I winced. I'm sure that's what the New Yorker's esteemed editor David Remnick expected me to do when I saw the Barack and Michelle Obama caricature cover that everybody's talking about.
Every so often the quiet little liberal-leaning literary and cultural magazine presents a cover that is intended like a high-class editorial cartoon to startle us. Back in 1993, for example, during a time of high tensions between blacks and Jews, cartoonist Art Spiegelman raised hackles from some and heartfelt praise from others with a cover that depicted a black woman kissing an Orthodox Jewish man.
The controversial Obama cover by artist Barry Blitt is just as startling as that earlier cover, but not nearly as clear in its meaning. If a casual observer didn't know that the New Yorker was a liberal literary and cultural magazine, they might easily believe Blitt's drawing was trying to promote the right-wing smears that it intended to lampoon.
It shows Obama in the Oval Office dressed in Arabic robes. He is exchanging a congratulatory fist bump with his wife Michelle, who is dressed like a 1960s-style militant with a huge Afro, combat boots, camouflage pants, assault rifle and a bandolier of bullets. Osama bin Laden looks on placidly from a picture frame over the presidential fireplace in which an American flag burns like a yule log.
Editor Remnick told the New York Times that, "The cover takes a lot of distortions, lies and misconceptions about the Obamas and puts a mirror up to them to show them for what they are."
He compared Blitt's drawing to Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert who lampoons the worldview of conservative talk show hosts like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly so seamlessly that you have a hard time telling what Colbert really believes.
But how many people get the joke? It took me a while to figure out what Colbert was trying to do. Now I think he's a genius. But when it takes you too long to figure out whether a joke is funny, well, forget about it.
I winced at first glance because Blitt's caricature does an irritatingly good job of portraying the anti-Obama lies, smears and half-truths that pollute my e-mail box like chain letters, discount Viagra ads and invitations from potential Nigerian business partners.
I judge Blitt's art the same way I judged Don Imus' failed attempt at humor last year about the Rutgers University women's basketball team: (1.) Is it funny? (2.) Is it true? And (3.) is the target worth it?
Imus flunked all three tests and lost his radio and television shows. He's back on the air by way of a smaller network. Blitt's art passes the (1.) funniness test only if you are confident that you (2.) know its real target and (3.) think that the target is worth it.
Yet the New Yorker is doing its job. It is provoking the rest of the country to talk about the smear campaign that has had more of a life than it should, thanks in part to the Internet. Those who think the Blitt cartoon is damaging should think again. The falsehoods are out there and widely embraced, either by people who don't know any better or folks who are looking for some excuse to cast doubt on Obama when they can't find anything else. The Web is like any other village square. Sometimes you've got to clear away the trash.
That's the reading I get from a July 13 online poll by one conservative Web site. Online polls are not scientific, but they tell you something about passions of certain groups. Offered a dozen choices, 60 percent of those who responded in the first 24 hours chose, "The image isn't too far from the dangerous truth about the Obama family." Only 2 percent chose "tasteless and offensive," which were the reactions of the Obama and McCain campaigns to the cartoon.
Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog Web site, took that as evidence that the New Yorker cover reinforces false perceptions about the Obamas. I get a different message. The misinformed or willfully misleading folks who say they think the cartoon depicts the real Obamas offer evidence that false perceptions already are out there, getting spread around, New Yorker or not.
Let's hope that the current controversy leads more voters to seek the real story. The Obama campaign already has launched a special Web site, FightTheSmears.com, just to shoot down the myths. Responsible newspaper Web sites and other rumor fighters such as Snopes.com also offer valuable help. Voters owe it to themselves and their fellow Americans to get the facts, not just the convenient untruths.