Is the New Yorker Obama Cover a Parody of Itself?

The New Yorker is a high-brow, literary magazine prominently displayed at bookstores everywhere. Its cover art is often eye-catching, a boon to sales, perhaps. But this time the editors at the magazine may have miscalculated. The July 21, 2008 cover features cartoonish renditions of Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. Barack is portrayed as a stereotypical Muslim and Michelle is decked out in terrorist fatigues and assault weaponry. They seem to be standing in one of America’s iconic centers of political power and they’re doing a fist bump in expression of their solidarity. The American flag is in blazes. Even the afro is portentous.

What’s the message? Well, it’s a parody. That much is clear. A parody, as we all know, is the deliberate exaggeration of something for comic effect. But what does this image parody? The answer to that question lies at the center of a media storm, a controversy that has editors at The New Yorker engaged in feverish damage control.

There are two possibilities. The cover is a parody of Barack Obama’s background and ideology, or it is a parody of popular distortions of Obama’s background and ideology. If it’s the former, it’s an unprecedented expression of affinity for some fringe version of political conservatism and therefore . . . not likely. The New Yorker does not, in general, grandstand for conservative causes. Anyone familiar with the magazine would therefore assume that the cover is a deliberate a parody of popular distortions, mocking the suspicions of Obama’s more radical opponents. But the highbrow subtlety of this issue’s cover art may have backfired by reinforcing those suspicions.

This is what worries the Obama campaign, individual supporters of Obama, and the so-called mainstream media types who regard the cover as a kind of betrayal of liberal values. The cover shocks. That is often the intended effect of parody. The problem for the New Yorker is that this image of the Obamas does not have the right kind of shock value. Superficially, it appears to be an expression of suspicions about Obama, portrayed with exaggeration and comic effect, but with the hint of a genuine warning. Understood in that way, the shock value would be its evocation of fears about who Obama really is, what he really stands for, and where he might lead this nation if he becomes President. But the image isn’t meant to be an expression of suspicion; rather, it’s supposed to be a depiction of unwarranted suspicion. Understood in that way, however, the image itself has almost no shock “value.” What is shocking is that The New Yorker would run the risk of reinforcing a stereotype of Obama that is objectionable to the mainstream media, of which The New Yorker is perceived to be a member in good standing.

To be sure, many media commentators have been shocked by The New Yorker’s choice of artwork. In that respect, the Obama cover has become a parody of itself. And there’s nothing The New Yorker can do about it.

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