The New Yorker has the reputation of a sophisticated and cosmopolitan magazine. But in recent years it has, like everything else, become politicized and often reads more like polemical propaganda than worldly wise observation.
From the outset of Bush II, it featured regular screeds demonizing Bush and denouncing his policies. Few would deny that Bush offered bountiful material for criticism, but the New Yorker’s polemics bordered on hysterical rage. Where understatement and irony would have been more effective, its tone was often rabid as that of right-wing extremists. Essays routinely ended with exorcisms such as “the benighted Bush administration” and “the Bush presidency, likely the worst in history,” recalling the formula with which Cato the Elder ended all his speeches: “And Carthage must be destroyed.”
A curious change came over the magazine with the advent of Barack Obama. The New Yorker swooned over him. Even before he’d taken office, Obama was greeted as a savior. One cover depicted him in a wig as the reincarnation of George Washington. Another, published on Obama’s election, showed the Lincoln Memorial glowing with ethereal light. It was a reference to the president who made a black president possible, but it also implied some kind of equivalence between Obama and Lincoln. One cover simply displayed a tunnel with a gleam of light at the end: Deliverance from Bush at last.
Rapture had replaced demonization. What was this if not blind faith and a form of idolatry? We expect Christian fundamentalists to look forward to the Second Coming, but when the intelligentsia identifies an untested president as “The One,” it’s alarming. (“You’ve got to believe in something,” said a secular liberal friend who’s accepted Obama as his personal savior.)
The transformation of the New Yorker is an example of the polarization that bedevils us as well as our descent into extremism, hyperbole and credulity. We’ve become a nation of closed minds. Fundamentalist zeal meets mindless opposition. Discussion consists of hurling pronouncements, often based on misinformation, back and forth.
We refuse to listen to anyone who doesn’t massage our preconceived opinions, whether it’s Michael Moore and Bill Maher or Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. No one cares about the truth, as long as he wins the shouting match. Deep down we may realize that both sides are out of control, but we justify our cheerleaders by saying, “My ranter isn’t as bad as yours.”
Families have fallen apart over issues such as health care. Subjects that should lend themselves to measured debate have become dog fights between gospel and heresy. People express physical revulsion at having to sit next to someone whose ideology differs from theirs. Some of this lunacy may come from economic insecurity, which intensifies our instincts for identifying scapegoats and making distinctions between “us” and “them.”
Today, the demonizers of Bush have been replaced by the demonizers of Obama and most of our commentators are arguing about talk show hosts rather than discussing the challenges that face us. After nearly a year in office, Obama faces a maze of baffling quandaries — Afghanistan, Iraq, health care, environmental concerns, a fragile economy, towering debt — for which there are no easy right or wrong answers. He’s faced with decisions that can’t be solved by eloquent speeches, good intentions and noble dreams. Common sense, pragmatism, ideas that transcend politics — and luck — are his best allies.
But Obama’s critics are fools if they root for him to fail. Our problems are shared problems. Neither blind hatred nor unquestioning faith will help us solve them.