Adam Mansbach 2008

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing 



The New Yorker’s cover cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama is no longer headline news, which means that the time has come to unpack what the controversy meant. One of the drawbacks of a frenetic, 24-hour news cycle is the loss of perspective it engenders; controversies come and go, dominating the discourse one minute and topping the trash heap the next.  They don’t remain news-worthy long enough for their implications to be thoroughly examined.

There are, it seems to me, two points of interest here.  First is the relationship between Americans and a tool vital to the health and survival of a democracy: satire.  Throughout our history, some of the most biting political critiques, incisive works of art, and necessary entertainments have been satires.  Through absurdity, truth is revealed.  By provoking laughter, we convince.  Through the playful enactment of extremism, we locate reason – from Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal all the way to Chappelle’s Show.

Satire requires an educated populace, well-informed and reasonable enough to tell the difference between humor and reportage.  The United States in 2008 may not be such a place.  Our televised news is so partisan that many of us turn to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report ­– programs aired on a comedy station – for news.  The idea of a country that gets its information from comedians is a great idea for a satire, but it doesn’t inspire great confidence in the ability to understand one.

The fear engendered by the New Yorker cartoon seems to be that people ­– and by ‘people,’ we are meant to understand ‘people who do not read the New Yorker’ – would confuse a caricature meant to exaggerate and expose a lie with a caricature meant to exaggerate the truth. Naturally, this fear is held by the people who do get it, it being both the cartoon and the magazine itself.

On one hand, it is a reasonable fear, given the persistence of misinformation about Obama’s identity as a ‘secret Muslim’ (credit Colbert with the term), the contentiousness of this election season, and the shaky national appreciation of satire. 

On the other, the fear smacks of just the kind of aloofness Obama has been accused of, first by Hillary Clinton and now by the Republican party.  It’s not his fear, mind you, but he did the right thing by laughing the whole matter off.  Locked in a ridiculous battle over his supposed elitism ­– against a man who owns nine homes! – the last thing Obama needs is New Yorker readers coming to his defense.

That the readers of a liberal, Northeastern, arugula-eating magazine, the kind that publishes fiction and poetry and ten-thousand word features – I’m a subscriber, by the way – are worried that the joke is too sophisticated for the common folk is only part of the problem.  Equally revealing is their skewed impression of the New Yorker’s importance in the larger world.  In reality, it is merely a totem of a demographic Obama will win in a landslide. 

Swing voters? The much-vaunted working class whites Hillary did so many whiskey shots with in Pennsylvania bars?  They only saw the cover on the news.  And if they’re watching the channels that got off on showing Michelle and Barack heating their house by burning the American flag in the fireplace, they’re probably out of reach anyway.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing