The New Yorker's Archie Bunker lesson

by JS O’Brien

The New Yorker’s newest cover features Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House, an Osama bin Laden poster on the wall, the American flag burning in the fireplace, and Michelle in an Afro with an assault weapon slung over her shoulder.  Barack is in Middle Eastern garb.

The cover has drawn widespread outrage from both the right and left, with the left complaining that it reinforces smears already put forward by the right, and the right shouting that the New Yorker should also cover the smears circulating about John McCain (whatever those might be).

David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, told the Washington Post that, “It’s clearly a joke, a parody of these crazy fears and rumors and scare tactics about Obama’s past and ideology, and if you can’t tell it’s a joke by the flag burning in the Oval Office, I don’t know what more to say.”

David Remnick’s surprise doesn’t surprise me.  There’s a certain kind of liberal who lives amonst other liberals and never has a conversation with a conservative who doesn’t possess an Ivy League degree.  The rest of us know that the David Remnicks of the world live in a sterile bubble, but the David Remnicks think their world represents reality for the rest of us.

Let me try to explain it to you, David.

In the winter of 1971, CBS debuted what many believe was the most successful sitcom in history:  All in the Family.  The show starred veteran character-actor Carroll O’Connor as flaming bigot, Archie Bunker.  He voiced words like “spic,” “fag,” “dago,” “wop,” “chink,” and “spade.”  He made people angry and he made people laugh.  The show was clearly satire.  CBS announced before its first airing that it was satire.

And yet …

My memories of watching All in the Family in my home or other homes in Southside Virginia was that the white people around me laughed in all the wrong places.  Archie would make a grotesquely bigoted statement and get a round of laughter and applause from those watching with me.  “You tell ’em, Archie!” was a pretty common comment.  In my school, a popular T-shirt featured Carroll O’Connor hanging out of a bus and the words, “Archie’s freedom ride.”

The fact is, David, satire and parody work only when the topic can be taken so far to the extreme that everyone understands you are poking fun.  Sometimes, it’s impossible to do that.  For instance, how much farther could you have taken Nazi depictions of Jews, had you decided to ridicule Hitler in 1939?  How much farther could you take blackface and huge, white lips, banjos, and happy dancin’ feet?  How much more obese and shiny can the big mammies be?

David, you’re getting the reaction you’re getting because those of us who live in the rest of America — you know, the unimportant part to the west, north, and south of Manhattan — understand that you now have a cheering section screaming, “You get ’em New Yorker!” “Tell it like it is, New Yorker!” “Get the politically correcters, New Yorker!”  They believe in what you published on your cover.  You are simply giving them more reason to believe because they think you believe it.

And, no, David, they can’t tell it’s a joke by the American flag burning in the fireplace.  They’re dead serious about that.  And if you don’t know what more to say, then perhaps you need to find another profession.

I expect to see the New Yorker’s cover on a T-shirt any day.  What do you suppose the caption will be?

“Osama bin Obama for President” should do nicely.

7 replies »

  1. I’d expect to see “Obama bin Laden for President”, actually, but both will function just as well.

    I was happy to hear that the McCain campaign came out and said that the New Yorker cover was in poor taste. Unfortunately, as they’ll be the beneficiaries of the abysmally low-quality “satire” that was this cover, that statement is a safe one for them to make – they lose nothing and gain some sympathy supporters in the process.

  2. So, I’m puzzled JS by your contention that because most of the American People are only able to comprehend at less than a grade 3 level, the New Yorker should pander to them? I remember watching All in the Family as well, and explaining patiently to other members of my family and guests, the jokes, and why they would be considered such. Sounds to me like a teaching experience for those who would push one side or the other.
    But hey, Brian is right… McCain’s campaign can denounce this as well and perhaps gain the votes of more of the less intelligent citizens than otherwise.
    I just find it to be sad that everyone is in the glass half empty frame of mind. But that’s the nature of the beast I guess.

  3. vlad:

    What I was trying to say is that some things are already so far over the top that they can’t be parodied. How do you do a parody of Lavern and Shirley? How do you do a parody of Nazi propaganda about the Jews? In order for people to recognize parody, it has to go far over the top of what has already been done. The New Yorker didn’t do that. What they consider parody is just more of the same.

  4. Awesome – this is the first thing I’ve read that describes my feelings about this exactly. All day long the New Yorker staff and their apologists have been saying “It’s a joke – get it? Why don’t you get it? It’s a smart witty satire – don’t you see it?” They think the rest of us are morons because we aren’t laughing. They apparently think they are smarter than the average bear. But there’s nothing funny about this. Fox News demoted E.D. Hill for saying the fist bump was a terrorist handshake, and that was the right thing to do. If even Fox News understands why this imagery is wrong, then why does the New Yorker come along weeks later and plaster it on the cover?

    You know – you are right about Minstrel Shows and Mammies. That is the first thing I thought of when I saw this cover. They would never use those old racist images, but they don’t mind using these “new” racist images. I told my husband they might as well have shown Obama as a shoe-shine boy eating a watermelon. Honest to God – I am sick of some of the other news pundits (James Carville, Howard Fineman) saying we are overreacting to this – what planet are they from?

    Would they ever show a Jew in a prayer cloth burning a flag? Never! Would they show Tim Russert dressed like the Pope burning a Bible? After all, at his funeral people talked about what a devout Catholic he was, right? Get it? Of course not – it isn’t funny.

    Why kick Obama when he’s already besieged? The Hillaristas are angry because Obama isn’t paying enough homage (and campaign debt money) to their Queen. New Yorker should satirize them campaigning for McCain. Jesse Jackson just offered to cut off a vital part of Obama’s anatomy. Satirize him! Bush and McCain want to drill for oil everywhere – show them as the Beverly Hillbillies. There is a world of satire out there without undermining the campaign of the first Black Democrat to be the nominee.

    I really hope the New Yorker loses ad revenue from this debacle. They are so out of touch that it’s scary.

    Thanks for writing this ~ J. in Tenn.

  5. I’m tempted to say something glib like, “Irony is a lost art.” But, in fact, most people have never even found it.

    How many times have I made an ironic comment to someone I’ve never met before and been met with a blank stare? Despite increased interest in this year’s elections, it’s still a truism that you can never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the public.

  6. Welcome to the curse of my life, Russ. I guess I’ve cultivated a fairly sharp sense of the ironic through the years and routinely say things that people apparently don’t get. I’m always baffled – I mean, nobody could possibly say some of this stuff and be SERIOUS about it, so OF COURSE I’m being a wiseass.

    How many sentences has my wife begun with the words “I don’t think you realize…”