Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I can't say I remember the Fifties from when they happened; when they happened, I was in grammar school. I remember the nuclear duck-and-cover drills (yeah, right. Even at the age of 11 I thought that was pretty weird.); I remember everyone freaking out over Sputnik. But most of the current events I read about, I got from Scholastic magazine, or whatever it was.

Later, I began to read about the Cold War, and the Communists, and the loyalty oaths, and the Hollywood blacklists, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Anyone else remember HUAC? And Joe McCarthy? I thought you did.

In those halcyon days, you didn't need any proof to destroy a man's career. All you needed was an accusation - "He's a Commie." (Do we hear echoes of the Salem witch trials? We should.) At that point, the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty went out the window, and the accused was in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative. "You're a Commie." "No, I'm not." "Yes, you are." And then what? Usually, the accused ... lost his job. And didn't get another.

I'm thinking about all this because of the appalling cover on the New Yorker, showing Michelle Obama in fatigues and an ammo belt, and Barack Obama in a turban and robe, doing what Fox News really did call a "terrorist fist-jab." (Note to Michelle: next time, do a high five.) No, I don't think the New Yorker really thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist. I also don't think the New Yorker staff devoted any thought to the fact that there's a small (I hope it's small) but visible group of uninformed people out there who really do think that Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Or, at least, a Muslim. I heard one of them being interviewed on NPR, just the other day - a member of "Latinas for McCain."

I can't find it right now, but I read someone quoting BHO telling some idiot interviewer that it isn't an insult to call someone a Muslim; and I wanted to cheer. One of the things that encourages me about his campaign is the web site, - he's actually trying to fight the rumors about him with facts. Wotta concept: a Presidential candidate who thinks he can reason with the American people. I hope he's right.

What is it about us as a society, that makes us create some Awful Thing to fear, and then accuse people we don't like of being part of the
Awful Thing, so that they're in the position of having to prove - that they are innocent. Our legal system says, we have to prove the accused is guilty. But we don't believe it, or at least we don't act like we believe it. Witch. Royalist. Kraut (WWI). Nazi (WWII). Commie. And now - Muslim terrorist. (Disclaimer: there was no attempt to make this a complete list.) And once the accusation is raised, it's up to the accused to convince us, who already believe it, that we're wrong.

We'd be much nicer people if we didn't behave this way. And I don't think we'd be any less safe.

But next time - do a high five.


  1. Hedera:

    David Remnick, the Editor in Chief of The New Yorker, was interviewed last night on Charlie Rose. He made is quite clear that they ran the cover in order to engage the public about the myths and falsehoods which have been spread by enemies of the Obama campaign. The New Yorker is publicly, and firmly, behind Obama's candidacy.

    The problem may be that the cartoon--which is after all what it was--probably didn't work. Imagine if The New Yorker had tried to make a cartoon to counter the lies of the "Swift Boat" accusations during the Kerry campaign four years ago. Very difficult thing to do.

    Cartoons attempting to expose or satirize lies or corruption can't be too complicated. I found this one of Obama and his wife just kind of bizarre and surreal. If, for instance, you want to show someone is really a sheep in wolf's clothing, it probably doesn't work actually to SHOW the sheep in the wolf's head, because that associates the sheep with the opposite of what you're trying to imply. Images are much more powerful than subtle counter-intuitive apprehensions.

    That said--I think we need to defend the right of the Press to make mistakes, and to attack people, responsibly, along political lines.

    I'm no big Obama fan, but the cover made me squeamish anyway. His best reaction should have been to just let it be; to stand above the fray and condescend by ignoring it. Which is, more or less, after a little time to think it over, what he did.

    It think it was a gaffe in taste, too. Just putting Obama in a cartoon suggesting Muslim trappings may have been just dumb and crude.

    It's the kind of thing I would have expected of Tina Brown, not David Remnick.

  2. I don't think I suggested, anywhere, that the New Yorker shouldn't have published whatever they choose to publish. They have as much right to make a fool of themselves in public as any of us; and they have a record of publishing really, really useful articles (Seymour Hirsch's investigative pieces often run there), for which I'm willing to forgive them a lot. I think we agree that this particular attempt at satire didn't work the way they expected it to.

    I was thinking last night that in the glory days of the New Yorker, under Harold Ross, while they might well have put up a cover on a controversial subject (the Wikipedia article quotes Ross' famous comment that the magazine "is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque") , I don't believe they'd have run that cartoon. It does feel more like a Tina Brown effort, doesn't it? You got it right: it's just in bad taste; and I usually associate the New Yorker with better taste than that.

    Another blogger I follow, Linkmeister, picked up on something I completely missed, maybe you spotted it: wanna bet the drawing of Michelle Obama was a deliberate back reference to Angela Davis?