Twelve years ago, the New Yorker Magazine, widely known for its provocative cover art and writing, published its then-infamous but now hysterical cover, showing new President Barack Obama and wife Michelle, as Islamic terrorists, fist bumping each other in the Oval Office. Barack was dressed in a white robe, sandals and a white turban. Michelle sported a full-on Black Panther-style afro with an AK-47 slung over her shoulder suspended by a giant ammo belt. Topping off the outrage was an American flag burning in the fireplace with a portrait of Osama bin Laden hanging over the mantle…
To say this image caused an outrage to the “liberal community” is a massive understatement. Here, after the hardest and most unlikely political victory in memory, was a perfect portraiture of EXACTLY what conspiracy groups on the Right had, all the while, been warning America about! America just invited the dark-skinned terrorists right into the White House, and now the full extent of the wool that had been pulled over our heads had been yanked off! We’d been duped!
Liberals went crazy, conservatives rejoiced, and the New Yorker got hammered with complaints and cancellations.
Indeed, it was too much for me. Too over-the-top. Too tender a topic after having fought off these false images all through the campaign. Like tens of thousands of others, I too cancelled the New Yorker – along with my sharply worded letter of disgust.
Few know the New Yorker started life as a humor magazine. Lots of clever cartoons and funny but intelligent columns. And for this July 21, 2008, issue, someone way up in management let cover artist Barry Blitt swing for the fences. And he hit a Grand Slam political send-up for the ages.
Looking back, it made sense to lampoon Barack and Michelle on all the conspiracies of the time. Through humor, the absurdity of conspiracy theorists was made plain to all – all, except us thin-skinned ones. Time is the ultimate arbiter of humor and truth, and time has borne out just how absurd all those accusations of “Obama the Indonesian Islamic Terrorist” or “Michelle hating America” or the whole “Palling around with terrorists” conspiracies and memes of that time were.
Obama fought through the two George Bush Jr. wars. He killed bin Laden. He rescued America from the Great Recession. He maintained White House dignity. There were no scandals, no crimes, and rather remarkably in contrast, ZERO indictments of Obama staff vs. 215 indictments of Trump staff.
Through eight years, Obama proved a traditional American president, particularly well spoken, poised, kind and steady in the face of unrelenting racial and bigoted attacks. His keynote accomplishments of the American Recovery Act and Obamacare are valued still today. His and his family’s decency in conduct set a standard for future presidencies to match.
Nowadays, I see the tremendous ironic humor in that singular New Yorker cover. It’s hysterical, actually. In doing some research on other Barry Blitt New Yorker covers, I see that, indeed, Blitt similarly scorched politicians from all sides with equal nuclear power over the years. Obama was just one of many, but my thin skin did me in.
Even though the New Yorker was beloved to me and my family, back then, in 2008, I self-righteously cancelled the New Yorker in indignation, and quickly suffered missing all their clever humor, cartoons and columns. About a year later I swallowed my pride and resubscribed. I’ve been a reader ever since. (Note, I’ve been a Signal subscriber for 35-plus years, as well.)
Today, 13 years on from that infamous cover, due to the Rise of the Algorithms, you and I are both exposed and constrained to more and more of exactly what we want to see and hear in the media of our choice. Conservative? Watch Fox or OAN. Progressive? MSNBC or CNN. Turn on Facebook and your feed shows mostly only stuff the algorithm knows turns you on. Facebook and others suck you in to your own existing preferences, until that’s just about all you’re exposed to: exactly to your existing biases.
On issue after issue, our existing opinions are reinforced. Our walls against knowledge and diversity go up higher and stronger. Our villainization of “the other” becomes more extreme, and outrage and even violence more justified. Then one day, we get riots in the Capitol, doors and windows smashed open, five killed, America shamed the world over – and that’s just the most egregious outcome of today’s echo-chamber thought reinforcement. Shootings at churches, nightclubs, and targeted murders abound. Far less visible but far more widespread and damaging is our vastly increased ill-thinking of others, losing our humanity, decreasing our compassion, our lost civility to our own citizens. All of this is up for grabs and accelerating.
By choice and by algorithm, we are increasingly self-siloed into thought prisons of our own making.
I’m old enough to remember the good old days when radio stations had to share time to allow expression of opposing or alternate opinions. When our three TV networks broadcast the news without all the hysterics…
No more. We pick, we choose, and worst – we’re told and fed – exactly what we want to hear, not what we SHOULD hear, to keep balanced and informed and sane minds.
And that’s the importance of old-fashioned newspapers. And old-fashioned opinion columns like mine and all the others in The Signal. We may like or even disdain what we read – but in reading, we expose ourselves to new ideas and to the way some of our neighbors may be thinking. Valid, reasonable opposing views shouldn’t be cancelled – they should be reviewed. Considered. Measured. Weighed. Perhaps even blended with what we already believe. And this goes both ways and all ways.
Our modern, beloved SCV is today multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-faceted and definitely purple. We owe it to ourselves to at least understand what others may think and believe.
Understanding others makes us better citizens. Cancel culture, whether the New Yorker or The Signal or just shutting down whatever challenges us, stunts our minds and slashes at our human compassion and understanding.
Avoid “cancel culture” like COVID-19. It will keep your mind strong and healthy.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.