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A Micro-History of Satire on New Yorker Covers

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Today’s Daily Heller, the blog/e-blast by PRINT contributing editor and lead greyhound Steven Heller, addresses this week’s New Yorker cover (by Barry Blitt), which has been stirring up a little controversy. Why take things to such extremes? There’s a reason, as Steve writes:
This week’s New Yorker cover [pictured] by Barry Blitt is just that: A satirical commentary on all the slanderous rumors being dumped on Sen. Barack Obama.

Titled “The Politics of Fear,” the cover trenchantly attacks “the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign,” according to a press release about the current issue.

But the Obama campaign (as well as that of Republican rival John McCain) slammed the cover as offensive[…]

In satire, however, context is everything—a delicate balance, to be sure. It must be pitch perfect, but not everyone need agree on whether it succeeds. Nonetheless, as a cover of The New Yorker, a magazine known for many covers, cartoons, and articles that “expose and discredit vice or folly,” it’s difficult to see this as anything other than what it is. And like the covers below, satire is designed to make readers question social, political, and cultural assumptions.
See the rest of Steve’s post for a handful of good examples from New Yorkers past. It was ever thus, or, as Carly Simon once sang, it’s coming around again. Election season is bound to produce a few more covers that jangle the carefully calibrated image making of both parties. Some may even twit the voters. We’ll live.

As for this the danger that a satirical image will instantaneously vaporize all life as we know it, not to mention the chances of our guy taking the White House, I’ll quote David Remnick out of context (he was talking with Folio, back in May, about the Democratic race): “The edifying parts of it I’m enjoying. The nonsense, the bullshit, the got-you things that mean nothing, are exhausting and meaningless, obviously.” Breathe: November’s still a few months away, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.


Emdashes, it’s a good point: because satire, at least bad satire, is in a lot of ways a two-faced creature. The interesting thing is that this New Yorker cover:

1) Satirizes fears that Obama is an American-hating Islamofascist.
2) Creates an image that plays into those very fears.

Good satire should only satirize. Bad satire lampoons and also fans the flames of the very controversy it is meant to lampoon.

It’s like that Jyllands-Posten controversy. Many of the Danish cartoonists rushed to say that they were just satirizing Islamic rules and regulations. Nope -what they did was create a dangerous and unnecessary controversy. If they had wanted to satirize, they should have drawn something that did not depict Muhammad, I think.

It shouldn’t be so easy to resort to the word “satire” merely by invoking intention. Obviously the intent here is sarcastic, and yet it’s still difficult to imagine this creation getting through the laborious approval process that is lovingly chronicled every time there’s a ‘controversial’ cover.

To me, the parade of Blitt covers simply elucidates what his work shares with the magazine’s characteristic wet-noodle variety of satire, in writing as well as art.

Jonathan taylorJuly 14, 2008

I am guessing the people who believe the negative stereotypes about Obama (or about Muslims, for that matter) are not regular “New Yorker” readers. Not that there aren’t some educated bigots, but I doubt this satirical cover created any new bigots. The hysteria about this cover is more evidence that we need to lighten up. It’s also evidence that for all the talk of Obama’s groundbreaking candidacy, maybe the one truly original thing about him is that no one’s aloud to even joke about the guy. See this “NY Times” story:

This cover is a visual lie about Obama and his wife. The burning flag is another lie.
How can the artist possibly justify representing Michelle as a terrorist?

The Obama cover, if it was satire at all, was the kind of satire which fans the flames of deceitful innuendo and/or racial stereotyping. How in the world did it ever get through the editorial process which, I hope, involves more than one person?

If it were true satire it would never have started such a firestorm. It has blackened the name of the magazine and surely calls for an apology to both of the Obamas.

janet Gerber SteinbergJuly 18, 2008

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