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Judging an Elitist by His Cover

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/obamabw.jpgSen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) (WDCpix)

Just before the New Yorker cover came out depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as black power/Muslim terrorists, I was telling someone how useless the term “elitist” was. It was one of several pejorative labels tossed at Obama, and it was pure epithet disguised as a descriptor. But of what? It describes nothing. It only rankles. It’s subject to so much modification in order to make sense — pedigree, social distance/indifference, unearned/unacknowledged privilege—that it’s useless except to impugn.

Then the cover appeared. It showed up first on the Internet; then in the corners of printed tabloids; next, in my city of New York, on the real cover of the magazine itself — hanging defiantly from clips along the tops of newsstands, baiting you as you passed or waited for a train or a light. That image.

Immediately, the rub was that all the electricity the cartoon elicited would travel quickly beyond the New York minutes and would enter the nooks and crannies of the country’s other time zones, where “the folks” would wrestle with it, and across the Western world, where ex-pats might wonder or explain. There, the meaning of its manifest vulgarity— depicting Michelle Obama as a Cleopatra Jones of anarchy; Barack Obama, defamed by, of all things, Islamic dress and linked once and for all with Osama bin Laden, burning (flag pins maybe, but whoever said anything about burning?) the American flag — would be up for grabs. To some, it will confirm and bring (dis)comfort. To others, a bold and uncanny satire. To The New Yorker, welcome controversy and wider relevance.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/picture_21.pngThe cover is destructive and misguided satire because viewers act on its meanings independently, with no guidance from the satirist. For me, it is not remotely funny. Within the four corners of the text (as the LitCrits used to say) is a series of visual statements, one more disgusting and unexplained than the last, that serve to ridicule the Obamas’ identities for reasons left to the viewer to sort out, with reference only to the meanings outside the frame. In their lives. With whatever inputs and analytical skills the viewer possesses.

I listened to a variety of journalists and experts on TV and in the blogosphere correct the public about The New Yorker’s true intent. I heard critic after critic of the magazine’s failed attempt at a political point talked down to, cut off. Finally, I looked again at the picture and felt the great queasiness of recognition.

I know the folks who did this. I went to school with them, work with them, dine with them, pass them in the halls of my children’s school. I know them well enough that they are almost me.

They are elitists, and you can know them by their smugness. Not only did they think this was funny and clever and smart in a pro-Obama way, but they figured that its edginess would separate the kindred readers who get it from the ignorant multitudes that would not. There was no shame in being misunderstood, just more confirmation of one’s place on a high intellectual perch. If the cover backfired — and is misused to promote more lies about Obama — that’s no stain on their judgment. They would get a pass because they can take a pass. In fact, all across the mainstream media, people like them decide who gets passes.

This is very Harvard, where I went to school; very New York City, where I live. Between then and now, I’ve watched the distance close between erudition and intellectual hipsterism. At stake is more than lattes and limos. It’s that the wit and wisdom of about a thousand white men (and women) from the Ivy League commands our political sensibilities and our sense of humor.

They do it in periodicals like The New Yorker, shows like “The Daily Show with Jon Stuart” and MSNBC’s tight rotation of 24-7 punditry on shows like the sanctimonious “Countdown with Keith Olberman.” Some of them shed all sentimentality for straight, impatient sarcasm, like Dennis Miller and Bill Maher. The older ones, like Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw, taught through measured gravitas.

Yet like the Beltway they mock, they cannot help but interview each other again and again in order to understand the world. From within the four-corners of this downtown/Hamptons exclusivity, they never venture far — unless it’s really, really far, like exotic.

If this were the way CEO rosters worked or law firms looked (it is), we’d protest (sometimes we do). But how we get our news, opinion and humor remains staunchly two-tiered — even in the digital age: A nearly all-white mainstream cognoscenti and a vast rough blogosphere full of diamonds. That is what we should be protesting now—the smug, insular composition of our information industries, not the especially insidious cover art they are occasionally bound to produce.

It could be that no one would watch those shows, or re-tell those jokes, or echo those political insights if they weren’t written, produced and delivered by hyper-educated white people. But I have my doubts.

If I know my elitist white friends as well as I think, they will respond with a lot of nervous “c’mons” and exceptions. “Obama has to be able to take a joke like every other politician.” “We ran it by ____ who’s black, and he laughed.” “OK, this time we goofed, but how often does that happen?” Then it is back on the offensive with the unjustifiable sensitivity of black people and the importance of a robust First Amendment.

There might even be something to all that. But for the remainder, there is still the distinct absence of diversity in those hallowed ranks where a whole new way of smart and funny is always waiting to happen.

You’re left to wonder: What else is going on behind our back?

**

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