By now you have either seen or heard about the cover of the latest issue of the New Yorker. Barack Obama is depicted in Middle Eastern dress, and his wife Michelle carries an automatic rifle. From all quarters, including the Obama campaign, objections that the whole thing is scurrilous have been loudly raised. Everyone is indignant. The magazine’s response is that we don’t get it. As a caricature of what goes on in the supposedly fevered imagination of those of us who probably won’t vote for Obama, the cover art is aimed at us, not him.
I wonder. Another thing you’ve probably seen a lot of in your life is projection that takes the convoluted form of someone exaggerating a flaw or fault in order to demonstrate that he’s not fazed by your thinking he’s flawed in that particular respect or guilty of that particular wrongdoing. And, we are meant to infer, he’s not fazed because it isn’t true—he’s not really overweight or unaware or slow, and really he’s innocent. And, if we hadn’t really been thinking about him in those terms, well, we do now.
To be fair, we have to recognize that, just because he thinks we think he’s a monster doesn’t necessarily mean he thinks he is. Maybe it just means that he thinks we think he is. When William F. Buckley in 1955 wrote that National Review “stands athwart history, yelling Stop,” he was articulating, in order to expose, the liberal prejudice that to be conservative is to be reactionary. He was employing something of the same rhetorical device on display this week at the New Yorker, so why do those words of his continue to charm, whereas this cartoon grates?
Buckley snuck in an inside pitch and we backed off the plate a little. You tip your hat to him for his finesse. The New Yorker, by contrast, is throwing it at our heads, and the umpire in us recognizes the difference.
That much, evidently, the Obama campaign appreciates. In showing us what it thinks we think, the New Yorker feeds our suspicion that the culture represented by the Obama campaign has contempt for us—that it thinks we have questions about Obama not because of his positions on Israel (a “contiguous” Palestinian state?) or abortion, but because we are blinded by ignorance, bigotry, bad taste.
Under William Shawn’s long editorship, the magazine was famously courteous about politics. You got the sense that most of the writers and editors were left of center but that they would never make fun of you if you weren’t. The tacit understanding was that, besides being wrong, any attempt to taunt or bully you into accepting fashionable opinion would have degraded them more than you.