Satire is for Inflaming

17 07 2008

Yesterday I was on BlueOregon trying to articulate my opposition to The New Yorker’s anti-Obama-hysteria satirizing cover. My feeling was that satire is a good thing, but it should be done well, and must be handled extra carefully in our hair-trigger media environment. It would be a simple matter to resolve the ambiguity of this cartoon– a clever caption would do the trick.Leonard Pitts Jr. said it better; when absurdity is the norm, satire can’t afford to be subtle.

In the end I couldn’t find the words because I stopped believing my own argument. I started to say that an art gallery would be a more appropriate context for the image, but I’m the one who wants everyone to take cartoons seriously. Why shouldn’t a magazine cover be thought-provoking?

Obama had to denounce the cartoon, or face being lumped in with snooty New Yorker readers who think they’re smarter than everyone else (whether or not such readers exist). But Obama is at his best when he calls on us, as this cartoon does, to wrestle with complex issues (racism, patriotism) and reject the shallow “debates” of gotcha sound bites that never rise above the level of bumper sticker slogans.

As a knowing nod to its own self-satisfied readers, the New Yorker cover is really irritating. But that’s not what it is. One could argue that was the intent, but it doesn’t matter. It’s part of the national discourse now, and we have to ask ourselves why we respond to it in whatever way we do. It’s become so well publicized that the image can’t possibly be taken as un-ironic truth, except by a tiny lunatic fringe who are beyond help anyway. The rest of us are forced to start questioning our assumptions. As satire goes, that’s slam-dunking the holy grail.

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