh, military personnel could have taken the Taliban leader out with a Hellfire missile strike once a Predator drone got him in its sights. But they were blocked by overscrupulous higher-ups who “want you to kill the guy, but not the guy next to him,” as one of his sources in the military put it. It was a form of legal squeamishness, apparently, that the Pentagon would soon overcome. Two months later Hersh explored the growing neocon push for an invasion of Iraq. But rather than ask why the United States was targeting Saddam despite a lack of evidence tying him to 9/11, Hersh confined himself to the purely practical question of whether the hawks could pull it off. “The issue is not how nice it would be to get rid of Saddam,” he quoted one former Defense Department official as saying. “The problem is feasibility.” If the United States could do it, in other words, it should.

One cannot help but suspect that if a powerful insurgency had not arisen Hersh would have taken the trouble to begin writing attacks on administration policy. Like so many others, he seemed to have decided to become a critic only after the government failed to accomplish its goals. In this respect, he is not qualitatively different from fellow New Yorker columnist George Packer, the notorious cruise missile liberal, who has “recanted” on his support for the war.

Lost in the shuffle over the magazine cover has been its original purpose, namely to accompany a 15,000 word article by Ryan Lizza titled “Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama”. It is mostly concerned with Obama’s Machiavellian tactics as an up-and-coming politician that contains no new insights, although plenty of reportorial detail such as the following:

In electoral politics, operating in the world as it is means raising money. Obama expanded the reach of his fund-raising. Every network that he penetrated brought him access to another. Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s daughter, who runs Playboy Enterprises from the fifteenth floor of a lakefront building, explained how it worked. Hefner is a member of a group called Ladies Who Lunch—nineteen Chicago women, most of them wealthy, who see themselves as talent scouts and angel investors for up-and-coming liberal candidates and activists. They interview prospects over a meal, often in a private dining room at the Arts Club of Chicago. Obama’s friend Bettylu Saltzman, a Ladies Who Lunch member, introduced Obama to the group when he was preparing his Senate run. Hefner, who declined to support Obama in 2000, was ready to help him when he came calling in 2002.

Not long ago, Hefner and I talked in her office; we were seated at a granite table strewn with copies of Playboy. “I was very proud to be able to introduce him during the Senate race to a lot of people who have turned out to be important and valuable to him, not just here but in New York and L.A.,” Hefner explained. She mentioned Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist, and Norman Lear, the television producer. “I try and think about people who I think should know him.”

That just about sums up the Democratic Party today: Christie Hefner, Thomas Friedman and Norman Lear. Go, Ralph Nader!


  1. 9 out of 10 rednecks who expressed a preference said the cover made them laugh (the remainder thought the cover would’ve been funnier if it’d depicted Obama and his wife beheading Laura Bush kneeling before them dressed as the Statue of Liberty).

    Some wisdom from the good Doctor:

    “The humor of the campaign trail is relentlessly cruel and brutal. If you think you like jokes, try hanging around the cooler after midnight with hired killers like James Carville or the late Lee Atwater, whose death by cancer in 1991 was a fatal loss to the Bush re-election effort. Atwater could say, without rancor, that he wanted to castrate Michael Dukakis and dump him on the Boston Common with his nuts stuffed down his throat. Atwater said a lot of things that made people cringe, but he usually smiled when he said them, and people tried to laugh.

    It was Deep Background stuff they figured; of course he didn’t mean it. Hell, in some states you could got to prison for making threats like that. Felony Menacing, two years minimum; Conspiracy to commit Murder and/or Felony Assault with Intent to commit Great Bodily Harm, minimum 50 years in Arkansas and Texas; also Kidnapping (death), Rape, Sodomy, Malicious Disfigurement, Treason, Perjury, Gross Sexual Imposition and Aggravated Conspiracy to Commit all of the above (600 years, minimum)

    …And all of this without anybody doing anything. Ho, ho. How’s that for the wheels of justice, Bubba? Six hundred fifty-two years just for downing a few gin-bucks at lunch and trading jokes with warriors…

    That is the kind of humor that campaign junkies admire and will tell their children…

    You have to be very mean to get a laugh on the campaign trail. There is no such thing as paranoia.”

    Better than Sex: confessions of a political junkie Hunter S. Thompson

    In the race for the Presidency of the United States of America there are no rules.

    Comment by Fellow Traveller — July 15, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

  2. It’s rich to see people complaining that a magazine that lives by advertising luxury consumption items is not left enough. What’s fascinating is to see a cerain kind of chic liberalism as the accompaniment to diamonds, fancy cars, and perfume. The liberal air of moral superiority, it seems, is as much an aphrodisiac to the New Yorker‘s readers as power was to Henry Kissinger or civil disobedience to Sarah Lawrence girls.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — July 16, 2008 @ 12:59 am

  3. Grumpy, it sounds to me like you haven’t seen the magazine since Tina Brown took over. Except for Seymour Hersh, it is undiluted centrist crap.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — July 16, 2008 @ 1:06 am

  4. to me,as a foreigner,this cartoon looks just like a well calculated campaign strategy to help Obama.early in the campaign a “liberal” press outlet makes big noise with this cartoon on the frontpage,showing an important motif of the rights propaganda in the next halve year.now the air is out,this theme trashed for the future.after that row now, it will be hard for the republicans to use this theme.
    well done.

    Comment by fu tian li — July 16, 2008 @ 1:54 am

  5. Because this race has no photo finish aspect, the “New Yorker” cover is the news.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — July 16, 2008 @ 3:24 am

  6. Fellow Traveler: I swiped your quote to use on my blog. Thanks

    Comment by Renegade Eye — July 16, 2008 @ 5:27 am

  7. Go Nader? No, go Cynthia McKinney!

    Comment by Martin Wisse — July 16, 2008 @ 9:14 am

  8. If anything, the cartoon seems an attempt to lure Obama’s supporters into a Motoons type confrontation; the right hope that outraged liberals will gather in the streets (or on their blogs more likely) and demand retribution against the editor and publisher of the New Yorker magazine, possibly burning them in effigy. Republican pundits will lean back in their chairs and smirk, pointing the finger and saying ‘See…what did I tell ya. Obama’s people really are as craaazzzy as the Muslims. They want someone punished just for drawing a cartoon. Screwy.’

    Comment by Fellow Traveller — July 16, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

  9. Obama’s a jerk. He can dish it out but he can’t take it. At his Father’s Day Speech and recently at the NAACP convention, he presented the same old tired saw about the irresponsibility of black people in this country. He’s been told his words were hurtful, offensive, but he insists on his right to restate them because it’s the “truth”. Yes, partially, and it is also truth that there are crazyass white people with crazyass white families everywhere as well. But we don’t see him delivering generic lectures to lecturing America on its “irresponsibility” His words would be a caricature if they weren’t re-treads. I say that if he can paint black people with the same tarbrush that he perceived to have zapped him on the cover of the New Yorker, he ought to stop being such a damn crybaby. He wanted this gig, now he’s got it. He deserves whatever he gets for fronting for the empire.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — July 16, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

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    Comment by createmo — November 2, 2008 @ 5:50 am

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