2016 — What Barry Blitt’s New Yorker Covers Tell Us About the Year


Barry Blitt-The New Yorker

Barry Blitt-The New Yorker


Let’s try something different. Let’s look at the year through the critical lens of one of the most profoundly effective and influential political cartoonists, Barry Blitt, whose dark humor is engaging, prophetic, and resolute. Blitt’s power is in his capacity to capture the essence of a person or a situation, while likewise describing the mood of the culture at-large.

Yes, I know, I’m talking about the elite New Yorker… but so, there’s something here.

At year’s end, we can conclude that 2016 has been harrowing, here in the USA and abroad — Iraq, Syria, Iran, still Afghanistan, Isis, nationalism on the rise, Brexit, the refugee crisis everywhere we look, walls on our southern border, rampant racism, violence, and the always ongoing disastrous confusion about guns, questions about cops, education in a crisis, the militarization and corporatizing of everything, a circus-like election, and, of course, president-elect Donald Trump pushing us kicking and screaming through the looking glass and into a potentially dark, parallel universe.

How did Blitt see the year? Let’s take a look, beginning with February….

continue reading here…

Welcome to the Age of Knowledge: How Propaganda Has Moved Us From the Information Age, Into New Challenges & (Potentially?) a Renaissance


The Big Short

The Big Short

It’s instructive to begin with Barry Blitt’s March 28, 2016, New Yorker cover, “The Big Short,” because it conflates three central ideas critical to our discussion: Donald Trump’s deep anxiety about the size of his fingers — and something else, our age’s latest, desperate attempt to try and determine our future by hyperbolic palm reading — disconcerted flailing as we transition into the challengingAge of Knowledge — and the latest, eye-opening film directed by Adam McKay, The Big Short, based on the book by the same name written by Michael Lewisabout the financial crisis of 2007–2008, which was triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the economic bubble.

No one has said this, so let me be the first: Donald Trump is a manifestation of an age that has run its course. There you have it.

Continue Reading …

Barack Obama and the Power of Style: Why the GOP Can’t Find Its Soul

Barry Blitt has done it again, a provocative cover for the February 6, 2012 New Yorker.

In this complex image, we find a very relaxed, smiling, from ear-to-ear, President Obama, beer in one hand (could it be a foreign beer, a Heineken?), a football in the other. He’s in a white Oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up to his forearms ( he’s yet to have to pull them all the way up and go to the hard work, perhaps — or maybe he just makes the hard work look easy?), sitting in a comfortable chair — a moment for the president to chill out and watch a GOP football game on a wide screen tv.

The Big Game by Barry Blitt

The players, in a full stadium (presumably the public watching; mediated sports, here, functioning as “a continuing tension — relationship, influence and antagonism — to the dominant culture,” as Aaron Baker tells us in “Sports and the Popular,” in Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity), are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

A bulldog-faced and bruised Newt is being tackled by a flying Mitt, his face serious and determined. Helmets have flown off, noting the violence of the game — football and politics as high-stakes contact sports; both players are marked up, bruised, as is the GOP. And the football is out of their hands — a fumble, or the ongoing fumbling so much the definition of the GOP during this vicious political cycle pre-November.

Blitt is asserting an essential characteristic of Obama’s popularity that we’ve failed to see or if we’ve seen it, we’ve failed to acknowledge: Style. I’m suggesting that it is this Style that repels many white citizens — and politicians — but which will undoubtedly be an asset in his re-election.

Blitt deconstructs our “shortsightedness,” as I’ve said before, by conflating African-American style, coming into prominence through music, and mediated sports, especially America’s favorite contemporary passion, football, a game consistent with crisis management (we’re always in a crisis, in war with this or that — the Taliban, drugs, poverty), the taking of territory with power and wit, much like armies do, and restricted by time and space, the perfect metaphor for a world that has to deal with limited resources.

Everywhere we turn in football — and politics — there are constraints, limitations and crisis. And we’re always running out of time; there’s never enough. It’s now or never; there’s no long term plan. Attack, attack, attack. Leave no one standing. It’s not surprising that topping the sports news these days are concussions, the short athletic lives of football players and the compromises in later life. This is the American way of life. We can see that now. Fight, fall, endure — not much of a future in this.

But Obama offers us style as an antidote — and those that see their former lives metamorphosing into some unknown are fighting back like mad, rather then seeing the errors in the ways that have gotten us to this point. Republicans never talk about one reality, for instance (and the popular media never pursues this line): we’re living through the wonderful world left us by Bush-Cheney. The GOP has amnesia.

But where does style and the animosity towards it come from?

In the now classic Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, William C. Rhoden, of the New York Times, in “Style: The Dilemma of Appropriation,” tells us that in the summer of 1963, he remembers watching Ron Santo, the Chicago Cubs‘ third basement, hit a deep fly ball in the gap between right and center.

Willie Mays drifted across the outfield like Charles Coles, the great tapdancer whose footwork was so sweet and smooth that they called him “Honi.” He arrived at his spot under the baseball with no apparent sweat, even though he’d had to run for what seemed like miles to get there (147).

Following the catch, “Santo kicked the ground in disgust.” But, Rhoden says, the “most memorable part of the play took place after Mays made the catch”(147). Mays “nonchalantly picked up the ball out of his glove, tossed it back to the infield, coolly walked back to center field, flicked his sunglasses back up, and waited for the next play. His body language suggested annoyance that the batter hadn’t presented a greater challenge”(147-48).

Our Mays is Obama sitting back with shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, beer in one hand, a football on the other — nonchalance, de rigueur for Obama. It’s how he strolls to the podium; how he must play basketball. It’s how he sings Al Green. And the plastic, always scripted Mitt Romney has no style at all. And Newt is a playground bully, unlikable, menacing.

Mays came along after Jackie Robinson, who had to watch every aspect of his life; he made room for Mays. After Mays we have Muhammad Ali, Charlie Parker earlier. Miles Davis introduced Americans to “cool” and “hipster” in the late 1950’s (Rhoden, 152).

“In virtually every decade since the 1950s, black athletes have been at the core of some stylistic or structural innovation in sports”(152).

These changes, as television — and the image — begin to dominate, run parallel to political figures — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, and Carol Mosely Braun.

Barack Obama is now the most famous African-American; in him we see the political rise of the African-American. But we also see the manifestation of style, its rise out of R&B and Rap, out of the style so endemic of the NBAtats and all. The power of style is that “in some ways [it] underlines the [Black athlete’s] inability to define themselves in more substantive ways and find acceptance” (156).

Obama still can’t “define” himself in “substantive ways and find acceptance,” in general. With Obama’s current approval rating, the up-tick in employment figures and the ever present , though slow, upswing of the economy, the Republicans have little to address. Even Romney was bold enough to say that the current unemployment figures had nothing to do with Obama; however, Gingrich did say that, in the end, some credit would have to be given Obama. Which is which?

The GOP can’t coalesce around a singular message. This means that it’s going to get nastier; this means that direct attacks on Obama’s personality — his style, which for the African -American is synonymous with “soul” — will increase. The most violent and angry segments of the GOP are overtly racist, though their kids listen to Rap, wear caps with brims sideways and their boys sport baggy jeans half way down their buttocks (without knowing what this means).

The problem — and challenge — that the GOP image makers face is the “fact that black style was quickly commodified by white power, which became addicted to this other new form of black gold”(168). Style is something we require of our leaders because it shows how a candidate connects with the general public; it is powerful because it’s visceral, sensual and sexy. None of the GOP candidates are sexy. Women, minorities, the young all gravitate to “cool,” witness the rise of Apple, the wooden descriptions given Microsoft, lackluster and stiff, like its creator, Bill Gates.

America is a house divided by style. This is to argue that America is self-divided by a confusion concerning a change in the balance of power perpetuated by the rise of the black politician that, for the most part, comes with a history that’s quite different from the history experienced by the dominant (white) class of privilege. And one definitive — and powerful — characteristic of this style, as Rhoden argues, is that it’s a consequence of great suffering.

In an America that is suffering profoundly, only a leader that has suffered, personally and with his people, can lead. It’s a matter of grace, something Hemingway would argue, but which the GOP fails to see.

The GOP nominee will be Mitt Romney, but he’ll fail because he lacks the grace — and dignity — to address deeply felt suffering with style that says, I understand. We can overcome by making it look easy.

The End of Nature, FEMA Trailers and Bed Bugs

There’s an uncanny relationship between climate change and man’s infringement on nature, the  bed bug plague , and what is likely to be the metaphor of our times, FEMA trailers.

In The End of Nature, written 21 years ago, the recently married Bill McKibben, a half hour’s hike from his home, at the “top of the hill behind his house,” stops and looks at his “house down below … I can see my whole material life,” he says, “the car, the bedroom, the chimney above the stove.  I like that life,” he tells us, “I like it enormously.  But a choice seems unavoidable.  Either that life down there changes, perhaps dramatically, or this life all around me up here changes — passes away” (159).

The End of Nature by Bill McKibben

McKibben clearly articulates the challenge we face today: either we change our habits — and perspective — or nature will forever exist with our fingerprints all over it.  McKibben asks, in 1989, some vital questions: “Would I love the woods enough to leave them behind?  I stand up there and look out over the mountain to the east and the lake to the south and the rippling wilderness knolls stretching off to the west — and to the house below with the line of blue smoke trailing out of the chimney.  One world or the other will have to change … And if it is the human world that changes — if this humbler idea begins to win out — what will the planet look like?  Will it appeal only to screwballs, people who thrive on a monthly shower and no steady income?” (160).

Of course, the world has changed.  The “humbler idea” did not win out and McKibben’s predictions in The End of Nature are upon us. We, instead, went ahead with the more is better,  bigger is wiser approach and landed on The New Normal, where inequality has helped drag the middle class into a great recession: “More and more of the income that was generated by the economy went to the people at the top,” says Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in a new book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, pointing out another ominous parallel between the Great Depression and the Great Recession: its cause.  “More and more of the income that was generated by the economy went to the people at the top,” Reich said.  In the last century,  as reported on CBS Sunday Morning, there were only two years – in 1928, just before the great crash, and then again in 2007 – during which the richest 1% were taking home nearly a quarter of the entire income of the nation. Today, says Reich, “The typical CEO is up to 350 times the salary and benefits of the typical worker. Last year, when most Americans were suffering, the top 25 hedge fund managers each earned one billion dollars. A billion dollars would pay the salaries of something like 20,000 teachers.”

Eaarth by Bill McKibben

This reality affects our way of living in every way.  “The world hasn’t ended,” writes McKibben in his latest book, Eaarth, Making a Life in a Tough New Planet, “but the world as we know it has — even if we don’t quite know it yet.  We imagine we still live back on the old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not.  It’s a different place.  A different planet.  It needs a new name.  Eaarth.  Or Monde, or T ierre, Errde … It still looks familiar enough — we’re still the third rock out from the sun, still three-quarters water.  Gravity still pertains; we’re still earthlike. But it’s odd enough to constantly remind us how profoundly we’ve altered the only place we’ve ever known” (2-3).   Every rainstorm, snowstorm, sunny day, dry day, flooding, drought, hunger, poverty, great wealth, health care problems, infrastructure problems, hope and despair are made by humans, civilization, what we’ve called progress.  We now live in a world, says McKibben, where every environmental occurrence is Nature + Humanity.

Nature is looking much like our material world — and it’s behaving in the same way.  How we’ve treated each other — war, a vertical economy, depravation and disenfranchisement, marginalization — is now visible in Nature.  Nature is homeless, a refugee condemned by our hubris. In his classic essay, “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that, “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.  To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire had sadness in it.”  We labor “under calamity” and, though we’re passing through anger right now, we are heading to great sadness because, philosophically speaking, as Emerson also tells us, “the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.”  And our souls are lost; we’ve become wanderers looking for life preservers, answers to our inhospitable world — and our inhospitable human nature.  “The planet we inhabit,” says McKibben, reminding us of a fundamental truth, “has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly”(45).

What’s rapidly changing is most evident in Global Health.  In The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Laurie Garrett, writing in 1994, tells us that our species has never been so vulnerable to disease.  In the preface to the book, Jonathan M. Mann, M.D., M.P.H., the François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of Health and Human Rights, and Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at Harvard’s School of Public Health, tells us that, “The history of our time will be marked by recurrent eruptions of newly discovered diseases (most recently, hantavirus in the American West); epidemics of diseases migrating to new areas (for example, cholera in Latin America); diseases which become important through human technologies (as certain menstrual tampons favored toxic shock syndrome and water cooling towers provided opportunity for Legionnaires’s Disease); and diseases which spring from insects and animals to humans, through man-made disruptions in local habitats”(xv).  In Garrett’s introduction to The Coming Plague, she tells us that, “Humanity’s ancient enemies are, after all, microbes.  They didn’t go away just because science invented drugs, antibiotics, and vaccines (with the notable exception of smallpox).  They didn’t disappear from the planet when Americans and Europeans cleaned up their towns and cities in the post-industrial era. And they certainly won’t become extinct simply because human beings choose to ignore their existence” (10).  We’ve never been so vulnerable.  Case in point are the bed bugs.

Bed Bugs by Barry Blitt

In his most recent New Yorker cartoon, Barry Blitt shows a pair of bed bugs,  in an urban apartment or hotel room, enjoying the life of humans.  They’ve assumed our lives.  They’re even replicating our vices, smoking in bed — presumably after sex, the cliché our imaginations go to.   The female is asleep, satisfied, exhausted; the male is proud, full of himself, and his exploits.  We live in this traditional society — literally. It captures how in the most intimate of places, the bedroom, our culturally constructed roles are worked out; however, from the bedroom we go to the material world and impose this fictitious construction.  On the one hand we see  that Dr. Mann and Laurie Garrett are right in their concern over our vulnerability — microbes don’t know national boundaries — and on the other, they are somehow inhabiting our worst behavior, smoking.  These bugs are us — and they’re not; they are a product of how we live — our interconnectedness — and they’re also superseding us, living beyond us, though awkwardly, perhaps.  In the end, these Blitt bed bugs carry the DNA of our human interactions with our natural world; they’re looking for places to reproduce — suit cases on airplanes that are then opened in hotel rooms, producing a new strain of bugs that average repellants can’t destroy. Drones over Pakistan, repellants in hotels, stimulus package — nothing is working.  In The Coming Plague, this is the problem with disease — the synthesis of modern life with nature; the human hand manipulating nature, only at the microbe level, these little devils adjust, reshape themselves, and come at us with a vengeance.  Once, in the early 1950’s, every health problem seemed conquerable; however, nothing is now further from the truth.  “By the time the smallpox campaign was approaching victory in 1975, parasite resistance to choloroquine and mosquito resistance to DDT and other pesticides were both so widespread that nobody spoke of eliminating malaria,” Garrett tells us.  “Increasingly, experts saw the grand smallpox success as an aberration, rather than a goal that could easily be replicated with other diseases”(52).  What will these bed bugs bring?  What can they transmit?  Right now, we don’t know. What we do know is some people are adversely affected.  We have no solutions. This is how the world has changed, how far we’ve gone from Emerson’s sense of Nature.

We would think, then, that a collective, creative approach to the challenges we face in global health would in fact begin to simultaneously address  our encroachment on nature and the reality that those least affecting climate change (and global diseases) are the most affected — that is, the problems of the poor, the affliction modern socioeconomic policy places on the most vulnerable.  This is the work of public health, a field of expertise that is complex and multifaceted, requiring economists, sociologists, medical practitioners, educators and politicians.

In her latest book, Betrayal of Trust, The Collapse of Global Public Health, Laurie Garrett says that, “For most of the world’s population in 2000, the public health essentials mapped out in New York before World War I have never existed: progress, in the form of safe water, food, housing, sewage, and hospitals, has never come.  An essential trust, between government and its people, in pursuit of health for all has never been established. In other parts of the world — notably the former Soviet Union — the trust was long ago betrayed”(13).  In other words, the institutional arm that’s suppose to be working to understand our vulnerability to microbes and develop working solutions has fallen apart.  “Public health needs to be — must be — global prevention,” says Garrett. This requires collaboration, cooperation and collective intelligence — none of which are present today.

“Now the community is the entire world,” says Garrett.  “It watches, and squirms, as plague strikes Surat, Ebola hits Kitwit, tuberculosis overwhelms Siberian prisons, and HIV vanquishes a generation in Africa.  The community grows anxious. Though it emphasizes, it fears that what is over ‘there’ could come ‘here.’  Worse, as it bites into bananas grown ‘over there,’ the community collectively worries: what microbes or pesticides am I consuming?”(13).

Solutions to environmental challenges have been along the lines of the FEMA trailer — temporary, though quasi-permanent, government’s half-hearted help, filled with toxics, that exacerbates our mistrust, and our dissolution; and these come along after the disaster strikes people that are not prepared to handle the natural disaster. Only now, none of us are prepared to handle the unknowns we’re facing.  Each of us, in our respective communities, has been handed a questionable FEMA trailer — and no one is in agreement on what to do.  But the natural world keeps moving, evolving, looking to survive.

It’s not just the poor in New Orleans that still remain in FEMA trailers; metaphorically speaking, the FEMA trailer extends to the upper echelons of our society.  These folks also feel trapped.  They see themselves strapped inside the FEMA trailer of discontent.  Their lives are about to change, as once did the lives of the poorest of the poor in New Orleans.  What people feel on the bottom rung of our socioeconomic system, others feel at the top, too, and everywhere in-between.  The age of the FEMA trailer is upon us.  In “The Angry Rich,” Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize laureate, economist and editorial writer for The New York Times, tells us that, “Anger is sweeping America.”  We’re all feeling trapped inside the FEMA trailer — and there’s no exit in site.

Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again.

Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.

Everyone, regardless of where in the socioeconomic ladder we exist, is anxious and angry. But, “The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way. Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence.”

McKibben’s “humbler solution” — that the human world changes — has not one out.  This notion is at the forefront of our debate about climate change, global poverty and global health, and education.  We exist in a selfish, egotistical world.  We have grown, in our manufactured reality, into beings that don’t want to give anything up. But there is still a part of nature that exists outside our hubris.  It is this part, the microbial world, the world of viruses and diseases that are first found in the most challenged places in the world, socioeconomically, and that then find their way to our penthouse suites, that will destroy us.  If we examine our vulnerabilities, we’ll see that these come from our neglect of others — those in need because we place them there.  In return, what they suffer is now what we will suffer.  In some parts of the world, interconnected as we are, this is called Karma, the moral law of causation.

Ignorance (avijja), or not knowing things as they truly are, is the chief cause of Karma. Dependent on ignorance arise activities (avijja paccaya samkhara) states the Buddha in the Paticca Samuppada (Dependent Origination). Associated with ignorance is the ally craving (tanha), the other root of Karma. Evil actions are conditioned by these two causes.

We have conditioned ourselves into Evil actions — and the Eaarth and its inhabitants now suffer, while the powerful scream that it’s unfair. Where are we?