Comments: Judging A Book By Its Cover

This post nails it to the wall. It is very funny to see Remnick on CNN flagging down Stewart and Colbert, trying to position the magazine with them and make it seem of a piece.

The bad timing (the Blitt cartoon has been sitting on the shelf for some time), the poor fit of his style with the intended message...right on, dude.

Posted by a guy at July 15, 2008 01:53 AM

You're kidding... right?

Posted by Rob Weaver at July 15, 2008 01:57 AM

Me? Not really. But it's been real, Rob Weaver. Catch you later.

Posted by a guy at July 15, 2008 02:31 AM

So laugh, or don't, but know that it isn't a big deal--magazines don't matter in America, and haven't for 30 years..."

The trouble is that this isn't just in a magazine, but all over cable and local news.

Democrats are freaking out about this partly because they were burned before when they refused to take these silly conservative narratives seriously. (Who would believe the navy would award a medal to Kerry without checking his story? )

Now I'm politically tone deaf. I have no idea what the average voter will dismiss or think is important. (I thought Enron was a big deal.)

But I don't think it's silly for Democrats to worry that this ridiculous storyline might take hold -- or be upset with the New Yorker for unintentionally reinforcing it.

Posted by Carl at July 15, 2008 05:04 AM

Carl is absolutely right. This will be removed from the realm of liberal satire by many. They will not remember or realize it was ever a New Yorker cover; they will take it seriously in some vague way. A disaster for Obama, it seems to me, and just another dispiriting example of elitism gazing at itself in the mirror.

Posted by Rosemary Molloy at July 15, 2008 06:25 AM

Like I said in the last thread: not absurd enough.

Enron was important, Carl: it simply wasn't that important to our aristocracy. It got old for them, fast.

The average voter may not be the best human being around, but she/he/it is far less gauche than your average journalist.

Posted by No One of Consequence at July 15, 2008 06:29 AM

Hold on to your hats lockstepping ATR readers, a voice of disagreement:

I don't like Obama. Not for any of the reasons that come in for parody on the New Yorker cover, though. (Relevance to the discussion: probably near nil, but FWIW.)

I dislike the people pushing those things (terror fist-pump, OMG america-haters!, OMG militant blacks!!, OMG Muslims!!!) as well.

(Also the location of the depiction, mostly undiscussed, is significant. The Obamas are not at home, not their current home -- this is the future. Blitt put them in the White House. He says they [THEM!] won. Demands that this image have further markers to [further] telegraph its satiric intent are what's 'lame'.)

I think the cover does a fine job jabbing those folks. I think the chance any one with grey matter could see this cover and "take it seriously" approaches zero.

The timing of this cover is just right my my lights, not too late. I don't think the "ideas" about Obama captured here are vague in many people's minds.

All of your counter-examples Mike also, despite your rhetoric, technically allowed for misinterpretation -- and they were in fact misinterpreted. That awesomely perfect, now permanently historical, Lampoon cover in particular was condemned at the time. I don't doubt for a second that the NY-centric cover was imperfectly received in some quarters as well (both by those who didn't like the imputation and by those who thought "yeah, we ARE the center of the world") -- but then again, as satire, it was pretty weak tea.

The argument by 'style' against this cover carries no water with me. It wasn't blah, it was punchy. It wasn't wan, it was wow. The instaneneity and vigor of reaction tells me I'm right about that.

And, X "can't produce satire" is almost by definition excessive as an argument.

My interpretation: This is not a drawing about the Obamas. This is a drawing about me. This is a drawing showing what I must believe about some people. I must believe they're out there (way out there) thinking that Obama's a secret Muslim terrorist, that his wife's a machine-gunning whitey-hating black-power bitch and that THEY"RE GOING TO WIN ZOMG!!!

I do believe these people exist.
And they are really fucking funny.

Posted by Don at July 15, 2008 08:03 AM

I didn't find it punchy. It was dull, drab, and shallow in the extreme -- but that's the point of the NYorker. When their cartoons work, they work because they're washed-out, in color and substance.

And the very fact that lots of people DIDN'T get it and way, way more didn't find it funny means it failed as satire. Just because the targets are absurd doesn't mean the comic has any skills. If that weren't the case, every stand-up comedian on Earth would dominate on amateur night by riffing on mother-in-laws or some other distinct group.

And the fact that the Lampoon cover was condemned was pretty good evidence of successful satire. Satire, at its most powerful, should piss off those associated with the target. That's why Limbaugh et. al. are all pissed off by the New Y-- oh, wait. Oops.

Not absurd enough. Not mean enough. Fail.

Posted by No One of Consequence at July 15, 2008 08:37 AM

Perhaps if the cover were put in a thought balloon and floated just over a caricature of Bill Reilly's head...

Posted by Bob In Pacifica at July 15, 2008 09:37 AM

The old or "real" New Yorker has been dead for at least twenty years. Its audience is mostly gone, the culture that nourished it and that it tried to represent and judge is also mostly gone.
The poisonouness of the right-wing smear on Obama as traitor is why they ran it. Does it work?
Maybe. But that matters far less than the motive for running it. With the old, Algonquin round table culture long gone, TNY has adjusted to become the mouthpiece of Ivy PC. No more Salinger, but lots of Hersh and his "people familiar with the document" journalism.
It was a journal, as were others, close to the Humanities once. Now it's close to MSNBC and CNN. Which is what the kids from Harvard and Princeton want.
Literature? History? Philosophy? Sooo last century.

Posted by donescobar at July 15, 2008 10:25 AM

"the very fact that lots of people DIDN'T get it and way, way more didn't find it funny means it failed as satire"

Nope. It means they didn't get or didn't like it.

It's the history of such works to be misinterpreted, disliked, misrepresented. The provided examples illustrate rather than contradict.

This doesn't go to prove that this New Yorker cover is "great" -- only that your, Mike's, the Obama's, Limbaugh's and Olberman's opinions are neither exhaustive nor final. Having a crowd on your side isn't much of a case either.

Posted by Don at July 15, 2008 10:36 AM

When people have to explain -- "See? Don't you see? This is funny because ...," it's not funny.

Posted by blondie at July 15, 2008 12:00 PM

I disagree with Gerber's comments on the timing of this cover. The cover is not just pegged to the "fist jab" nonsense. It's the whole shitpile of Obama smears, not just the "fist jab." (Man, that's fun to say - fist jab! Fist jab! Terrorist fist jab!) Those smears have been around and will be around until at least November. So analyzing the cover in terms of timing seems like a mistake.

As to the rest of it, um. Unfortunately, I saw some analysis / griping first, then the cover, so I'm afraid I can't comment on my initial reaction to the cover.

Posted by albany layman at July 15, 2008 12:04 PM

This guy over at Hullabaloo said it all so much better than me, so I'll just do the wrong thing and import her comment whole:

"My feeling is that it isn't particularly creative satire and doesn't really ring true or make anyone think, which is the hallmark of great satire."

Might I point out that this cover has done nothing BUT provoke thought since it hit the stands (a lot of it, from the liberal side, not particularly insightful, but "thought" nonetheless).

Actually what most of what we on the left call satire reinforces media narratives. It does not actually subvert them. Take The Daily Show. They are great at satire as long as the subtext is taken for granted by its audience. That's why, for example, you would never see a skit on TDS about the Obama campaign's race baiting of Hillary. Even though Obama clearly distorted every Clinton remark it could and fed it to a press eager to do the same, a skit based on it would fall flat, because "everyone knows" that Obama is Mr. Clean, and Hillary the racist knife-fighter.

What I find amusing about this flap--which is not even about the target of the satire, but about how the targets of the satire will interpret the satire--is how many words it takes prickly liberal Obamacans to say what the right-wing rubes do in a similar situation. You don't like its possible collateral impact on our candidate's campaign, but being "liberal" Obamacans you can't say that, so you spend hundreds of words explaining why it is "not funny/thoughtful."

Like liberals who periodically try to ban "Huck Finn" because it contains the N-word, you really don't trust the intelligence of people. That all by itself is funny.
Qbert | 07.15.08 - 10:37 am

Not that I really think most ATR readers are "Obamacans," but, yeah.

Posted by Don at July 15, 2008 12:19 PM

Don, do you think that the people that hang out here are fans of Obama in any way at all?

Posted by ethan at July 15, 2008 12:59 PM

A magazine cover speaks in a magazine's voice, not in someone else's. A magazine says, "We believe this to be true" not "those idiots over there think this is true." You could have a cover that shows other people's beliefs, and that's what parody is for. There is nothing parodic about Blitt's cover, because it's not transformative. It simply shows a right-wing fantasy on the cover of TNY. We must supply the transformation ourselves, given our prior knowledge of TNY.

Jokes structured that way are bad jokes, not because of what they say, but because they are so murky and prone to misinterpretation.

The Steinberg cover says this: "Many of us here believe that Manhattan (not even NYC, but the one borough) is the center of the world, and that everything else is small-scale, crude, and really not worth addressing."

Clear, precise, and reinforced in every aspect of its construction.

Lampoon: "We believe that people will do anything to make money. Even pointless, cruel, stupidly destructive things. Not 'them'; 'us.' WE will do this. So fork it over."

With a great cover, there's no debating the point of view, or who it's speaking for. WE at TNY think the world ends at the Hudson. WE at Lampoon will do anything for money. They think Obama's a terrorist. Who's them? You know...just "them."

The "them" approach is trying to play both sides, and it doesn't work; it not only reduces the strength of satire (precision, knowledge), it increases its weaknesses (misinterpretation, unintended consequences). But people use it because big corporate media products want the frisson of controversy without making their readers or advertisers uncomfortable. A magazine's cover is its vision of the world; and if you buy that magazine, it's your vision, too.

Let's do a few more covers, while we're here, going from the ASME list:
1. John and Yoko in bed, Rolling Stone 1/81. Not satirical, but also not judgmental, either. John's fetus-like dependence on Yoko in all its bizarre, obsessive, public glory. Transformative element: he's naked, she's not. The editors of RS liked John and Yoko. They surely weren't saying, "Look at the freaks," especially not in January '81.
2. Nude Demi Moore, VF 8/91. Slightly satirical: Movie stars seem to be media creations, but in fact they are people subject to the same biology and processes we are. VF was speaking for itself: Our fascination with stars, and their simultaneous existence as people just like us--can there be any doubt that the editors of VF share this, too.
3. Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian: what Blitt was trying to do, but failed because he did not transform the material. Rendering a modern, Muslim boxer as a medieval Christian saint shows the anti-Ali sentiment to be what it was: fear of the "other" dressed up as rectitude and patriotism. If Esquire had done what Blitt has, they would've portrayed Ali as what Ali's detractors said he was (a coward, a brute, a radical, someone to be feared), then said, "See! That's what THEY think of him!" Lois' cover shifts perception: "I thought he was a scary black thug with a weird name, but shit--he's a religious man being persecuted for his beliefs." Blitt's cover shifts nothing.
4. Steinberg, NYer. Did that one.
5. Andy Warhol drowning in a Campbell's soup can, Esquire, 5/69. "The Decline and Collapse of the American Avant Garde"--that Warhol's gambit, while making him famous and making art accessible to our mass culture, has stripped it of something essential--when art became Pop, it became subject to the same whims and dangers that afflict Pop. Agree or disagree, but it's undeniably what Esquire thought; "us," not "them," and an image that clarified their point of view, didn't obscure it.

Blitt's cover is not what TNY thinks; it is not even a controversial idea transformed to reveal something new or essential. It is simply inflammatory material, untransformed, and published merely to stir controversy and sell product. That it is rendered insouciantly does not change the idea's potential for harm; it only underscores the fact that TNY knew it was on iffy ground, but did not know or care enough to transform the content into satire.

For those of you who aren't really sure why this is important, I'll pass along the first and only comment this post has received over at my blog:

"The only reason that this Mr. & Mrs. Obama satire DOES have impact — and may very likely spread — is because like all good satire, or good humor for that matter, there’s more than a germ of truth in it."

So here we see, Don, that at least with my commenter, the cover did not have the effect Remnick and Blitt intended--"those people out there, the ones that have those crazy ideas about the Obamas, those people are absurd"--but precisely the opposite--"that cover is true."

Satire is a weapon, and one has to use it as expertly and responsibly as possible--and even then there's the chance of collateral damage. What's next? A cover depicting the international Jewish conspiracy, six weeks after a stock market plunge? How's that any different? "Those people there, they think the JEWS did it."

TNY doesn't transform the right-wing meme--it only reproduces it. Just because something is controversial and "meant as a joke," that doesn't make it worthwhile. It's a bad joke, poorly observed and clumsily executed. You can like it--if people didn't laugh at bad jokes, I wouldn't eat--but at this time, in this place, I personally think the harm outweighs the humor, and there's not enough artfulness in it to justify the risk.

Posted by Mike of Angle at July 15, 2008 01:04 PM
I think the chance any one with grey matter could see this cover and "take it seriously" approaches zero.

I get daily missives from people that I work with along the lines of, "Anything but Hillary or Obama,", "This Country Really, Really needs to exterminate the libruls", "We're having socialism imposed on us", "The islamofascists are winning", etc.

This type of "irony" has an effect on them:

1. It reinforces the views they already hold of an Obama America. Don't think so? How many people still think that Iraq had something to do with 9/11? Associations develop in the darnedest ways and they're hard to expunge no matter the evidence.

2. They take it as an insult and slight that another Liberal NY media is mocking them and what they perceive as their serious concerns. Not important what they think? As long as they have plans to "exterminate the libruls", start shooting at random or dick with the Diebolds, it is important.

I am so far over any reasonable reply quota here...

WTF? There's a quota...?

Posted by Labiche at July 15, 2008 01:14 PM

I was just disappointed that the eagle on the rug hadn't been replaced with a hammer and sickle.

We all know that on top of the madrassa-trained secret Islamist fanaticism Barrack Obama veils behind his racist black church that he's also heir to the Marxist thuggery of his estranged Kenyan father's tribe of unrepentant Commies.

Some devil horns, a monkey tail, and Saddam's handlebar moustache only would have perfected Blitt's otherwise unerring eye for Truth.

Posted by buermann at July 15, 2008 01:50 PM

SEE!!! And I just thought it looked like a cartoon. Who knew?

Posted by Mike Meyer at July 15, 2008 02:44 PM

Opinions are like assholes. I spend way too much time looking at them on the internet.

Posted by gil mann at July 15, 2008 02:59 PM

Gil Mann, that is my all-time favorite comment, anywhere, by anyone.

Thank you!

Posted by Mike of Angle at July 15, 2008 05:03 PM

My post is redundant; gil mann just won the thread. (This is what I get for writing before I reach the bottom.)

"the very fact that lots of people DIDN'T get it and way, way more didn't find it funny means it failed as satire"

Nope. It means they didn't get or didn't like it.

Um, wrong. If it was satire, something would have been communicated that offends or at least jabs the target. Without that, you could call anything satire. "Look, throwing my poo is satire -- that three-year-old over there laughed even if 7 billion other humans didn't!" You have killed the definition. You can't say what isn't satire by your own reckoning, so the term is meaningless as you have used it.

It's the history of such works to be misinterpreted, disliked, misrepresented. The provided examples illustrate rather than contradict.

No it doesn't. You're handwaving. The original post and I pointed out that the examples contradict your "everything is satire that I want to be" definition. Note that the kind of people that are offended by successful satire are the ones being lampooned by the same. Zounds! What skill from a magazine with Lampoon right there in the title!

So, like, try again with actual support please.

This doesn't go to prove that this New Yorker cover is "great" -- only that your, Mike's, the Obama's, Limbaugh's and Olberman's opinions are neither exhaustive nor final.

Now your fallacy is moving the goalposts. The fact that the cover is not great -- in fact, it sucks ass -- is directly dependent upon its satirical value, a value which only exists in a fever dream in your head. And you are handwaving when it comes the Limbaughs of the world (not dealing at all with the original argument -- go back up and read the post), so, again, fail.

You don't have a definition of satire. You can't defend your position by squeezing your eyes and saying "I don't beleive your definition is true!" That's, um, silly. Even if the definition of satire being used by others is problematic, you can't support -- hell, you don't have a position unless you have a meaning for the term. You'll have to come up with an opposing definition before you can even buy into the game.

Having a crowd on your side isn't much of a case either.

Unless the issue concerns successful communication, which all humor does. Your handwaving has become sad:

So, at this point, you not only need a competing definition of satire, you need a definition of humor that does not need to communicate something to the majority of its audience in order to be successful.

Good luck with that.

P.S. -- Don, seriously -- I have called Obama and oreo and worst. I'm not a fan. Just because I'll happily use the N'Yker as birdcage liner doesn't mean I'm part of his cult, or even a supporter. As for the site, the only thing one can assume is that we'll be against McCain in November, generally speaking.

. . . and also, note: you can find something funny that is a failed attempt at satire. If you're one of the few people in the target audience that found it funny, it isn't that funny (by definition), but it has at least some residue of funny. So if someone points out that it's crap satire, they are not saying it is humanly impossible to find it funny: they're speaking only to its satirical deficiency (with the funny deficiency being a separate issue).

Posted by No One of Consequence at July 15, 2008 08:38 PM

Thank YOU, Mike. It was a conscious break from my usual style (tedious).

Posted by gil mann at July 15, 2008 10:16 PM

My post is redundant; gil mann just won the thread.

I'm with Mike. I think he just won the entire internet.

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at July 16, 2008 03:45 AM

Mr. Gerber, my hat's off to you. I'm late to the picnic, but this is the best analysis on the subject I've read. And, believe me, there are a million of 'em out there.

Posted by Athenawise at July 16, 2008 05:04 PM

A thought balloon over Bill O'REILLY's head.

Posted by Bob In Pacifica at July 16, 2008 08:58 PM

Is this what we've become--going apeshit over a fucking cartoon?

Jesus, get a life, people, and then functioning brains, in that order.

The cartoon was funny. Some will not get it. Some will refuse to get it, and misinterpret it.

Point made: while you obediently follow the script dictated to you by the tabloid media, a thousand REAL issues languish.


Posted by Jack at July 17, 2008 08:31 AM

March 30, 1893

What a pity it is that we have no great man at the head of our magazines. He would so lift them up and lift up the literature of the land. One may easily be unjust, in this way of saying, to some serious efforts done from an artistic or deeper conviction; but generally speaking the periodicals seem to give forth naught save cold photographic chronicles of the times, devoid of soul; seem to be untimely newspapers in pamphlet form, and hence superfluous. There is little in them of peculiar and distinctive style to distinguish them from the better class of newspapers. With all the affected realism, there is little from my point of view that is truly real and sincere. Indeed, it would be greatly in the interest of economy and simplicity for them to consolidate or combine with the latter, to the end that we may have papers more accurate and thorough going, appealing to the higher as well as the lower instincts, recording the news and current life as well as reflecting thought, style, advance, and the things of the spirit. Let us have simply newspapers and books, and let the books be something other than magazine books! How I long for warmth and inspiration and soul in what I read! But the aim, alas, is now for money, not literature, and while the one is gained, the other, and by natural sequence, is lost. I know there are certain cynics and practical people who may deem this top-lofty and boyish. Yet I am sincere and afraid that I must continue to remain in the respect a true boy - a character not so unenviable and stigmatic after all; for I, who conceive true letters to be the very coinage of the soul, can not bring myself to think that it be well traded for baser metal; I, who conceive letters to be the best religion of the soul, can not deem it a holy transaction to sell the same to Mephistopheles! The very idea of commercialism taints and debases the product of a writer. Again, once more, it must be acknowledged that the worldling is wrong and the thinker is right. Give a man his bread and butter to live on, but do not pay him to write; if you do, he will only report, return you the husks, the shells, not the grain, the oyster, or the essence pure. I speak shortly here, without detailing all the bearings and considerations, but the more one thinks of it, the more he appreciates the position of Spinoza, who, resorting to the handicraft of grinding lenses for a livelihood, refused to write for money!
Edwin Manners

Posted by Michael Lewis at July 21, 2008 01:11 PM