July 17, 2008
Satire: Still Dead

Leonard Pitts Jr. captures the essence of the hysteria over the New Yorker cover.

Unless you’ve been in a cave for the last week, you’ve heard about and probably seen the cartoon showing Barack and Michelle bumping fists in the Oval Office, he in Muslim garb, she in Angela Davis, while a portrait of Osama watches an American flag burn in the fireplace. To me, even a straight description is humorous, and the cartoon is hilarious; but many Obama supporters apparently find it offensive.

Or perhaps it’s the long article about him in the same issue they’re worried about. But if they were offended by the cover, they probably wouldn’t read the article.

Which, to me, is part of the point of the cover.

To be effective, satire needs a situation it can inflate into ridiculousness. But the hysteria surrounding Obama has nowhere to go; it is already ridiculous. In just the last few days, we’ve had Jesse Jackson threatening to castrate him and John McLaughlin calling him an “Oreo.”

Add to that the whispers about Obama’s supposed Muslim heritage (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the “terrorist” implications of bumping fists, and Michelle Obama’s purported use of the term “whitey” (a word no black person has uttered since The Jeffersons went off the air in 1985), and it’s clear that “ridiculous” has become our default status. What once were punchlines now are headlines.

So, as absurd, as over the top, as utterly outlandish as the New Yorker image strikes the more sophisticated among us, there is a large fringe out there for whom it will represent nothing more or less than the sum of their fears.

Most of the arguments people made against the cover in the various comment sections I perused were strikingly weak. Anger certainly tends to cloud logic; as Bertrand Russell said,

The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.

One person applied the theory of democracy to that of humor, proclaiming that it’s only satire if “at least” a majority thinks it is. (I’m not sure what’s more than a majority in this case. Since by definition at least the artist and the editor consider it satire, there’s no possibility of unanimity. But that’s how the argument was worded, so I reproduce it in case others grasp what I missed.) Another person argued that the November vote is a life-and-death matter, and the need to elect Obama, who presumably represents life, precludes Barack-mocking in the interim.

Speaking of which, Andy Borowitz has written a fake Obama statement of sympathy with those who struggle to make jokes about him. The statement includes five officially sanctioned Obama jokes.

Barack Obama and a kangaroo pull up to a gas station. The gas station attendant takes one look at the kangaroo and says, “You know, we don’t get many kangaroos here.” Barack Obama replies, “At these prices, I’m not surprised. That’s why we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

This kind of thing is why Colbert has to push it so far, play such an over-the-top character, to satirize the current state of our various media. As Pitts says, “These days, there’s nothing more ridiculous than the truth.”

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at July 17, 2008 06:12 PM
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It wasn't very good satire, because it wasn't clear who was being satired. The only folks who seem to really like it are those who don't particularly care for Barack Obama, but if he was the target of the satire that isn't obvious either. Driftglass made some improvement on it, and David Horsey did a great riff.

Posted by: Michael on July 18, 2008 12:41 AM

As Pitts points out, Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" also confused people about who he was attacking. Does that reduce the quality of the satire in his case? I don't think so.

In fact I would claim that if it's clear it's probably not satire.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on July 18, 2008 3:26 PM

Well, you know, as an artistic matter you could argue any which way you like, but insofar as its impact on an actual presidential election which is ongoing at this time, I can't see how it is helpful to Barack Obama to be making over the top stereotypes and playing into racist framing. But like I said, some people appreciate it, just mainly not Obama supporters.

Posted by: Michael on July 20, 2008 3:46 PM

True, Michael.

My only carp is that I don't think The New Yorker's goal is, or should be, to help Obama. They're preparing a position for next January.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on July 24, 2008 8:57 AM
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