Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: Now <i>That's</i> Funny

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Now That's Funny

I was planning to write something about this whole New Yorker flap, but when I was looking around the New Yorker home page tonight, I noticed something I hadn't seen earlier today. Now, it's possible that it was there earlier, but it's exactly the kind of thing they might add after a day like today.

I'm late to the game on this, so you may well have seen this around (it's not like it was scarce today). The latest its cover of The New Yorker has caused quite a stir. Although I found Barry Blitt's image surprising at first, it's pretty clearly meant to be satirical. It's The New Yorker, after all, which is not exactly the National Review. Unfortunately, with virtual no change, the image could very well grace the cover of that conservative stalwart (and if you don't believe me, just ask Jonah Goldberg. Much of the blogosphere--and ultimately the Obama campaign itself--was up in arms, and New Yorker editor David Remnick was coming out to defend his publication. This is the context in which I noticed that if you click on the cover at the issue's Table of Contents you'll be taken to a slide show of other Blitt covers. See, he's got progressive values--he's not attacking Obama.

And that's the problem with the cover. Blitt isn't intending to attack Obama, but without building their own contexts of the magazine and the artist, it's impossible to know. Britt told The Huffington Post:

I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is.

Yes, those ideas are ridiculous, but that's what's so frustrating about them: The fact that they're ridiculous has done very little to slow their viral distribution. In Remnick's interview with Huffington Post, he explains:

What I think [the image] does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's — both Obamas' — past, and their politics.

Unfortunately, "holding up a mirror" doesn't help us recognize anything that we didn't already know was there. The image does nothing to illuminate or offer insight into the situation.

I hate to fall back on the old cliche of the media being out of touch, but I think that's what happened here. Remnick and Britt don't realize how full of vitality these potentially toxic ideas are outside of Manhattan. In defending the image, Tom Tomorrow passed along what he would've expected from such an image:

Personally I'm not sure why the conversation about this goes any further than, "Oh yes, that was a mildly amusing reference to those crazy right wing emails everyone has heard about," before moving on to other topics.

The difference between Tomorrow's experience and ours here at Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Central is that we haven't just heard about "those crazy right wing emails," we've received them from (who we'd previously assumed to be) moderate friends. When we've called them on it, the senders have defended their actions and argued the truth of the content they passed along. These are lies that have resonance, and passing them along seemingly uncritically serves no one's interests except those who oppose Obama. Of course, it's not the responsibility of The New Yorker to support one candidate over another or try to help anyone get elected, but they're not providing good satire, either. For satire to be effective, it should be extreme to some degree, but this is almost a literal depiction of the smears going around against the Obamas. As I wrote before, readers have to understand the context of The New Yorker as a somewhat liberal entity, and those who see the cover without being able to supply that context will have no reason to do anything but take it at face value.


At 6:25 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Jim C. said...

I haven't received any of those emails (probably because my relatives who might send me them would know better - or fear that I'd answer with 'G*D* Right!!').

I saw this cover and, honestly, I didn't get it. I didn't have enough information to know what Mr. Blitt was trying to say. Thanks to that Remnick interview link, I saw the title, and it makes sense now. The title *is* the context it needs. Mr. Remnick mentions Herb Block when talking about taking images out of context, and I thought that was ironic, since in one of his books, Block mentions that foreign press orgs had at one time been taking his images and put their own captions on them, totally altering his message.

I heard Mr. Remnick on NPR last night, offering up much of the same defense, though on radio I found him to be a little too condescending to be sympathetic. Then again, I still hadn't learned the title of the piece, and he didn't bother to share, he just seemed to think the title was self-evident, and that people who thought that "other people" who wouldn't get the point were in fact being rather condescending to the "other people's" critical faculties.

Side Note: A quick trip through the google shows that another famous satirical New Yorker cover also ran without a title on the cover, Saul Steinberg's "How New Yorkers View The World." It wouldn't have had the same political charge, but it could be misinterpreted all the same.

At 11:40 PM, July 23, 2008, Blogger Stuart Shea said...

New York is dead. People think that Hollywood is out of touch? Try New York for size.


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