Satire is a lot like a chainsaw. Wielded by skillful hands, it can turn a stump into a beautiful sculpture. Used appropriately, it can cut down a mighty, but diseased, oak. But in the hands of an inept or careless user, it can cause mayhem like a Quentin Tarantino remake of a Sam Peckinpah film.
The July 21 New Yorker magazine cover probably falls into the last category. The collection of caricatures, aggregating the smears and distortions leveled by critics of Sen. Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, is not particularly funny and has already caused foreseeable harm, and not to its intended target. Rather than cutting down the smear merchants, it created another diversion from the real issues of the campaign, where Obama’s focus (and presumably the media’s) ought to be.
“What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama’s — both Obamas’ — past, and their politics,” New Yorker editor David Remnick explained to the Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar. “I can’t speak for anyone else’s interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama’s supposed ‘lack of patriotism’ or his being ‘soft on terrorism’ or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers.”
It’s axiomatic in comedy to say that if you have to explain it, it’s not funny (although some argue that a stupid audience negates the axiom, but there it is). Nowhere is this clearer than in satire, which relies on an underlying truth as premise for the punchline/comeuppance. If the truth of the matter is obscured, or ignored altogether, the audience is left to guess at what is being satirized. Any good comic knows that removing such variables can make the difference between killing and dying onstage.
Accepting Remnick’s explanation that the intent was satirical, it simply wasn’t funny. Wingnuts are smearing Obama, and this is what it would look like if the smears were true. Get it? I get it. Everybody gets it. We’re not laughing because it’s a weak joke– a groaner at best.
Worse than being unfunny, there’s a distinct possibility that the “satirical” cover does not counter, but rather reinforces, the smears against the Obamas. An as-yet unpublished study* by Indiana University professor Julia R. Fox (whose research in 2006 found that, minute-for-minute, The Daily Show has just as much substantive content as the network news) finds that humor makes the audience more receptive to serious information. Specifically, Fox and her researchers found negative physiological reactions indicating aversion when watching network news, while watching The Daily Show provoked favorable reactions, indicating receptiveness to information.
Just to be clear, I asked Prof. Fox, does that mean that the “just kidding” defense doesn’t actually excuse the nasty accusation, but can in fact make it stick? Her response: “Exactly.”
Yes, the New Yorker cover was just a joke. Not a particularly good one, though, and a collective shrug was probably all it deserved. But this is an election year, and there’s a 24-hour news hole to fill. And in light of Prof. Fox’s research, there’s nothing funny about that.
The similarly tepid responses by the Obama and McCain campaigns— that the cover was tasteless and offensive—probably could have ended the discussion. But, appropriately enough for satire, at least two levels of irony came into play and magnified the problem. First, as Jon Stewart ably pointed out, the news media leapt at the opportunity to rehash the charges against the cartoon ad absurdum and vent their mawkish outrage, while also claiming with spitting indignation that the Obama camp was also outraged. Never mind that there was precious little evidence for this beyond a mildly worded quote from spokesman Bill Burton; the media machine was running of its own accord.
Then, after two days of studious silence, Sen. Obama finally did address the matter on July 15, and only at the prompting of Larry King. He said, quite reasonably, that the American people have more to worry about than a cartoon. Naturally, this set off some critics. The next day on Hardball, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post absurdly said Obama’s response shows “thinness of skin.” LA Times blogger Andrew Malcolm argued somewhat paradoxically that Obama’s response was both too late and unnecessary. In Malcolm’s view, apparently, Obama should have taken swifter inaction.
The ongoing deconstruction of the cover and reaction to it, says Prof. Fox, is a double-edged sword. Her research suggests that those who find the New Yorker cover distasteful, which presumably includes Obama supporters and those likely to give him a fair shake come election time, probably won’t give it a second thought because it isn’t funny. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the aftermath could be worse than the cover itself.
“Visual processing is relatively automatic, whereas audio/verbal processing is more of a controlled process,” Fox wrote in response to my emailed questions. “So the numerous news reports criticizing the possible negative effects of such imagery may be serving to reinforce those negative effects rather than to dispel them.”
And isn’t that funny? Not “ha ha” funny, of course, but “It could only happen to a Democrat” funny. Even when the media purport to rush to his defense, they do more harm than good.
“Often cartoonists communicate in reverse, and this is a perfect example. The cartoonist cannot be concerned, nor defend the intent of their art. In this case the intent is clear: it’s on the cover of the f#$*9ing New Yorker. The intent is not slander but satire. But remove it from the context and what do you have? An impassioned debate about the image and what it means, and one thing it means is the cartoonist DID ONE HELL OF A GOOD JOB! A DEFINING MOMENT IN THIS CAMPAIGN, AN IMAGE THAT WILL BE REPRINTED FOR A VERY LONG TIME AS HISTORY REVISITS THE HISTORICAL! That is what I seek each time I sit down to draw…period.”
Gary’s take seems similar to my discussion of Borat— if it makes people think, it’s probably doing some good.
South Carolina state senator Kevin Bryant put this up on his website:
Bryant told Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney: “You know, blogs are for satire and whatnot and, um, that’s why it’s up. It’s similar to the New Yorker picture. Maybe that’s why this has gotten so much attention, because of that thing that came out a couple days ago.”
So there you have it. Any stupid, jackass, racist thing you can imagine is now satire.
That high-pitched buzzing sound you hear is Swift, Twain, Bruce, Carlin and Hicks spinning in their graves.
* The published abstract for the study can be found here: Fox, J. R., Wilson, B., Sahin, V., Sanders-Jackson, A., Koloen, G., & Gao, Y. (2007). No Joke: Motivated Cognition While Viewing The Daily Show and Broadcast Network Newscasts. Psychophysiology, 44(supplement), S94.