The New Yorker thinks you don’t get it.

Hendrik Herzberg, who is some sort of editor at The New Yorker (though that shadowy cabal never ever publishes a masthead, so aside from Remnick, it’s kind of unclear what everyone does), and my very, very favorite political columnist in … Continued

Hendrik Herzberg, who is some sort of editor at The New Yorker (though that shadowy cabal never ever publishes a masthead, so aside from Remnick, it’s kind of unclear what everyone does), and my very, very favorite political columnist in Talk of the Town—I read him and Anthony Lane (and anything by Louis Menand) even when I don’t have time to do anything but look at the cartoons and recycle—has responded to the on- and off-line media generally shitting itself over the recent Obama cover.

He takes a couple pot-shots at the OTI demo, viz.:

As David Remnick and others (me, for example) have been pointing out every chance we get, the target of Barry Blitt’s image was not the Obamas. The target was the grotesque pack of lies about the Obamas that have been widely disseminated, not only by marginal right-wing Web sites and sicko viral e-mail campaigns but also by such nominally respectable outfits as Fox News.

That is the part that a lot of people—sophisticated people, non-irony-challenged people, people who watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert without a trace of bafflement [That’s us! —Ed.]—fail to “get.”

The whole thing is worth a read, because he dissects, in a clearheaded way, the alarmist (and, in his view, condescending) hand-wringing that the cover provokes.

He actually addresses a point made in the comments on Stokes’s post about this—the difficulty of making jokes about Obama, or, in an unfortunate, non-equivalent restatement, whether Obama can “take a joke.”

His rationale, that Obama is not the target of the joke so that it’s really not forhim to take it well or not, is over-nice and a little disingenuous, and I don’t buy it. It’s like calling someone fat and then claiming you were satirizing the nation’s obesity problem.

10 Comments on “The New Yorker thinks you don’t get it.”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    By the way, I thought the Daily Show’s Obama humor last night was much better than their previous attempts. (“Where did our hope go?!” “They should call him Barack O-Boner!”) If you didn’t catch it, check out today’s reruns.


  2. fenzel OTI Staff #

    That’s right. We’re not all making fun of Wilford Brimley, we’re making fun of the scourge of diabetes.


  3. fenzel OTI Staff #

    Okay, so I haven’t really been following the chatter on this one, but here’s my take on it.

    The source of the imagery doesn’t matter. The intent of the imagery doesn’t matter. Nor does its purpose. Nor does its context. Nor does how smart or sophisticated the audience is. It’s not about who “gets” it — it’s about whom it affects.

    And people are affected by these images in complex ways. Major political campaigns in an information age are guided and decided by a collage of images that resonate or do not resonate with individual voters. The task of campaigners is to get the images out there however they can — and repeat them and repeat them to make sure people remember them — the resonant ones will sink in and have the desired effect.

    This is helped along by a cognitive phenomenon called “source amnesia” — there was a pretty good article on it in the Times about a month ago. I started a blog post on it once that I never finished.

    But anyway, this is how Rove and Fox News really works — and why they can put a question mark in front of a falsehood and it doesn’t affect whether it is taken as truth or not.

    The point is that it’s more or less impossible for most people to process all the information surrounding a Presidential campaign (and that’s assuming you get past all the math that pretty much says a rational result that expresses the true Will of the People is also more or less impossible). So, people, even so called savy people, vote with their hearts, not with their heads.

    And just putting this image out there is giving a free handout to Karl Rove and his cronies who would just love to plaster this image everywhere with a subheading


    Because all that matters is the words “Obama” and “terrorist” next to each other. Your brain will pocket those away, and they’ll have an effect, no matter how smart you are, no matter how savy you are, on how you feel about Obama, provided you hear them enough and they are repeated to you enough.

    For people who really like Obama, it makes them angry, because their relationship with the word “terrorist” is one of being betrayed by misinformation. They associate “terrorism” with “the right wing is lying to you.”

    But for a lot of people — and not just dumb people, and not just right-wing people — “terrorist” doesn’t necessarily carry that resonance. It’s still a word that provokes patriotic, nationalistic reactions against violent outsiders, and it frames Obama as a violent outsider.

    So, yeah, the New Yorker is doing Rove’s work for them. The big mistake everyone’s thinking is that the “meaning” of it in a lexical sence matters. It does not. It’s all about the collage — it’s all targeting your long-term memory, which doesn’t remember subtle things like irony or sarcasm (I had a post on this in the works for a long time about hipsterism, perhaps I’ll finish it sometime).

    This is also why a democracy that operates under free speech also needs compulsory public education. People need to be taught how to take their democratic duty seriously and not be tricked by stuff like this — or to run campaigns like Rove does. Because democracy is not automatic — it depends on a free and at least somewhat rational discourse as well as a population capable of understanding it. Like a free market — all that is required is the obfuscation or confusion of information — on prices, on holdings, etc. — and the market is no longer free. Free information markets work the same way.

    So, basically, if you take your duty as an American citizen seriously, you don’t want to suppress speech like this, and you don’t want to listen to it, either — but you should be pretty uneasy in general to see Democrats on the thought-control bandwagon, and if they start using Rove’s Jedi Mind trick nonsense against the Republicans (OPERATION FREEDOM LIBERTY PANCAKES AWESOMENESS), you should get downright depressed.

    But yeah, saying this is white-collar vs. blue-collar is dumb. We all have hippocampuses.

    And Hertzerg’s claim that the political significance of the New Yorker image or indeed any political images has even a lick of anything to do with truth makes me think he just plain hasn’t been paying attention for eight years.

    In national politics, truth is dead. We live in the age of truthiness. And that’s not just a joke.


  4. fenzel OTI Staff #

    For example, there is a McCain-funded ad that sometimes pops up on this site that has a picture of Obama next to a picture of the President of Iran. It’s a push poll (the sort that asks a fake question with the intent of affecting opinions rather than gathering data) about whether it’s okay to meet with foreign leaders or something. It makes no direct connection between Obama and Amdeadahgdsa9teoihasda8abad.

    But the two images next to each other and, most notably their similar skin tone, is the point of the ad. And that’s meant to sink in and take its effect, even though the connection to “fact” is extremely tenuous (Obama did say he would want to talk to the President of Iran — not an odd thing for a President to do) and not even articulated all that much in the ad.


  5. Gab #

    I see parallels in Fenzel’s post(s) to similar incidents that don’t involve this particular election campaign, but that only prove the point. When you were discussing the fact that having the words “Obama” and “terrorist” next to each other means something, I was reminded of the campaign that numbed the American public and the Congress enough to enable the Administration’s invasion of Iraq. Because talking heads and high-ups, including the President, Vice President, and key members of the Cabinet, were constantly saying “Saddam Hussein” and “terrorist” in the same sentence over and over again, the idea that the two were at least not mutually exclusive grew gradually in the minds of those listening at all to the stump speeches and statements. Same with “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and “Hussein.” It’s pure psychology: repeat it enough, and put concepts close together enough as you do so, and the mind begins having trouble disbelieving or distinguishing between the two, and they grow a shadow of a doubt, if not a certainty. If I remember my numbers correctly (and I may not, so sorry about that), in 2006, roughly 60% of the people in a survey still believed Saddam had been building nuclear weapons. And these people got most of their news from FOX, the main channel that was perpetuating this and whose pundits and “experts” repeated the same things the Administration was saying. Statements like, “There is a possibility he could be building weapons of mass destruction,” repeated over and over again, or stated as a question followed by vague non-answers reeled the public in like fish on a hook.

    And it’s rather ironic that McCain would do an ad like that, since it’s a telephone poll about an alleged black, illegitimate baby that cost him the nomination in 2000. Of course, that poll was concocted by Bush’s cronies- just enough to plant the seed of doubt. (It’s kind of pathetic that he would then throw himself at the feet of the one that thew HIM under the bus so quickly, too, but that’s another issue altogether.) The meshing of ideas together is nothing new to politics, nor is diversion. Whether that was the intent of the picture is, as you say, beside the point. It does what it does, no matter how high the “get it” capacity of the one viewing it. But, however elitist or snobbish it may sound, there are indeed some that are more susceptible to those tactics than others: those that “get it” are able to take the extra step of stepping BACK and realizing how absurd the connections is, yes, but they nevertheless make it all the same, albeit for a much shorter period of time, even if it’s only for a second or two. The difference lies in that capacity to remove the connection or call it out for what it is; those that don’t “get it” remain stuck in the moment of connection, transfixed in that spot and unable to move beyond it. This can be for myriad reasons that may not necessarily have to do with intellect: they COULD be stupid, but they could also just be incredibly biased from the get-go. He may be a total a**hole, but Bill-O isn’t stupid: he’s just blindly biased. His ability to nit-pick and argue around the real point so often is proof that he’s intelligent, even though what he says may sound really, REALLY stupid. He uses that tactic of association himself all the time, but also, I think, falls victim to it, first; but not because he has a low capacity for reason, but because he has a mindset that he nurtures and refuses to see past.

    Ok, that was much longer than I planned, my apologies.


  6. fenzel #

    Hey, no worries. Look at the name of the site :-)

    Another thing to add is that I think the sense that “other” people won’t “get” it is connected to the phenomenon in politics elsewhere that everybody, regardless of class, is much more likely to ascribe unfair tactics, cheating, and other misdeeds to a group of rivals or opponents than to themselves, their friends, or the groups they identify with.

    Hillary supporters didn’t understand how Obama supporters saw her campaign as so dirty — Obama supporters don’t understand how other people see Obama’s messaging as thin on substance — McCain supporters probably have difficulty understanding why suddenly so many people hate them.

    We are social creatures, and we definitely identify with “teams” — and that is certainly at play here.

    I do think Bush’s cronies and the Rove machine have been especially terrible — like, above and beyond terrible — and that isn’t just sentiment. But a lot of people believe that on just sentiment as a black-hat white-hat thing, and they aren’t really interested in taking the beams out of their own eyes when it comes to being biased, dishonest, manipulative, suggestable or stupid.

    After all, nobody wants to think they might be stupid. It’s always somebody else who’s stupid, right? I know I don’t like thinking that.


  7. wrather #

    AND the situation is a lot more complicated when one of your guy’s central claims is that he practices a “new kind of politics” — presumably referring to the excesses of the Rove machine.

    Though I guess there’s nothing quite so old as promising something new.


  8. Gab #

    Funny that- Obama himself may not necessarily mudsling and such, but some of his followers are pretty darn Rovistic (I just made that word up). At the Democratic caucus here in Las Vegas, the Obama supporters were flat-out bullies– one literally grabbed my arm and tried to pull me to their area and away from the Hillary one (yes, I supported Hillary). They were getting in everyone’s faces, partcilarly the face of the man taking the head-counts, trying to get him to count people that weren’t there (which, naturally, does not fly with a head-count, since “head-count” means counting the number of heads present– and if the person isn’t there, unless something really sick is going on, neither is their head). I saw lots of intimidation tactics, and security could only do so much: by the time the rent-a-cop got close enough, the person up in mah (or someone else’s)grill would have backed up enough to play dumb. Some people that supported other candidates were clearly scared into either converting to Obama’s group or leaving altogether just to avoid confrontation. Reports of this kind of behavior were tepid at best, but it occurred all over the country during the primary season, and I genuinely think it had at least a slight contributing factor in some of his victories (like why the eff did he get North Dakota?!).

    I suppose it’s sort of like the expelling of the Muslim girls from the photo-op: he didn’t give the order, it was the overzealous cult members that did. Regardless, it’s his campaign and he needs to be in control of what goes on. None of this “hands clean” BS. If he’s going to be Commander in Chief, he needs to think of his campaign like an Administration– everything his underlings do is a reflection upon him.

    But let’s not talk about that. Obama is different, right? Change!!! CHANGE!!!

    (Disclaimer: I don’t like McCain, either, so this is by no means a passive endorsement of him. He and his people have said some pretty stupid stuff about Obama in the past few days in their panic over Obama’s trip to the Holy Land.)


  9. fenzel OTI Staff #

    And here we see “the demonizing of the other” in full force :-)


  10. Gab #

    I guess as a Hillary supporter, I did sort of fit that otherizing attitude. I suppose I didn’t think of her tactics as dirty so much as just not as subtle as the others– more direct. No beating around the bush and insinuating about stuff; and more traditional and less high-and-mighty. All this I, and others, thought made her campaign better, gave it more integrity, which kind of nullifies the not-as-high-and-mighty part, eh? I could go on for-ev-ar about how sexist the media and other candidates’ campaigns were (and my opinion that they were as such has not changed, even though she is no longer in the running– looking back at the coverage, it’s obscene), but the relevance isn’t great enough to merit it.

    But honestly, as they’re doing it, who admits they’re doing not-so-nice things? I can only think of one person: BATMAN.*

    *I assume you’ve seen TDK by now.


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