Monday, July 14, 2008

What's Wrong With the New Yorker Cover

As someone who commits tasteless acts of political satire on a quasi-regular basis, I feel like it's my duty to defend the New Yorker in this current flap over its Osama/Obama cover. But I can't. And it's not just because I'm an Obama-head, albeit a late convert from mild Edwardsianism. I think it's because the New Yorker missed the mark, badly. And David Remnick's post facto explanations are also missing the mark. I don't think he gets what satire is supposed to be.

First, a few words about the cartoon. It's very good. I don't know Barry Blitt, though his illustrations have occasionally graced articles I've written (though not in the New Yorker, that's for damned sure.) But he nailed it, especially the Angela Davis look for Michelle. The problem is context. There isn't any. This is the New Yorker, for godsakes. It's not Mad Magazine. It's not The Onion, or Spy. It's not a venue, in other words, in which satire is a given, and people know immediately what the point is.

You dial up The Daily Show or the Colbert Report, and you know you're getting satire. It is called The Comedy Channel for a reason, though that reason isn't always obvious if you tune in some of their other shows. They don't run endless investigative pieces by Seymour Hersh, for example, on Reno 911. They don't publish pretentious short fiction. If Saturday Night Live put on a skit with Obama as Osama and Michelle as Angela, it would probably be a scream. Because that would fit their context. We'd all be in on the joke. No explanation necessary.

But for the New Yorker to run what is essentially right wing propaganda on its cover, sans explanation, and then claim that they were satirizing not the Obamas but the propaganda surrounding them, is just dumb. It's 'meta satire'. But meta satire isn't funny. And to people whose ability to detect irony is wholly missing -- which is to say the morons who form the larger part of the Bush Base -- it's the same as the truth. This cover is Christmas in July for every right-wing radio nut and web whackjob. I bet it's already been emailed and Xeroxed a million times.

Worse, the cartoon isn't even true to the spirit of the New Yorker, which is almost always whimsical. In an apparent attempt to defend itself, the magazine's Web site is running a series showing all of Barry Blitt's satirical cartoons under "The Politics of Satire." Some of them are quite funny. I particularly like the one called "wide stance," featuring Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as Senator Larry Craig. But there isn't any whimsy in the Obama/Osama cartoon. It's dark (and I don't mean that in a racial way). It's ugly in a way that even the most pointed anti-Bush cartoons are not. And unlike the other "satirical" cartoons the New Yorker presents, it singles out a presidential candidate in the middle of a close election -- not someone who's already president, not both candidates together, nor a long-dead historical figure. That series only points out just how different the Obama/Osama cartoon is.

More important, the cartoon isn't satirizing the truth, it's satirizing a lie. When the New Yorker depicts Dick Cheney as Archie Bunker and George Bush as the meek Edith, or as the Bush cabinet floating in chest-high water after Katrina, that's satirizing the truth. Portraying Obama as a flag-burning Muslim friend of Osama and Michelle as a Black Panther is the modern equivalent of portraying Jews as fat money-grubbing plutocrats in 1933, then claiming you were merely satirizing Hitler. It propagates the lie, not the truth. And that's what David Remnick doesn't get. As a satirist, his job is to propagate the truth. -- Dan Tynan


Post a Comment

<< Home

Change Congress Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.