Irony Deficiency

The controversy over the New Yorker‘s Barack Obama cover once again reveals the humor rift in American politics. Yes, it’s a joke. Yes, I get it. But I don’t think it’s funny. It was a damnfool thing to put on the cover of the New Yorker.

Gary Kamiya complains that we lefties have lost our sense of humor:

After 9/11, some pious nitwits, suffering from an America-centrism akin to the medieval belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, intoned that “irony was dead.” Seven years later, they’ve been proven right — but not in the way they intended. Irony may have been killed, but not by sincerity — it’s been killed by cynicism. Vast swaths of the left have apparently been so traumatized by the Big Lie techniques employed by the Bush administration, its media lickspittles like Fox News, and the right-wing attack machine, that they have come to regard all images or texts that contain negative stereotypes as too politically dangerous to run. If you satirically depict Obama as an Islamist terrorist, in this view, you are only reinforcing and giving broader currency to right-wing smears.

Since the essence of satire is exaggerating negative stereotypes, this means that satire itself is off limits.

I see his point, but I still don’t think the cartoon was funny. Yes, we’re frightened, and we should be. Cartoons have power. The Creature “won” the past two presidential elections in part by caricaturing Al Gore and John Kerry and turning them into cartoons. People often joke about dangerous things, but the jokes aren’t funny when the danger is real and imminent.

Jonathan Alter:

In the same way, the New Yorker cover, now being displayed endlessly on cable TV, speaks louder than any efforts by Obama supporters to stop the smears (though it doesn’t help that makes it hard to navigate to the truth-squading). As the author Drew Weston has shown, negative images burn their way into the consciousness of voters in ways that cannot be erased by facts. With one visual move, the magazine undid months of pro-Obama coverage in its pages.

We live in a nation in which large chunks of the population are irony-challenged. Jonah Goldberg, for example. As BooMan says,

The fact that people like Jonah Goldberg support the literal interpretation of The New Yorker cover explains perfectly why it failed as satire.

20 thoughts on “Irony Deficiency

  1. Someone pointed out that the cartoon could well have graced the cover of some conservative magazine, where it most definitely would not be taken as a joke.

    If the New Yorker thought this was humor (and I’m not convinced they did), they failed.

    This should actually be the test for political cartoons – all viewpoints should be able to recognize it as satire – in order for it to be regarded as a cartoon.

  2. The image conveys one smear – call it the FOX smear. To be effective satire, he should have been leaning against the wall holding a martini (Rove) while holding policy positions so indistinguishable from McCain that the election can only be about experience (AP) and portrayed as an Oreo (McLaughlin).

  3. Well, I did think it was funny, and I still do–primarily, I think, because of the gentle body language and sweet facial expressions depicted (look at Michelle with her legs demurely crossed in her army fatigues) and the way the whole thing is centered around that tiny, cute little fist-bump.

    The cartoon expressed very clearly to me that “this is what that Fox reporter who referred to the Obamas’ ‘terrorist fist jab’ was apparently thinking”, and it made me laugh. And every wingnut who comes along and acts as if this patently absurd, self-contradictory image can be taken seriously just makes it even funnier, and themselves along with it.

    I think you’re right that the negative reaction to the cover is rooted in fear. I also think it’s time we as a culture got over fear. Making fun of the righties’ idiotic fears is a good thing. Not making fun of them because we’re afraid of what will happen if we do… isn’t.

  4. I agree with Gary Kamiya – since irony pretty much requires exaggerating negative stereotypes, it’s now no longer possible to publish ironic cartoons since everybody is so sensitive.

    We, as a nation, have really lost our sense of humor. Maybe this is inevitable, considering the rolling disasters of the Bush administration, but it’s sad nonetheless.

    I’m appalled at my fellow lefties. I expect the right-wing-nuts to foam at the mouth every time somebody makes a joke about their sacred leaders Bush & Cheney, but I thought that we progressives were better. Guess I was wrong.

  5. Ozonehole – I get your point but might add that great satire always offends somebody – it’s the nature of the beast. When Moliere’s play Tartuffe, one of the funniest pieces of satire I’ve ever seen, hit the French stage the religious community came unglued. (Tartuffe was a scoundrel posing as a ‘religious’ and in the process laid bare the hypocracy of the type.)

    The New Yorker cartoon was bad satire because it wasn’t offensive enough, and finally it needed ‘explaining’ by its creator which is a sure sign that it failed the test of good satire.

  6. In this country, the office of POTUS has become a position open to constant ridicule. Every week day night, the late night shows start off with jokes about how stupid bush is. Political cartonist have become so main stream…Obama has yet to officially get the nomination and images of him as a terrorist is suppose to be funny….I think not.

  7. Good point, felicity. It didn’t jump out at me as funny. The message I percieved was initially one of hostility. Even when I was able to flip it in my mind to see it as wasn’t all that funny.

    Funny was the cartoon of a little girl standing in a doorway holding a teddybear at her side, and a television blaring in the background…the caption read. ” Mommy, the Vice President has pottymouth”

    More cowbell?

  8. I frankly wish more people were paying attention to what’s in the New Yorker issue than what’s on it.

    Felicity, you’re right – when the poor guy has to explain it, it’s a bomb.

  9. I see satire as being an exaggeration of something for comic effect, but this is not satire, it’s repetition. Also, humor is based on exaggeration of real characteristics, and if the reality at the root of this is the right-wing myth machine, there was no exaggeration. If the reality is the Obamas, there was no reality.
    And Remnick has the stupidity to analogize to Colbert…akkkk!

  10. Isn’t rather simple if you consider the other way around?

    Would any magazine ever dare to do a satire, using the left as the target of the joke, with a cover where a insanely senile-looking John McCane laughs while he is shooting a brown child in her oil-spilling head (like in the infamous Vietnam photo mixed with the screaming girl) and holding a leash on a ape (perhaps also as a vague reference to the Abu Ghraib photo) that’s raping a woman-nature on the floor, while he shouts “PAY MY ALLOWANCE OR I’LL DIE LIKE THOSE POOR SPICS, YOU RICH CUNT!” to his wife, while the entire press aplauds while saying “He can rape my privacy any time he wants — and I sure as hell won’t use the morning pill afterwards!” with a big smile as Blackwater points guns at them?

    Surely not, right?

    But if someone were to do that cartoon, please… not something tasteless. And soon, please.

  11. I think this falls into the same category as Chris Rock’s “I’m not saying he should have killed her… but I understand” routine about OJ.

    I, personally, find it pretty offensive. I certainly don’t think it’s funny. But I see why it’s supposed to be funny, and I certainly recognize that it’s an objectively good thing that major cultural institutions are supporting comedy that I find to be offensive.

    That’s a point I think too few people grasp – even YOU are offended by some things that are nonetheless benign. It’s part of being… a person.


  12. Please, let’s stop repeating the meme that “the essence of satire is exaggerating negative stereotypes.” That’s utterly wrong. The exaggeration of negative stereotypes is the essence of bigotry.

    Webster’s Dictionary defines satire correctly:

    A literary work holding up human vices or follies to ridicule or scorn.

    Of course, believing the “stealth terrorists who hate America” lie about the Obamas is the folly in question, and the vice of bigotry inspires that folly. Unfortunately– as movie credits sometimes say– no bigots (or their unholy fools) were harmed in the drawing of Barry Blitt’s cartoon. He merely presented their false images without context; that is, without framing the images in any way that would refer to the folly or vice in question.

    Blitt’s error caused him to fail at satire completely, and inadvertently do the bigots’ work for them. David Remnick’s subsequent excuse-making only made the New Yorker staff sound incompetent and whiny. The entire affair has been a damnfool thing indeed.

  13. It’s offensive and unfunny; yet it’s also hysterically funny. It depends on your state of mind; like one of those optical illusions where you see either the young lady or the old crone.

    However, I don’t think the cartoonist wanted _that_ much ambiguity.

    The trouble, I think, is improper framing. If he’d put the whole thing in a thought balloon rising out of a clown’s head, then it would have worked fine.

    As an example of proper framing:
    Horsey comparing the cartoon to a hypothetical National Review cartoon cover, about McCain. (Itself also hysterically funny and offensive.)

  14. Maybe I’m in the minority of Obama supporters who found it funny and thought it made the right-wing charicature of Obama look as dumb as it is.

    As for comparing it to McCain …. there is no comparable mass belief in dumbass untruths about McCain. If there was a serious email campaign alledging that McCain had been brainwashed as a Manchurian Candidate by the NVA then I’d laugh at something which mocked that as well.

  15. Most people who read the NY magazine got the satire. Like John Stewart documented on the Daily Show yesterday, the MSM has been the source of propagating a lot of these smears ad nauseum. And do not forget various(so-called feminist e.g. tennesse guerilla women) blogs with a rabid hatred for Obama, where the same commenters spew the same drivel daily. Yes, democrats have a reason to be concerned and outraged about the cartoon.

  16. abiodun, I’ve read the New Yorker for decades, and I didn’t get it because– as I explained above– there was no satire to get.

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