Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Obamas: The Reality.
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Looking Ahead

For weeks now, the polls in individual states have shown Obama as surprisingly strong, especially in states where Republicans usually win by a lot. Now this strength is starting to show up in national polls---including a 7 point edge in Reuters, and 8 points in Washington Post/ABC News. The Quinipiac and Post/ABC polls have Obama at 50%--and anything over 50% indicates strength that could become insurmountable.

With enthusiasm numbers continuing to be high for Obama and low for McCain, there must be increasing comfort with Obama, and not completely a reaction against Bush and Republicans, especially on the economy.

I heard Barbara Boxer say on TV that she wished the election were tomorrow, and there's good reason for that. The numbers guys at FiveThirtyEight figure that if the election were held today, Obama would win in a blowout, with 303 electoral votes. But their projections show a slightly tighter race by November, though Obama still wins comfortably, with 293 EVs.

It remains likely, then, that Obama has to screw up, or some distortions take hold, for him to lose. But there is still the possibility--harped on endlessly on the hot air networks--that voters don't know him well enough yet to be comfortable with him.

That's about to end. Soon, Obama will be heading overseas, and the crowds he will get in Europe will ensure big media coverage here. If he confers with leaders in the Middle East and Iraq, that too will make news. After all, all three broadcast network anchors will be on the trip.

Then comes the announcement of the vice presidential candidate, and then the Democratic convention the last week of August, where Obama will speak to 75,000 on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. Millions will see this.

The contrast of John McCain and the Republican convention will be obvious. McCain will also have a birthday that week, and so everyone will know about his age.

Then the fall campaign, and above all, the debates. Expect a different debater than you saw in the Democratic primaries, where Obama did not want to go at fellow Democrats too hard.

There is the possibility as well that McCain will do or say something while really in the spotlight--at a debate for instance--that will finally focus attention on his appalling unfitness for the presidency. Maybe the media will even start reporting the views of those who feel he is temperamentally unfit--that he would be dangerous as Commander-in-Chief.

It seems possible to me that the fall campaign will see another wave of enthusiasm for Obama, as happened several times during the primaries, but bigger. In which case, the media may finally stop looking for reasons to doubt him, and it may even expose McCain.

Okay, I've been looking for another rapturous campaign since I was a starry-eyed 14 when JFK ran in 1960. Ever since I've paid my dues in blood, sweat and lots of tears, waiting. Now I'd like another one, please. And if I get it in the next several months, you better believe I am going to eat it up, and enjoy every moment. Yes, we can.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Seeing is Believing

The damage done to Barack Obama by the New Yorker cover won't be fully known until November 4. I will predict this: on November 3 and 4, that image will reappear in thousands if not millions of email in-boxes and mail boxes, so that a large number of voters will go to the polls with that image in their heads.
Because in this culture, seeing is believing.

There have been a lot of arguments made defending this cover on the basis of freedom of speech, press, expression, which to my mind completely miss the point. No government or corporation either suppressed that image, or forced anyone to print it. That cover was printed because of an editorial decision, which in my view was a very bad and irresponsible decision. Bad enough that the editors in question should resign, because they don't have the judgment to justify their jobs.

Let's go through the arguments that excuse the publication of that cover, and then why I believe it was irresponsible to print it.

Free Press, Expression, etc.

I know something about censorship, because I was censored. I was a columnist for a weekly youth-oriented newspaper in the late 80s, suddenly forbidden to write anything more about a subject I'd been covering, smoking and health, cigarette advertising, especially aimed at young people. I was forbidden to write about it because the paper started taking cigarette advertising from two big companies, and one of them specifically forbade any anti-smoking copy. Because I wrote such a column, and it was suppressed, I resigned, at considerable personal cost.

I got no political support for my action. At the time, being censored by a corporation was apparently too complicated a concept. Most people thought it was my own fault. It made perfect sense to them that the company paying for ads could control editorial content. And most of the time, they can. That's realistic. But it's also a real threat to a free press.

So I am aware of how elusive the concept can be. But I don't see it as the issue here. The New Yorker editors choose their covers. Nobody forced them to choose this one, and nobody said that they couldn't choose it. But to say they shouldn't choose it, and should pay the price for a serious misjudgment, is another matter.

They had many potential covers to choose from, I'm sure. Not everybody's idea or drawing gets to be expressed on the cover. And those whose covers aren't chosen, are not being censored. There's no free expression issue here.

I've been an editor. The job is to make judgments. In suggesting that New Yorker editors should have exercised better judgment, that their decision was seriously wrong in many ways, is a perfectly legitimate position.


The cover is justified as satire. I'm sure Don Imus justified his "nappy headed" comment as humor. That's not good enough. Especially when racial imagery and other inflammatory images are used.

I don't doubt it was meant as satire. But part of the reason it is so offensive is that it is so clumsy and ill-conceived that it functions less as satire than as incendiary imagery.

Political caricature is usually about the people depicted. The only interpretation of this drawing as satire is that it is not about the Obamas but about what some people say or believe about the Obamas. That's already a step removed. The usual way to view this is as something about the Obamas themselves. That's how such images are "read." That's how they work.

There are other complications. For example, everyone is familiar with the imagery of the fist-bump between the Obamas. The fact that it happened seems to justify what else is pictured. The fist-bump was true. The rest must be true. (I'm told someone on TV made this point Monday.) That may not be a reasoned interpretation. But seeing is believing.

It's Art

Is the artist responsible for how everyone will interpret an image? I've heard that argument made. The answer is that the artist is not. But the New Yorker cover is not a venue for art in the same way as a gallery or museum. It is the cover of a prestigious magazine that contains high level journalism within it. The New Yorker articles used to be called "fact pieces." The person who decides what goes on the cover is not an art curator, but the editor of the magazine.

Is the artist responsible for how everyone will interpret an image? No--but in this case, it is the duty of the editor to consider how everyone could interpret that image. This is an image depicting one of two major candidates for President of the United States, in arguably the most important election since at least 1932. It is imagery that evokes racial if not racist stereotypes.

It puts in visual imagery a number of false charges made against the Obamas, which apparently a significant percentage of American voters believe. These lies no longer have to be explained to them. They can now see them--as Rachel Madow said, in one handy 8x10.

It doesn't take a contemporary brain scientist or psychologist to know that imagery can be incendiary. Though one such scientist has already criticized even the Obama campaign's web site refuting these lies as keeping them alive just by repeating them. If words are that powerful, how about making a picture out of them?

This also comes into play when viewing this as satire. Those who read the New Yorker regularly may know that in recent years it has published covers of political satire. But on the other hand, this is not Mad Magazine. It is a serious magazine, and this cover is serious political comment. Therefore, the political interpretation of the cover should be a serious concern for the editors.

Of course some people will look at the picture and see how ridiculous these lies are. Perhaps some proportion of those people will have believed or half-believed those lies before, although I suspect that most people who get the joke already know they are lies. Otherwise, why would it be funny?

But I suspect that some people are going to look at this picture and be scared out of their wits. It may reflect back their own racial bias, or simply their fear of people who aren't exactly like them. But they no longer have to make a picture in their mind based on lies they would have to take time to read or listen to. Now they can just see it. And seeing is believing.

Political Correctness

Some make the argument that this cover is just like the Daily Show or Steven Colbert, and that to condemn this cover is just political correctness gone wild. Personally I believe this imagery is more in the Imus realm than the Colbert. The context comes into play here as well. Colbert has created a character in a TV show. This image is on the cover of a prestigious magazine with serious--and presumably sincere--political content. Colbert is on television, and his show is available only if you seek it out. This cover will be available as a virtual handbill before this campaign is out. The editors should have understood this.


The defense given by David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, suggests to me a remarkable tunnel vision--you know, like the Lincoln Tunnel. He must know he is editing a magazine for more than New York intellectuals. He must know, or should have known, that this image would be seen by millions around the country and around the world on the Internet and TV, and he should have realized that it would be used by Obama opponents to depict the Obamas precisely as they are pictured.

This alone--considering the inflammatory racial and political imagery--should have told the New Yorker editors that publishing this on the cover was a very, very bad idea.

They should have known that the cover image is especially powerful, and therefore this was an especially important decision. Many thousands more people, perhaps millions more, will see this image than will read the articles on Obama inside. They can't be blind to the power of images in this country, this society--especially simple, emotional images, such as those using racial images--Muslims (the stereotyped enemy, the Other), Black Muslims (to be feared, like those black prisoners on TV), 60s revolutionaries (Black Power, Communists)and beneath it all, the first black candidate for President.

They should have known that this cover could become a powerful partisan weapon to defeat a particular candidate, and that it would become a powerful if not totally predictable factor in this presidential election, and that fact alone should have told them what an important decision they were making. But their statements tell me otherwise. They either didn't think it through, or they didn't care.

An important task and responsibility of the editor is to judge whether the editorial content communicates what it intends to communicate to the publication's audience. In my view, the editors have failed in this task. The most basic failure is that they apparently believed this image is so ridiculous that it exposes how unbelievable the lies about the Obama are. Some people will respond in that way. But many will not. To assume that this image communicates that message is a serious misjudgment.

There should have been enough doubts, enough red flags to call printing this into question, and then the stakes they are playing with--the presidency of the United States, and no less than the fate of the planet--should have weighed heavily in their decision. That it did not demonstrates arrogance as well as misjudgment.

I believe it is a serious enough failure that they should resign. I believe it is a serious enough act that I will boycott the magazine, and urge others to do the same.

I call on New Yorker writers and others in the New York and national press to protest this cover. But I don't expect this will happen. Even those who believe it is a serious and perhaps even a morally serious error, are unlikely to say so. The New Yorker and its parent corporation, Conde Naste, are too powerful. They have friends involved. They have paychecks to worry about.

Besides they can always shout about freedom of expression, and art and satire and political correctness, and people will snap to attention, afraid to be charged with supporting a fascist America, as I already have been at Daily Kos. Anything to divert from what they've actually done.

This controversy will probably die down in a day or two, if it hasn't already. We will have fresh disasters to consider. But that doesn't mean this cover will go away, not really.

I think you'll see it again, much closer to the election. You can believe me or not... but seeing is believing.

That's my take. Here's what Obama said about it to Larry King.

Update: Of the commentaries I read, this one makes the most sense to me, especially his ideas for a satirical cover that would have made the same point but with clarity--and it would have been funny: a couple watching the Obamas on TV, she sees them as JFK and Jackie, while he sees them as...

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Cover

The New Yorker cover is discussion #1 on the hot air networks. To gauge response to something like this, you have to remember that journalists and editors especially who are being interviewed are themselves gauging how much they can afford to offend the New Yorker and its owner, Conde Nast, and which way is the wind blowing among their colleagues they will depend on for jobs and support.

On the other hand, this Kos diary expresses my point of view pretty cogently (except I don't necessarily agree that the New Yorker was trying to hurt the Obama campaign), and it is supported by the longest list of recommenders I've ever seen there.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Circus is in Town--but is Anybody Watching?

Last week was an amazing campaign circus. John McCain and his campaign made so many gaffes that they probably cancelled each other out. The Obama campaign wasn't running too smoothly either, as it creaks along in mostly fund-raising mode, trying to accumulate the means to wage a real campaign beginning next month. Although Obama did rise to the occasion with a zinger of a response to the Gramm/McCain "it's all in your mind" position on economic hardship.

As for the McCainite gaffes, take your pick: Social Security is a "disgrace," Americans are whiners about the recession that is "psychological," etc. etc. But the one gaffe that may have specific consequence was McCain's attempt to pander in Pittsburgh by reminiscing that while being interrogated as a prisoner of war, he "gave up" the names of the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line instead of his unit. Steelers blogs were apparently first to ferociously note that the great Steel Curtain didn't exist while McCain was a POW, and nobody in their right mind knew the defensive line of the Steelers in the 60s, when they were terrible. Moreover, McCain himself told this story in his autobiography--but the names he gave up were the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers, a team that had just won the Super Bowl.

McCain needs Pennsylvania to win the presidency, and to win PA he will need Pittsburgh. Now he's been caught pandering with a falsehood, but not just about anything--about the Steelers, perhaps the only thing that unites Pittsburghers and western Pennsylvania of all classes, races, ages and political parties. And to make matters worse for McCain, he went directly from Pittsburgh to...Green Bay.

This week is likely to begin with a media firestorm over the caricature of the Obamas on the cover of the New Yorker magazine. The Obama campaign calls its tasteless and offensive, and while obviously meant to be satiric, it is also made-to-order imagery for multiple areas of racism and prejudice. Personally, I can't conceive of New Yorker editors being this irresponsible, but they have been in this case. Is that famous New York tunnel vision so strong that they don't understand how people outside their little orbit of sophisticates are going to see this? This cover is incendiary.

It's possible that this will be a one day or one week tempest, but it could get a great deal bigger, resulting in the cover being withdrawn and/or editors resigning. An early sign will be whether distinguished writers for the New Yorker and other literary and journalistic names go public in condemning it. I'm quite sure that thousands of subscriptions will be cancelled, no matter how many copies of this issue might be sold. This is a sad, sad day for a magazine with such a rich history and tradition.

All that said, you have to wonder whether anybody outside of political obsessives are paying much attention. And that actually makes the New Yorker cover more dangerous. It says everything the bigots are purveying in their emails, but without depending on the recipients' even marginal literacy. No matter what happens now, that cover will be around for the rest of the campaign.

It's been a couple of weeks since the media hyped up some McCain propaganda to accuse Obama of changing his position on Iraq. Now Obama has an op-ed in the New York Times that uses last week's multiple assertions by Iraqi leaders that they want the U.S. out of Iraq to re-state his policy. He notes not too subtly what he has said "many times" about being as careful getting out as Bushites were careless getting in, and adjusting the plan according to circumstances. But the plan is to begin withdrawing troops and getting most of them out in 18 months. The op-ed ends:

"In this campaign, there are honest differences over Iraq, and we should discuss them with the thoroughness they deserve. Unlike Senator McCain, I would make it absolutely clear that we seek no presence in Iraq similar to our permanent bases in South Korea, and would redeploy our troops out of Iraq and focus on the broader security challenges that we face. But for far too long, those responsible for the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy have ignored useful debate in favor of making false charges about flip-flops and surrender.

It’s not going to work this time. It’s time to end this war. "