Since I'm usually one of the last people in the country to get my copy of the New Yorker (well, it sure seems like it), I'm aware of any excitement or controversy the new issue has generated long before the magazine actually lands in my mailbox.
So I was hardly shocked at the cover of the July 21 New Yorker when I finally saw it -- Barack, Michelle, Osama, the burning flag, the AK-47. Of course it's satire, as editor David Remnick has been forced to explain a few times since the issue whacked America in the face. I also saw the problem with it. Satire normally creates acute discomfort for those it is targeting, but this cover managed to wound only those who had already been wounded.
My consternation was compounded when I actually opened the magazine and started reading Hendrik Hertzberg's lead comment in the Talk of the Town section, which employed satire far more effectively to mock . . . liberals. Specifically, angry liberals who, as Hertzberg put it, "smell betrayal" over Obama's tack to the right on various issues, particularly his recent vote in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and are calling the presumptive Democratic nominee unfit to be president and suchlike.
"Obama, it turns out, is a politician," Hertzberg wrote. "In this respect, he resembles the forty-three presidents he hopes to succeed."
Hertzberg's basic point, in keeping with the nervous Democratic centrism the magazine has often expounded in its thought pieces over the last decade or so, is that liberals and lefties are fools for getting all huffy over principle and actually threatening to vote third party or, my gawd, go Nader on us, because the point is to win. And for a Democrat, winning requires paying the occasional empty homage to the fear-based agenda of the Republican right, so get used to it, already. Doing so projects strength and Middle America finds it reassuring.
Well, maybe. But what an odd juxtaposition such a "pragmatic" viewpoint makes with the reckless satire of the cover, which -- as an excellent analysis by Lee Siegel in the New York Times pointed out -- isn't actually satire at all: "In satire," Siegel wrote, "absurdity achieves its rationality through moral perspective -- or it remains simply incoherent or malign absurdity."
The moral perspective of the New Yorker cover was revealed in its assigned title, "The Politics of Fear," but the title was buried at the bottom of the table of contents on page 2 -- fiendishly understated, you might say.
"An analogous instance would have been a cartoon without commentary appearing in a liberal Northern newspaper in the 1920s . . . that showed a black man raping a white woman while eating a watermelon," Siegel wrote. "The effect of accurately reproducing such a ridiculous image that dwelled unridiculously in the minds of some people would have been merely to broaden its vicious reach. The adherents of that image would have gone unsatirized and untouched."
For further examples of this kind of non-satire, download the preserved covers of Der Sturmer, Julius Streicher's 1920s-era Nazi propaganda rag, and imagine a New Yorker cover of, for example, a worm in a sliced-open apple with the face of a stereotypical (hook-nosed) Jewish male, and the caption, "When something is rotten, the Jew is the cause." Revealing, two pages later, that the title of the drawing is "The Politics of Hate" would not, I dare say, reverse such a cover's psychological impact.
I am forced to ask what's going on at a magazine I have long admired: Staff writer Hertzberg chastises angry liberals for indulging in principle-based Obama-bashing on the grounds that pragmatism rules in presidential politics; and at the same time, a Der Sturmer-style cover, which is meant to be a principled attack on the politics of fear, pulls up short of actually satirizing the perpetrators of that brand of politics and gives them, instead, something they can tear out and stick on their refrigerators.
What it adds up to, it seems to me, is a shaky relationship to principle itself -- alas, the same shaky relationship that infects the media as a whole, the result of a long compromise with the politics of fear, hate and war.
The New Yorker, you'll recall, jumped on George Bush's bandwagon along with just about everyone else back in the days of the buildup to the Iraq invasion, ennobling the president's banal utterances in its commentary, finding a commitment to principle in what turns out to have been cynical talking points promoting a secret agenda to go to war. Now, huh? The magazine's adrift. It can't even do satire right.
I picture a New Yorker cover that has come to its senses. On it, both John McCain and the newly hawkish Barack Obama -- the guy who threatens to invade Pakistan -- kneel in photo-op piety in the Church of Political Pragmatism as the TV cameras roll. They utter Mark Twain's war prayer -- "O Lord . . . lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire" -- as Third World children with missing limbs peer numbly at them through the window.