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The New Yorker’s Cheap Shot

The latest New Yorker cover you see above is supposedly a satirical summation of the endless prejudices Michelle and Barack Obama have sustained so far. As such, the summing up is deviously effective, down to the American flag burning in the fireplace. “What I think it does,” says New Yorker editor David Remnick, is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's — both Obamas' — past, and their politics. […] The idea that we would publish a cover saying these things literally, I think, is just not in the vocabulary of what we do and who we are... We've run many many satirical political covers. Ask the Bush administration how many.”

That’s true. With this difference: the satirical covers about the Bush administration worked because they had more than a ring of truth to them. They blared truth. This one does not. It sums up prejudice as much as it amplifies it and regenerates it. It is America’s equivalent of that Danish newspaper running the cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. It’s not a question of whether either publication had a right to run these images. Of course they do. It’s a question of motive, taste, both of which are determined by context.

The Danish newspaper’s decision was more defensible than the New Yorker’s: it published the cartoon (and others just as inflaming) in the explicit context of defiance to Muslim demagogues and homage to free expression: “We may be offensive,” the newspaper’s spread basically said, “but we have a right to be.” This, at a time when Muslim demagogues presumed to impose their strictures universally. The New Yorker proposes no context for its cover. It’s just there, presuming that its clever readers will get the joke.

But there is no inkling of truth to the prejudices portrayed. Nor do the prejudices tap into anything like the mass hysterics that, say, the Muhammad cartoons did. The New Yorker is giving credence to scurrilous rumors and bigotries the Obama slanderers could only hope gained traction one way or the other. They may just have succeeded.


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