The New Yorker On Obama: When Satire Isn't Satirical

At left, the cover of this week's New Yorker, which features writer Ryan Lizza's take on Barack Obama's early years in Chicago, an article that is somehow totally related to this supposedly satirical illustration portraying Michelle and Barack as Muslim/Black Power extremists who worship Osama bin Laden and burn American flags and fist-bump and trade in their nice shoes for Birkenstocks and combat boots like I did in high school. With Moe out, I long-distance call our official Jezebel pass-around Charlie, Spencer Attackerman, to discuss the cover, the article, Spencer's beef with Mr. Lizza, and the divinity that is spätzle and beer.

MEGAN: Hey, how's the weather there, by the way? And I don't ask because I actually, you know, care, since I know the answer is probably hot and humid but mostly so I can say that it's sunny and 70 and not remotely humid, or at least that's what I can tell from my friend's living room in Germany from where I'm currently working.

SPENCER: Yesterday it was boiling hot, as Nationals Park gave me the lobster treatment during a 5-0 loss to Houston, but now it's dreary and wet.

MEGAN: I don't envy you the sunburn. Anyway, so, should we discuss the New Yorker's Obama cover first or the supposed story inside?

SPENCER: Let's do the cover first, and see which of us can out-outrage the other. To back up, dear readers, as you may have heard, the New Yorker ran a cover that, in John Aravosis's description "shows Oval Office with Obama as tribal African, wife as afro-70s-woman with machine gun, Osama on the wall, and flag on fire."

MEGAN: It's about to run it, it's the July 21st issue.

SPENCER: oooohhh being in Germany has made you so fastidious

MEGAN: Yes, I am surrounded by perfectionists. It does bring out the worst in me.

SPENCER: it's the issue that's out today, in any case

so: your thoughts on the cover?

MEGAN: Anyway, I'm most offended by the fact that they portray Michelle in combat boots. As if.

And ugly camo pants? WTF, people.

SPENCER: btw, I don't think Obama is, contra Aravosis, dressed as a "tribal African" — he's dressed as Usama bin Laden

the shalwar kameez, the sandals, the signature turban

did you see how the NY'er press release described it?

"On the cover of the July 21, 2008, issue of The New Yorker, in ‘The Politics of Fear,' artist Barry Blitt satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the presidential election to derail Barack Obama's campaign."

MEGAN: No, I think it was supposed to reflect both that and the infamous Somalia pictures

SPENCER: so your only critique is the sartorial representation? Am I doing CH with Sadie this morning?

MEGAN: Actually, I mean, there are so many ways in which Michelle's portrayal are really offensive — the big lips, the Afro, the hand on the hip, the gun, the bad clothes and the way she's looking at him like "Yeah, we pulled on over on them, didn't we."

It's like, I get where he's going with the satire thing, I just don't think that it comes across as satirical and I don't know that incorporating actual stereotypes about African-Americans (big lips, curly hair, etc) gets across the other points he's trying to make.

SPENCER: dKos diarist irackobama had a good line:

How did you miss putting afros on the Obama children in stripper clothes on a pole in the background, cotton pickers outside of the window and a noose hanging in the tree?

MEGAN: Well, they are stomping on the eagle's head.

SPENCER: I mean, you're right, it's not like the artist or the editors were like, "We should really make sure people know that one of the presidential candidates is a SCARY BLACK MAN"

MEGAN: They're stomping on everything America stands for!

I mean, I actually think the portrayal of Michelle is more tasteless.

Hence with the joking about her shoes.

SPENCER: but that's besides the — hahahaha i missed that — point. The cover indicates quite a bit about how white people who think of themselves as The Good Ones believe they should get a pass when it comes to race

MEGAN: I would totally agree with that. I also wonder how much of that is about generating/manufacturing controversy rather than actual satire. Given their readership.

SPENCER: honestly, this doesn't seem like a manufactured controversy, since the New Yorker doesn't have to gin up gimmicks to sell magazines

plus they probably see themselves as above that

did you read the story? Written by Ryan "Snitch Bitch" Lizza?

MEGAN: They'd have to gin up a controversy to get me to buy it, but I'm the world's worst person at buying magazines.

I keep trying to read it, but the narcolepsy kicks in.

SPENCER: yeah, i didn't either

because NO ONE should trust a single thing Lizza writes

not his editors

not his factcheckers

not his readers

not his friends

not his family

MEGAN: Well, Ryan Lizza's trustworthiness aside, Ryan Lizza doesn't seem interesting enough as a person to be the secondary focus of the piece.

It's like, do I really need to read about Ryan Lizza talking about Ryan Lizza researching the story.?

SPENCER: fun fact: in Shattered Glass, the movie about Steve Glass & TNR, there's a hyper-obnoxious intern who keeps trying to butter Glass up

that dude is based on Ryan

wait, does Lizza talk about how he researched his own piece in the middle of the piece itself?

because if so, i wish there was a loud cackle function in HTML

MEGAN: It's all like, XYZ told me this, and Obama talked to me about this.

it's all written in the first person, I find it really annoying and I write constantly in the first person but not about how I met Barack Obama and everyone that's ever known him talked to Me.

SPENCER: (Yeah, but magazine editors make you do that, so you can signal to your readership that They could never do what Famous Glossy Writers do — it's the most anti-punk rock thing in journalism)

well, to be Serious and Substantive for a moment

check this out in the piece

Obama's reaction to 9/11, printed in the Hyde Park Herald on 9/19/01

ok, so this is Obama's response to 9/11 during a time when the whole fucking country had lost its mind

Even as I hope for some measure of peace and comfort to the bereaved families, I must also hope that we as a nation draw some measure of wisdom from this tragedy. Certain immediate lessons are clear, and we must act upon those lessons decisively. We need to step up security at our airports. We must reexamine the effectiveness of our intelligence networks. And we must be resolute in identifying the perpetrators of these heinous acts and dismantling their organizations of destruction.

MEGAN: "fundamental absence of empathy" is also a good way to describe how much of America feels about much of the rest of the world.

SPENCER: Ok, so totally sensible, if conventional, right? but then!

We must also engage, however, in the more difficult task of understanding the sources of such madness. The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity. It may find expression in a particular brand of violence, and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.

MEGAN: Ha, "dismantling their organizations of destruction." Wonder how that's going.

SPENCER: I mean, damn. This is when everyone's saying shit about eating bin Laden's heart out of his chest and they hate us for our freedom — and those were the liberals

MEGAN: Wait, we've stopped saying they hate us for our freedom?

SPENCER: now, it turns out that the connection between jihadism and poverty sort of runs in the opposite direction — most of the 9/11 hijackers had college degrees; some were advanced and shit — but at the time no one was brave enough to say that sort of stuff — besides Susan Sontag and The Nation and they got ripped apart for saying it

MEGAN: Right, that was back when Ann Coulter was all about forcible conversions and she got fired but people were still whispering that she was right.

SPENCER: but the next wave of jihadism — call it al-Qaeda 4.0 — is, according to Marc Sageman, sort of trending the way Obama describes it 7 years ago

And that's the sort of thing — you know, an actual understanding of the threats America faces — that makes me think this Scary Black Man will be not just a good president but a motherfucking transformative president

MEGAN: Also, the Middle East is one of many places where you can have a college degree and zero prospects. It's a problem in Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular, lots of educational opportunities — sometimes even for women — and then... a life of unemployed semi-leisure and no way to advance in the world.

I think boredom inspires radicalism, not poverty. When you're really poor, you don't have time to go around being all radical and shit, you have to survive.

SPENCER: yeah, Saudi subsidizes your education — especially religious education — and then doesn't have a job for you, since all their labor to support their affluence goes to dirt-poor Bangladeshis and Filipinos

if Moe were here she could discuss that shit

MEGAN: Um, I could discuss that shit because I just did?

SPENCER: oh sorry!

i guess we should end this before i embarrass myself further

MEGAN: Aw, you're far from an embarrassment. But we could end it just because I'm going to go have an early dinner and some fun since I'm supposedly on vacation.

SPENCER: mmmm spatzle

MEGAN: I'll pick you up some before I come home and if you ask nice I'll even cook it.

SPENCER: i don't actually know what spatzle is

MEGAN: German gnocchi

SPENCER: i am to spatzle what john mccain is to the internet

MEGAN: Well, I'll teach you German potato pasta like someone (likely not Megan McCain, but someone who is getting paid) is teaching John McCain the internet and we'll call it even. You bring the beer.

Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama [New Yorker]