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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New Yorker Cover

People are talking about this week's New Yorker cover, too many to try to link to. Both Barry Blitt, the cartoonist, and New Yorker editor David Remnick responded to the immediate outcry on Huffington Post. The Obama campaign called the cartoon "tasteless and offensive." Remnick insists the cartoon "hold[s] up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings" of some on the right about the Obamas, that it is a satire not of Obama, but "about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama." And Obama supporters are threatening to cancel their subscriptions or to stop buying the magazine. Jack Shafer offers comments at Slate, noting that people from all institutions--both campaigns, the press, and the public--seem to be offended by this.



Of course this is satire. It is obviously a ridiculous mash-up of all the inconsistent and incoherent smears about the Obamas. In fact, standing alone the notion of Barack as a bin-Laden-supporting Muslim fundamentalist sharing political sensibilities with Michelle as a 70s-era Black Panther militant is absurd. I can imagine Saturday Night Live or Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert doing something like this. But I join with liberal blogger John Cole in admitting to being tone deaf for these sorts of issues. For my part, my free-speech instincts kick-in. And one fundamental principle of free speech is that we ought not censor speech because some in the audience may misinterpret it--especially when it takes a certain amount of ignorance or willful blindness to misinterpret this. And especially with cartoons, a medium whose purpose is to "mock and dismiss the content" of its target. Shafer quotes a great line from Boss Tweed, who was more concerned with Nast cartoons lampooning him than with written criticism--"My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!"

Some thoughts after the jump.

First, in trying to identify this as satire or not (and thus to decide whether it truly is tasteless and offensive), context matters. Our experience with the New Yorker, its cartoons, and Barry Blitt cartoons in particular squarely pegs this as satire, especially combined with the magazine's left-leaning politics. In fact, in context, it should be clear that the cartoon supports Obama and mocks those who spread or believe the crazy noise about Obama's religion, politics, and patriotism. And I think this responds to the "what would have happened if this had been on FoxNews or the Weekly Standard or the National Review" objection. The same image has a very different meaning in those contexts, both because of political leanings and because of the magazine's history with the cartoon medium. This cartoon is making fun of Fox and Limbaugh and those who get their information from them.

Second, the problem seems to be a fear that a lot of people will see the cartoon and believe it an accurate depiction rather than a joke. More sinisterly, the lefty blogosphere fears that the GOP, conservative media and blogs, and GOP true-believers will use this to perpetuate the worst rumors, fears, and smears about the Obamas among those easily fooled among the masses--"see, even the New Yorker is reporting this stuff about the Obamas, so it must be true." But none of this renders the picture tasteless and offensive; what is tasteless and offensive is how some ill-informed people might understand the cartoon. Again, this is an argument that the New Yorker should watch what it says (or how it says it) because people are stupid and may misinterpret or misuse it. Shafer puts it succinctly: "Calling on the press to protect the common man from the potential corruptions of satire is a strange, paternalistic assignment for any journalist to give his peers, but that appears to be what The New Yorker's detractors desire."

Third, in his well-received speech to AIPAC in June, Obama said the following:

I also want to mention that I know some have been receiving provocative emails that have been circulated throughout the Jewish communities across the country and a few of you may have gotten them. They’re filled with tall-tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for President and all I want to say is let me know if you see this guy named Barak Obama because he sounds pretty scary.

I think this got a laugh line, as intended. It seems to me this cartoon is a visual representation of all those tall tales, ridiculing them precisely as Obama did in the speech, only visually rather than verbally.

Fourth, and somewhat related, the Obama campaign last month made a show of establishing a rapid-response area on its web site, where false slams about Islam and lapel pins and the Pledge of Allegiance could be quickly addressed and rebutted. Some asked whether this was a good strategy, since in order to rebut the falsehood the campaign must repeat the falsehood, and may, incidentally, help it spread. This cartoon again seems to be doing the same thing--rebutting the stories (through humor and ridicule), but perhaps incidentally calling attention to them. So what is the difference? Is it the use of humor as opposed to a direct, serious response? Again, the objection becomes "people won't get the joke." Is it the source--the campaign itself as opposed to an outside commentator?

Fifth, I think the worst thing that can be said about the cartoon is that it does not work--it is not funny or biting or out there. That is Drum's basic point. But that is the great risk when using humor as a rhetorical device--a point that came out in the comments to Dave's discussion last week about judges and professors using humor in legal writing. The question is whether failed humor morphs into serious comments, and thereby becomes offensive and outrageous, or whether it simply remains bad humor. I hope the latter. Humor and satire fails all-too-often. If the satirist must hesitate less the satire fail and be taken as a serious, thus offensive, assertion, satire will disappear as a mode of criticism.

Finally, the image on the right is courtesy of Napsterization, responding to Drum's suggestion that a really gutsy cartoon would have featured McCain imagining the scene as the way he wants the country to view Obama. This version would have made it clearer that the target of the satire was the right-wing belief in, or hope for, this image of the Obamas, and not at the Obamas themselves. I do like the remixed version. But the need for it reflects a different version of the stupid-people-are-going-to-misunderstand-this criticism--don't withhold the image, but make the image so much more obvious and less subtle so people can't misunderstand.

I welcome anyone to tell me why I am wrong.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 15, 2008 at 07:20 AM in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Law and Politics | Permalink


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I don't want to belabor the point, Howard, and I apologize if this is going on too long. But I think we're talking past one another. Let me try to explain more explicitly what my question-about-slash-objection-to your post is, to see if that helps us engage.

As I read it, you are making two claims here, which stand in uneasy relation to one another. I find one unconvincing, and the other muddled. I've mostly been trying to press you for more explanation on the one I think is muddled.

The claim that takes up most of your post is an interpretive claim -- those who criticze the cartoon are wrong in their interpretation(s) of it, for the reasons you set forth in the paragraphs after the jump. I'm not convinced by your analysis, but so be it. People disagree about interpretations all the time.

But you frame that post with this lead-in about censorship and free speech that strikes me as a different point, and one that has no necessary relation to the interpretive point. And I can't follow what you are saying here. You write statements like "I am not suggesting that the campaign is not perfectly within its realm to criticize the magazine" and "I am not arguing that critics do not have a right to criticize the cartoon or to express their criticism as they see fit." I think we agree about that.

But what I've been trying to say (and I think Jummy as well) is that those sentiments seem contradicted by the sentence I quoted above, and by statements like "But free-speech principles should guide us in defining the type of public debate that we want and one of those principles should be a rejection of the assumption that the audience will not miss the humor (or the attempt at humor) and thus certain things should not be said or should not be said in a certain way" and "seek to eliminate from public debate" and "appropriate scope of public debate."

So in addition to saying "hey, critics, you are incorrect in your interpretation of the cartoon," you also seem to be saying (and elsewhere implying) that those critics are trying to shut down debate, or are acting outside the "appropriate scope of public debate."

I don't think the free speech point has anything to do with the interpretive point, so you don't need it. And the free speech point is made in a self-contradictory way, so maybe you're not trying to assert it as a fully reasoned claim.

But you wrote what you wrote, and I've been simply trying to get you to articulate how the two things go together.

Posted by: Just a lawyer | Jul 16, 2008 11:34:18 AM

Because if you truly favor "free-speech principles", then you recognize that the manner in which one chooses to express him or herself - by definition - cannot be "incorrect", normatively or otherwise.

Posted by: jimmy | Jul 16, 2008 10:46:54 AM

Why? As I have said twice before, I am not arguing that critics do not have a right to criticize the cartoon or to express their criticism as they see fit. I am arguing that their criticism is wrong. And I reach that conclusion based on free-speech principles and what I believe is the appropriate scope of public debate. Critics of the cartoon would say my defense is wrong, based on some principles of equality, racial/religious sensitivity, and the need to avoid offense. No one is stopping anyone from speaking.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 16, 2008 10:30:00 AM

"But free-speech principles should guide us in defining the type of public debate that we want..."

Why? As I noted before, the critics of the cover have just as much of a right to express their criticism in whatever manner they see fit, as did the New Yorker to publish the cover in the first instance. Imposing so-called "free-speech principles" simply serves to favor certain forms of speech over others.

If you are truly looking to foster "free-speech principles", then the suggestion that certain manners of speech are "normatively incorrect" is a non sequitur.

Posted by: jimmy | Jul 16, 2008 9:02:23 AM

Malloy is exactly right. The satire works because it strikes a nerve about something that isn't be true, but isn't exactly nonsensical either, and many of Obama's supporters are exquisitely touchy about anything that conceivably might throw their candidate in anything other than a holier-than-holy light. They're worried that the middle of the country -- fools that they are -- won't understand the New Yorker's subtleties (see, e.g., the op-ed in today's NYT, "They Get It"). I'm sure we all understand the subtleties of the cartoon all too well -- and not just in the sense that it pokes fun at Joe six-pack's boorish misconceptions.

Posted by: anon | Jul 16, 2008 8:06:59 AM

But free-speech principles should guide us in defining the type of public debate that we want and one of those principles should be a rejection of the assumption that the audience will not miss the humor (or the attempt at humor) and thus certain things should not be said or should not be said in a certain way. I was using the word censorship loosely. So let's amend the sentence you focus on to "we ought not seek to eliminate from public debate speech because some in the audience may misinterpret." And again, I am not saying that the Obama campaign is not within its rights to criticize. I am trying to argue that its position is normatively incorrect.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 16, 2008 7:51:35 AM

"For my part, my free-speech instincts kick-in. And one fundamental principle of free speech is that we ought not censor speech because some in the audience may misinterpret it--especially when it takes a certain amount of ignorance or willful blindness to misinterpret this."

Howard, who is proposing to censor anyone? I don't understand why this issue implicates your "free-speech instincts" at all.

Posted by: Just a lawyer | Jul 16, 2008 12:44:34 AM

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. Otherwise, the satire would utterly roll off the Obamoids’ backs, having no impact.

Posted by: Malloy | Jul 15, 2008 11:19:18 PM

There is no First Amendment issue here and I was not making a First Amendment point. No one is suggesting that the *government* could stop the magzinge from using this cover. And I am not suggesting that the campaign is not perfectly within its realm to criticize the magazine. I was trying to make a point about how we ought to view the cartoon (not as a constitutional matter, but as a societal matter) and why, in my view, seeing it as offensive and objectionable, as opposed to satirical and actually supportive of Obama, misunderstands the piece.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 15, 2008 9:24:00 PM

Unless I missed the announcement of the "Don't Make Fun of Presidential Candidates Act of 2008," I don't see what the First Amendment has to do with this issue. Maybe I'm missing something, but I would think that criticizing a magazine editor for what you believe is his poor editorial judgment is itself reflective of free speech values.

(For the record, I'm not offended by the cover, but I also don't think it's funny or clever.)

Posted by: Just a lawyer | Jul 15, 2008 3:58:16 PM

Here is the solution. The New Yorker holds a cartoon contest for those offended by the Obama cover. Anyone offended by the cover can submit their own cartoon. The subject of the cartoon must be the editorial board and cartoonists at the New Yorker. Barack and Michelle Obama get to pick the winner.

The winning cartoon goes on the cover of the New Yorker, with no changes or captions added by the magazine. Even if the winning cartoon plays off stereotypes that those who run the New Yorker might have a bit of self-inflation regarding their own sophistication, coupled with a pre-Copernican sensibility about what lies at the center of the universe (as I remember, this was celebrated by the magazine itself in one of its memorable cartoons, back when they were funny).

If the First Amendment is a two way street, if this row is about people's senses of humor and ability to withstand a poke of satire, and if the goose/gander rule applies on both sides of the pen, this seems fair.

Then again, maybe I'm just being satiric.


Posted by: Charlie Martel | Jul 15, 2008 11:58:34 AM

The only thing tasteless and offensive is the extent to which left is loudly proclaiming its clear disdain and distrust of the ignorant masses.

Also, this fake controversy seems largely designed to spread a (false) proposition implicit in almost all of the criticism of the cartoon: that the McCain campaign is propagating claims that the Obama's are flag-burning Islamic terrorists. Compare the McCain campaign's approach to the use of Obama's middle name with the approach of the Clinton campaign.

Posted by: not voting for either of them | Jul 15, 2008 11:49:38 AM

I would agree that the cover should not be censored under the First Amendment, but I also believe that the Obama campaign and other media outlets equally have the First Amendment right to criticize the cover.

Posted by: jimmy | Jul 15, 2008 10:33:08 AM

Far and away the best analysis of the salient issues I've read to date (and I can't imagine one more thorough, at least in the context of a blog post). Thanks.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 15, 2008 9:10:02 AM

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