Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Obama New Yorker cover

For the record, I don't like it, mostly because it's bad satire. They either got the wrong artist to do it (something more caricaturey and frightening would have worked; Drew Friedman would have been perfect), or their imagination failed them, since the cover merely repeats existing tropes rather than taking them anywhere new or interesting. In any event, it's a badly deployed joke, which is an annoyance to everyone.

This comes on the tail of this interesting New York Times article about how difficult it is to make jokes about Obama. The overall point is, "He doesn't have any flaws or buffoonlike characteristics." This is true to an extent. It's certainly a million times easier to make fun of Bush or Cheney or any of a hundred politicians who blurt stupid or insane things every time they open their mouths, or to make fun of smart politicians (like Bill Clinton back in the day) by focusing on their physical or cultural traits (like Bill's redneck background, his overeating, or his skirt-chasing tendencies).

But the New York Times article does the Daily Show a disservice, because despite their quotes to the contrary, they've gotten the right Obama take from the beginning: their joke is that he's the Messiah. He walks on water. He can heal the blind. It's hilarious. Obama himself said in one of his early TDS appearances, "Jon, the only person who is more overrated than you."

The reason you can't make fun of his blackness, it seems to me, is precisely that there's not enough discernible blackness (at least in terms of cultural signifiers) to register as caricaturable. If he wore the occasional dashiki or if Michelle wore her hair in a natural, there'd be something to work with. But Barack's blackness has more to do with his background than anything relating to his present identity. It'd be like making fun of Ted Kennedy for being Irish.

Humor comes from using alternate logic; another way of seeing things that makes internal sense one way while being absurd in another. When I heard Rush Limbaugh's song "Barack, the Magic Negro," the main problem with it (aside from its attempt to turn Jesse Jackson into Stepin Fetchit) is that it didn't even get the target right. You can't make fun of Barack by saying, "Barack is black and black people have bad grammar and listen to rap." It's too much of a leap to make, and only a blinkered racist like Limbaugh could make it.

The way you make fun of Obama is to say, "He's too good to be true; he's so nice he'll get us all killed; he's an arrogant prick whose shit doesn't stink." These are images that actually fit with the guy we've all seen, which is why this cartoon works as an Obama slam. It even makes fun of his ears.

Anyway, this is the best article I've read about the Obama New Yorker cover. It's short but punchy. Enjoy.


Blogger Judith said...

Spot on, as usual, Dave. I'm thinking the New Yorker did that cover for the reason that most magazines do any sort of cover -- in order to make sales. I don't think it was a particularly good cover, or even a good decision to run it. Like you said, it wasn't even very good satire. From a business standpoint, I think it also put the magazine into a negative light. As you said, if it had been a successful satire, we'd have recognized it immediately as such instead of scratching our heads and wonder just what they were thinking!

7/15/2008 6:47 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...


As you know, I listen to Rush, and he isn't a racist. His parody, "Barak the Magic Negro", is taken directly from an LA Times opinion piece with approximately the same title written by a black author, a Democrat named David Ehrenstein. Mr. Ehrenstein claims there is some sort of modern folk-tale about the magic negro, presumably culled from movies and pop culture.

According to the article, the Magic Negro is a mysterious figure who sweeps in like the Lone Ranger, fixes all ills, and sometimes even takes a bullet for the white man. He's non-sexual, non-threatening and he always helps out his white benefactors with deference, and his position and credibility come entirely from white guilt. He says that Barak is this "Magic Negro", and that white people will only vote for him on the basis of their guilt, and only because he is a non-threatening black guy.

So, white people who vote for Obama are doing so because they are racist? I don't understand or believe it, and frankly I found the article to be offensive. So did Rush. That's why he lampooned it with the parody piece, Barak the Magic Negro.

By the way, it's Al Sharpton who was featured in that piece, not Jesse Jackson. The Rev. Sharpton always appears in Rush parodies yelling into a megaphone. And this article showed up on the heels of Sen. Joe Biden (another Democrat) being quoted saying:

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he said. "I mean, that’s a storybook, man."

That was also quoted in that parody piece, because, you know, that is a very racist thing for Joe Biden to say. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are both articulate and bright, and they've been serving the Democratic party for decades. And they bathe regularly.

Some other things going on when this thing hit (way back in April 2007, by the way), were other articles from liberal publications criticizing Barak for not being "black enough", which is also pure nonsense, and racist to boot. Others complained that Barak didn't have any civil rights "street cred", because he wasn't old enough to march on Selma, or whatever -- this despite the fact that he was a civil rights lawyer in Chicago. These were criticisms from the left, and not from Republicans, who don't care about these things. I'm sorry that I don't have the time to dig up all of the references to these articles and things.

The chief criticism I have of Obama has nothing to do with his race; the problem is he is a radical liberal trying to paint himself as centrist, and he's totally inexperienced. He's been a senator since January 2005, and he's been running for president since November 2007. He hardly has any political record to point to, except that he spoke out against Iraq when that was only popular among the kook fringe left. Also, I hear he wants universal healthcare.

The only thing that I can think of as being racist from Rush is Bo Snerdley, his black call screener, who is "the Official EIB Obama Criticizer, certified black enough to criticize Obama." That much is fine, because they are making fun of the fact that the media will attempt to paint any criticism of Obama as being on the basis of race. But after each criticism, he translates the criticism "for the bothers and sisters in the 'hood." That can be tough to listen to sometimes. Other times it is utterly hilarious. I think it mainly has to do with the delivery: if he nails it, it works, if he gets it wrong, it feels inappropriate.

One thing I liked about Obama initially is that he refused to try to play the race card. Even when confronted with the "Magic Negro" parody which you take umbrage at, he said that he
wasn't offended, he didn't take it personally when people make fun of him, and that he took it as part of the job..

"You know, I have not heard it but I've heard of it," Obama said. "I confess that I don't listen to Rush on a daily basis. On the other hand, I'm not one of these people who, who takes myself so seriously that I get offended by -- by every -- every comment made about me. You know, the -- you know, what Rush does is entertainment, and although it's probably not something that I listen to much, I don't -- "

"But you said not every day, so you do listen a little then, and why wouldn't you?" Smith interrupted.

"I don't mind, I don't mind, I don't mind folks poking fun at me," Obama said. "That's part of the job."

Rush praised Obama for handling it this way, and called him a classy guy., what's racist about that, again?

The song lampooned the racism on the left, where people who are obsessed with race have made really inappropriate comments about Obama and his candidacy, on the basis of his race. Which is, you know, racist. It is a double-standard the Left has enjoyed for years. It also pokes fun at poor Al Sharpton, who's career and accomplishments are being totally eclipsed by this newcomer, Obama.

Here are the lyrics to the song:

Shanklin (as Al Sharpton, singing through a megaphone):

Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times, they called him that
‘Cause he’s not authentic like me.

Yeah, the guy from the L.A. paper
Said he makes guilty whites feel good
They’ll vote for him, and not for me
‘Cause he’s not from the hood.

See, real black men, like Snoop Dog,
Or me, or Farrakhan
Have talked the talk, and walked the walk.
Not come in late and won!

[refrain] Oh, Barack the Magic Negro, lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times, they called him that
‘Cause he’s black, but not authentically.

Some say Barack’s "articulate"
And bright and new and "clean"
The media sure loves this guy,
A white interloper’s dream!

But, when you vote for president,
Watch out, and don’t be fooled!
Don’t vote the Magic Negro in...

‘Cause -- ’cause I won’t have nothing after all these years of sacrifice
And I won’t get justice! This is about justice! This isn’t about me, it’s about justice!
It’s about buffet... I don’t have no buffet and there won’t be any church contributions, and there’ll be no cash in the collection plate.
There ain’t gonna be no cash money, no walkin’ around money, no phoning money.
Now, Barack's going to come in here and...
(fade out)

7/17/2008 3:04 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

You can't possibly expect me to respond in detail to a post this long at the exact same time that I'm finishing a book, do you? :)

The short answer is this: we see racism differently. You seem to see it as a single monolithic thing; something that, if someone is a racist, causes them to react consistently racist in every context. Therefore, if someone is sometimes reasonable, he can't be a racist.

Racism to my mind, and as I've experienced it in myself, is a tendency that flares up in a dozen different ways. So when Biden says a racist statement (and calling Obama "articulate" is an interesting middle case, because he IS articulate--but black people everywhere are familiar with the implied insult they feel when THEY are called articulate, so it's not a sentence a politician can say incautiously), it doesn't mean he's an asshole for all time; it means he slipped up, like we all do. The fact that he apologized, in fact, means I would be disinclined to call him a racist.

What makes Rush a "blinkered racist," as I put it, is that he's completely tone-deaf when it comes to race, and seems to not care much how much offense he gives as long as he thinks his heart is in the right place. He does not deploy his satire carefully (which I assume is why his Obama interpreter character is sometimes 'uncomfortable' to listen to), and when people get offended he shows no particular interest in learning what he might have done wrong.

So the actual words of "Barack the Magic Negro" aren't really a problem for me, for the reasons you describe; I objected to the voice portrayal of Al Sharpton (thanks for the correction), who sounds like a minstrel figure, and an idiot to boot. It's not an accurate portrayal: Sharpton is a buffoon, and he's consistently delusional, but he's not an idiot.

Having him constantly speak through a megaphone, by the way, is brilliant. But that's my point: when you have good ideas cheek and jowl with very bad ones, you're showing a certain tone-deafness. Once or twice could sort of be forgiven. But Rush once said that all criminal composite sketches look like Jesse Jackson, and he lost his NFL commentating job over another racially insensitive remark about a black player. This is not an accident; it's a consistent part of his character. And since, despite all of his set-tos, he continues to do black comic characters, I call him a racist.

Anyone can make racist comments or display racist attitudes; it's what we all do and it's part of the culture we inherit. But it takes a real asshole to revel in his own errors, and Rush is a guy who, when he farts, blames other people for their hypersensitive sense of smell. That's what makes him a racist: his commitment to ignorance and refusal to change.

(There's obviously a longer discussion here, but this will have to do for now. Give me a few days to finish my book...)

7/18/2008 8:32 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...


Okay, you've had your time. I'm coming back at you now.

What does apologizing have to do with racism? I think you may be confusing racism with some strange expression of white guilt. That would make a racist someone who doesn't feel guilty for the bad things that have happened to black people over the years. Or maybe you're trying to define the racist as someone who doesn't agree with you. So what if you take offense at something I've said -- If I apologize for something when I did nothing wrong, that's not racism, that's simply being weak.

I am a computer programmer. As such, I tend to deal with highly intelligent and technical people from all walks of life, and from all parts of the world. Our staff meetings sound like the league of nations. A racist would not make it in my work environment, period. Now, if in the course of my job I criticize the work that someone has done, I judge it based on the merits of the job done, not on the race of the person who did it. If they claim it is on the basis of race, I have no obligation to apologize for not considering their feelings or cultural bias or whatever. I just call "bull" and point out what is wrong. That is correct behavior. The nice thing is, race doesn't even enter in to the discussion, because it is a non-issue. I think that is also the way things are supposed to be. We're not supposed to notice race, let alone try to right the wrongs of centuries of oppression or something.

In any case, the label "racist" is an insult. It accuses me of judging someone on the basis of the color of their skin, rather than the content of their character (a rather famous person once said that). You forgive Joe Biden's racist statement about Obama because he's a Democrat, and Democrats aren't racist -- they support quotas, after all. But the actual statement was based on the color of his skin, and not on the content of his character. In essense, Joe Biden said, "He bathes, and he's articulate, and that is remarkable in a black man."

I am not seeing racism as a "single, monolithic thing" -- In fact, that's precisely what you are doing. I'm not the one throwing out the racist label on people. I said that Joe Biden said racist things, not that he's a racist. You are quick to pull the trigger on labels, such as racist, and you've even called me racist before. Racist tendencies may show up all over the place, but they tend to be in movies and in the media, and not in real life. If someone publishes a picture of looters after the Katrina hurricane hit, and says they are "scavenging" just because they are white, that is the indication of a racist editor and writer, not of a racist America. Racism judges someone based upon the color of their skin (or their race) rather than by who they are or what they do.

For example, let's say you have a nice, fancy restaurant. If you give someone deferential treatment because he is a white guy, that is racist. It is also racist to give the deferential treatment to someone because they are black. Deferential treatment It is wrong no matter who you do it with, if it is on the basis of their race. I suppose you could say that if someone pulled up in a limo, and you gave them special treatment, that wouldn't be racism, if you didn't care if the rich guy was black or white or Japanese or whatever. But it would be another "ism". "Richism", or something like that.

I apply the label "racist" to individual behaviors because in this way it can be accurately applied no matter who the person is that is doing the action. Anyone who praises Obama for being "the first clean and articulate black guy" is saying something that is racist, even if he is attempting a compliment. And by the way, I prefered the Obama campaign's initial statement about this which was, "We think Joe Biden's statement speaks for itself."

On Al Sharpton you said: "It's not an accurate portrayal: Sharpton is a buffoon, and he's consistently delusional, but he's not an idiot." Uh... so he's delusional, and a buffoon, but not an idiot. Kind of splitting hairs, aren't we? Tomato tomahto, Dave -- he's a laughable person, and the portrayal of him is spot-on. The voice talent alone is amazing.

On the Obama front, the joke about him is that he's the messiah. He is treated as a rock star wherever he goes, and people just try to touch the corner of his jacket... He said in one speech that "we'll look back on this time in history as the time when the earth cooled, the waters receded, and the earth began to heal" (etc., etc.,). But he isn't as laughable as Sharpton, by a mile. So it is harder to make fun of him. The parodies on the Rush show tend to have him saying nothing elequently.

But back to Rush: I've never heard the comment that all criminal composite sketches look like Jesse Jackson. I'd have to ask for a reference on that one. I've also read even more offensive things on liberal blogs, but never heard anything about them on the show, which I listen to regularly, so I tend to doubt those stories. But I do know how Rush lost that NFL Fox Sports job. I was listening to the show when it happened.

First, I know you're firing with blanks. I listen to him, and you do not. I assume you are completely ignorant about this since you don't listen to Rush, don't care about football, and you rely on Slate and NPR for your news.

The black player you are refer to is Donovan McNabb, once quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. Way back in 2003, Donovan McNabb was having a really rough time, and was stinking up the field. The previous year the team almost made it to the big show, but they lost a key game in the playoffs and didn't make it. Then early on in the next season, they were supposed to return triumphant and dominate their division, but they couldn't do anything right. Headlines spoke of Donovan McNabb "imploding". The roundtable discussion was about this very subject. This was on Fox Sports.


RUSH: I've been listening to all of you guys, actually, and I think the sum total of what you're all saying is that Donovan McNabb is regressing, is going backwards --

TOM JACKSON: Mmm-hmm. (Nodding)

RUSH: -- and my... I'm sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.

TOM JACKSON: Mmm-hmm. (Nodding)


RUSH: I think there is a lot of hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he didn't really deserve. The defense carried this team, I think.

TOM JACKSON: But Rush -- But Rush somebody went to those championship games.

RUSH: Oh, they "went."

TOM JACKSON: Somebody made those plays that I saw running down the field, doing it with his legs, doing it with his arm. He has been a very effective quarterback for this football team over the last two or three years –

RUSH: Yeah, but you take –

TOM JACKSON: -- and they didn't have any more talent then than they do now.

RUSH: Oh yes they did: on defense. On defense, they did.


TOM JACKSON: (Nodding) Oh, on defense they did. I'm talking on the offense side of the ball.

RUSH: Well, that's what I'm saying. I think he got a lot of credit for the defensive side of the ball winning games for this team.

STEVE YOUNG: But I'll tell you what. I'll say it even more strongly, Tom. When they're winning, nobody makes more plays --


STEVE YOUNG: -- with his arm than Donnvan McNabb. That guy is one of the best in the league at making plays, BUT making plays does not win championships. Running the offense does. So at some point --

TOM JACKSON: Gotta run the offense.

STEVE YOUNG: -- I think that Koy Detmer looks like a better option because he'll go in there, drop back, and throw the ball correctly.

CHRIS BERMAN: Isn't it odd that last year with the broken leg – I know it was Arizona – but the one time he was in the pocket he looked great. Right?

STEVE YOUNG: He had to run that offense.

TOM JACKSON: So Rush, once you make that investment though – once you make that investment in him, that's a done deal.

RUSH: I'm saying it's a good investment. Don't misunderstand. I just don't think he's as good as everybody says he has been.

MICHAEL IRVIN: Rush has a point.

STEVE YOUNG: Well, he (McNabb) certainly hasn't matured.

MICHAEL IRVIN: Rush has a point.


...did you catch the big, racist thing that Rush said? He said that:
1. Donovan McNabb was overrated (that's what panel discussion was all about).
2. The media were desperate to have a black quarterback do well.
3. so he's getting credit for their team doing well when it's their defense that has gotten them this far.

I included the entire transcript there because you might notice that nobody took what Rush said on that panel as a racist statement. Nobody even blinked an eye, including Michael Irvin. It was only the next day when the media newshounds got ahold of this that the fur started to fly. Because Rush criticized the media.

Since then liberals like you have been saying that Rush is a racist because he thinks black quarterbacks suck. Or something to that effect. When that isn't what he said.

This is hardly farting and blaming the one who is offended. This is being burned as a witch because someone put a crooked nose on you.

After all, what was your opinion about Rush -- you called him a "blinkered racist" because of what he said about Donovan McNabb. When he said nothing offensive, except (even apologetically) that McNabb is an overrated athelete. And now you say that he has to apologize for saying that or he is a racist?

You Democrats should be very careful, because you are quick to demonize your opponents and criminalize policy differences. If someone is opposed to quotas, that does not make them racist. That makes them in favor of equality for all. After all, in the words of Justice Roberts, "the way to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

As far as a commitment to ignorance is concerned, you've displayed that you're at least as ignorant about Rush as anyone on the Left. He's the devil and that's all you really care about. That's fine, as far as it goes -- I have no use for Bill Maher or Al Franken, and most media figures on the left. But please don't call someone a racist unless you actually have some evidence that they are, in fact, racist. I don't make any similar claims about Bill Maher or other enemies of mine -- I don't have to demonize them.

And just because he didn't say "I'm sorry" doesn't cut it. He was in the right, he believed what he said, and when the entire media came against him, he stuck to his guns.


7/21/2008 2:18 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Obviously, this deserves even more commmentary. My apologies. It turns out I'm not NEARLY as finished with the book as I thought, and I'm still working and still under a deadline. So I'm sorry to make you wait further.

This is not going to change your mind much, but I figure even a little response is better than nothing:

When I said you thought that racism was a single monolithic thing, I think this is what I was getting at: you tend to see it as a sort of moral all-or-nothing idea: that racism, qua racism, is always bad no matter who's doing it and what the situation is.

The reason Biden got a pass and Rush didn't ISN'T because one said a racist thing and the other didn't. It's because these things didn't happen in a vacuum. Biden got a pass because he's perceived as someone whose heart has historically been in the right place (you oversimplify with "he's pro quotas," but that's the nature of online discussion; just remember that being a Democrat doesn't actually get you a pass all the time, and Biden really did take a beating--he survived it because he was trying to say something good and people understood that), and Rush got pilloried because, although his statement about McNabb may have been accurate and, in any event, was worth expressing, it was part of a larger pattern of Rush's pronouncements on race. If he hadn't said other stuff before, he wouldn't be watched as closely this time. (This isn't a Democrat thing, either; it's more of a media narrative thing. If McCain said something racist one time, he'd get a pass, too. He doesn't have a history of offensive asininity like Rush does.)

When I taught this to my classes, I usually used the example of "nigger." Conservatives (and the occasional black activist like Bill Cosby) will say, "If black people call each other that all the time, why can't white people say it?" Some will even say, "It's racist if I, as a white person, CAN'T say it when black people can!"

This would be true if, like "fuck," it were a generally neutral term of abuse. But of course it's not, and to pretend otherwise is to ignore questions of history, of power, of race, and of linguistics. Context matters. (You can say "pussy" about a cat on TV but not about a vagina--which, by the way, was turned into a hilarious joke on Arrested Development.)

As it happens, rappers and other black folks use the n-word as an expression of a kind of performative black identity: they say it *because white people can't* and this underscores their own, for want of a better term, authentic blackness. (The concept of "authentic blackness" is a pain to have to deal with, but that's beside the present point.) In fact, you can almost do it mathematically: the more a black person is attempting to appeal to a black audience, the more likely he is to say the n-word; the more they need to work among white people (like Obama or Bill Cosby), the more likely they are to avoid it.

All of which is to say it's NOT THE SAME THING when a white person says it as when a black person does, and to treat it like simple math ("If N-word = bad, then black people who say it are as bad as white ones,and probably even worse because they say it so much more often!") treats the word, or the act, without its context. And to suggest that all black people who use the word are idiots (as some commentators do) is to sacrifice an opportunity to learn in order to take an opportunity to be moralistic.

This is way too short and I have an entire book to fix, but I have to add one more thing: I was able to find Rush Limbaugh making outrageous racial assertions with a few very simple steps on Google. (This one convinced me, for example:
Has Rush really been misinterpreted EVERY SINGLE TIME the topic comes up? I think that something else is a bit more likely: I once saw Josh McDowell claim "There isn't a single contradiction anywhere in the Bible. Not one." Since this is a flat-out ridiculous statement to anyone who's read the Bible (the two different versions of the Ten Commandments will do for a single example, or the different genealogies of Matthew and Luke), I realized he must obviously mean something else: he meant to say "There are no contradictions in the Bible that I cannot explain away to my own satisfaction." I think you may be in that situation with Rush. And if you can read the Huffington Post quote and NOT say, "Gee, it sure sounds like Rush thinks it was a bad idea to end apartheid in South Africa," (if the link is weird, Google "Rush Limbaugh Darfur Mandela Cenk Uygur"), and if you even think it was a basically reasonable argument for Rush to make, then I think you're unlikely to believe anything I tell you about Rush's racism, no matter how many examples I give.

(Final note: in my brief web research, I did discover that Rush apparently, to his credit, criticized Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve (as did Thomas Sowell, in a refreshingly sane article), and one editorial writer said, "Rush is not a racist, as you can see by reading chapter 19 of See I Told You So." I was heading to a bookstore anyway, so if it's in stock, it shouldn't take long to read.)

7/22/2008 12:45 PM  

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