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Two Thoughts on the Subject of Barry Blitt

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , , ,

1. On September 23, Kevin Drum at the Mother Jones website wrote a post about conservative efforts to find evidence of deep ties between Barack Obama and William Ayers, the former Weatherman who committed several serious terrorist acts in the early 1970s. The point of Drum’s post was that those efforts had turned up virtually nothing. As most potential voters know, John McCain has since attempted to make the relationship between Ayers and Obama a central theme of the election campaign.

When I first read Drum’s post, I had a revelation, which is that the underlying truth always matters. It seems to be true that Obama is not close to William Ayers, which, if it is important to you to prove that the two men have a close relationship, is a serious problem.

But more to the point, it also seems clear that, whatever one thinks of Obama, he is not an especially “radical” thinker, apparently has never shown the slightest interest in using violence to further his goals, and doesn’t subscribe to the antiestablishment antipathy of Ayers or his former pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Again, the underlying reality matters: In much the same way that Obama is not a 1960s-era radical who has shown any interest in blowing up buildings for political reasons, Obama is also not a box turtle. Ads that set out to prove that Obama is such a radical or box turtle are equally likely to fail—because the underlying premise is moot.

Speaking of Barry Blitt’s now notorious “fist jab” cover, Art Spiegelman said something related to this at the New Yorker Festival; I mentioned it in my writeup of the event. He said that it took the whole country two news cycles to realize that … Obama is not a radical. This fact lies at the core of the sneaky brilliance of the cover.

The underlying truth matters. The cover, and the decision to run the cover, both stem from an understanding of Obama’s nature as patently not very radical, and that may be why the slow, slow fuse of the cover was so effective, and (in the end) so much less worthy of contempt.

2. Yesterday Daniel Radosh put up a very insightful post about the potential misuse of satire once it is “liberated” from its original context.

To back up a moment, most of us are familiar with the occasional phenomenon of satirical news stories from The Onion or some other source popping up in the press as legitimate news stories. Also at the Festival, Stephen Colbert alluded to a similar incident in which a website dedicated to defending Tom Delay incorporated a clip from The Colbert Report in which Colbert “defended” Delay. (Thanks to Rachel Sklar’s comprehensive account of that event, which helped me pin down my memory.)

One of the premises of the original debate around the Blitt cover was that New Yorker readers or really anyone seeing the cover with the familiar “New Yorker” lettering would be very unlikely to regard the drawing as a smear against Obama; others, presumably fearful of future Republican attacks, contended that the image was so loaded that its power might well exceed the borders of that New Yorker frame.

True to his fellow satirists, Radosh disclaims any responsibility on the part of the satirist for the unintended uses of his or her work and simultaneously takes the position that such uses are unlikely anyway. (I stress I’m not slamming him for this; this stuff is tricky.) In the post yesterday, Radosh brought to our notice a fascinating counterpoint to the Blitt cover.

You see, it turns out that those horribly “racist” Obama Bucks (scare quotes are necessary, I’m afraid) started out as a liberal satire of Republican excesses—a distant shadow of the Blitt cover, one might say—and then got widely reported as an example of those excesses. Remarkably, Diane Fedele, a Republican Party official in California who found the image and decided to use it in a newsletter, has been obliged to resign her post.

I’m not sure that Fedele’s credulity or ill intent, however defined, really makes the original satire any better or worse; from where I sit, it still looks pretty crude to me, if undeniably potent. Maybe it all reflects poorly on Republicans, that a satire of their excesses could be regarded by friend and foe alike as legitimate examples of same; I don’t know.

But as for Blitt’s cover, it is a reminder that the existence of the frame matters, and quality matters too. I’m guessing that Blitt is a more experienced practitioner of visual satire than the creator of those Obama Bucks, and that experience may be the element that prevented the image from actually harming people, instead sparking a discussion about whether it might harm people.


Deep! As someone underwhelmed at the time by the satirical dexterity of the famous cover, I do agree that in view of Obama’s ongoing, almost amazing, steadiness, it was more perspicacious than I could appreciate, indeed ahead of its time.

I think it’s going a little far to say “the underlying truth always matters.” It matters more this year than it did in, say, 2004, when the underlying truth about Kerry’s Vietnam service did not matter enough. But I was just talking with a friend last night about the degree to which this year, the, yes, blogosphere, really has blunted the force of things easily shown to be contradicted by the underlying truth. Look at what’s happened to Joe Klein this year because he has engaged with it.

And even so, the idea that Obama is a “radical”—or, in its current form, a “socialist”—is failing in the sense that it’s not going to win the election. That is, it’s succeeding with enough fewer people than the Swift Boat falsehoods, but in fact, it still is with most of the same people.

Thank you! My position is that the underlying reality matters. Run against its grain too strongly or for too long and you will be exposed. The Kerry and Obama cases are not identical; one might say that the Swift Boat people, while lying, were within spitting distance of something true, that Kerry was vain about his medals and that not all of his medals were equally worthy of admiration, something. You couldn’t quite say that there was nothing to the smear. In Obama’s case I think you can; he never blew anything up and he never breathed a syllable condoning such acts. At least that is how the rebuttal would go; I might be bending things out of shape.

In a way I’m saying something banal; the more your case is a lie, as the Republicans’ case has largely been ever since roughly the impeachment of Clinton, then increased scrutiny will inevitably expose you to be liars. In that sense time was always on the Democrats’ side, it’s no coincidence that 9/11 and Katrina and the economic meltdown not only happened on a Republicans’ watch but can also be traced pretty solidly to a poor Republican governing philosophy (9/11 is the biggest reach on that list, but there’s the emphasis on nation-states and deemphasis on OBL after 1/20/01).

If you don’t know how to drive a car, but keep on driving a car, every passing minute is likely to bring you closer to a terrible accident, and that’s the sort of thing I mean when I say, the truth always matters.

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