Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I Know What Satire Is. No, Seriously. I Get It. I Fucking Get It


It's a cartoon ... and that's why we've got the First Amendment," Obama said. "And I think the American people are probably spending a little more time worrying about what's happening with the banking system and the housing market and what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, than a cartoon. So I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it.
"I've seen and heard worse," he said. "I do think that, you know, in attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions about me instead. But, you know, that was their editorial judgment."

UPDATE THE SECOND: Damn! The Root is saying everything I want to say on this issue, and doing it much better:

Tasteless? Okay. Offensive? Eh. The cover made me roll my eyes, but I wasn't offended. Then again, I wasn't offended by Imus, either. It seems to me that getting offended by stuff like this is like getting offended by a pigeon that craps on your head. What's the point? The incident is all about the pigeon and its natural inclinations. It has nothing to do with you.

The limitation of The New Yorker, with its smug and insular editorial stance, is that in trying so hard to reach provocative and transgressive, it often lands instead on lead-footed and dumb. Remember the famous cover with the Hasidic man kissing the black woman? Yeah, yeah, we get that this is supposed to be satirizing the fears and xenophobic slurs of certain right-wing zealots who oppose Obama. The only problem is:

1) It's a little late. The terrorist fist-jab incident having long been thoroughly mocked. In humor, timing is everything.

2) It's not very sharp. If you have to explain satire, it's not working.

-- from "Misfire: Why The New Yorker Cover is an Insult to Gun-toting Black Women Everywhere," by Kim McLarin

UPDATE: Before I got derailed and started bumblefucking my way through this post, this is what I was trying to say:

The cover is strangely titled the Politics of Fear. The New Yorker has already released a statement that admits the Obama depiction is tasteless, but their defense is the New Yorker is a satirical magazine. They prefer tastelessness. Which is fine. I love satire and hey, the Obamas are fair game. Right?

But what's more interesting is this license many liberal folks are taking lately. The Obamas appear to be prime pickings for lefty intellectuals to go the extra mile when it comes to addressing the fear of the so-called straw chewing, bible-friendly media. From Yazmany Arboleda's The Assassination of Obama exhibition [depicting a forty inch black penis] to this, lefties are working overtime trying to show us how horrible the media has been to the Obamas. And yes, political figures have been depicted in much scarier ways, but it's usually done to exploit the obvious crazy of those folks [i.e. Falwell, Bush, Reagon, Madonna], however, this newer attempt by liberals to express their glorious liberalism borderlines on cockiness. With all their harmless claims, it feels a bit like they're having more fun seeing how far they can push the button than being responsible in their so-called social commentary.I guess my bigger point is most of the converted [those who read The New Yorker] are well aware of the media's attempt to demonize, racialize, and un-Americanize the Obamas. That's why the depiction feels cocky and self-congratulatory. [emphasis mine] -- from "Michelle Obama With An Angela Davis 'Fro: Now That's Crazy," by Keith Josef Adkins

I'll tell you why The New Yorker covers bothers me [not enough to boycott the magazine, because I find it so banal I rarely bother reading it anyway; and not enough to call up advertisers, because I would rather focus my ire on things more pressing right now]: the implication that I shouldn't be bothered. A patronizing intelligentsia have glibly agreed that the cover is satire (as if satire is an objective category, something that a text simply is, which rather crucially misunderstands how and why satire -- true satire -- functions). Apparently I just don't "get it."

Except I do get it. I understand precisely what the cartoonist was attempting to convey, and I understand the point of the accompanying article, but I cheerfully and honestly acknowledge that I think that as satire it falls quite flat. Apologias like this one over at Slate rather high-handedly take critics of the cartoon to task for our suggestion that, hey, a little awareness of how visual images work wouldn't go amiss here. Let's not elide the fact that some/many/most viewers of the image are not going to bother reading the associated article.

I don't think that's a small point. If the cogency of your satiric thrust depends on a context your audience has to search for -- and largely won't bother searching for -- then you compress your message into the most superficial layer. Of course the image is meant to be humorous. Although we don't go in for this kind of thing much anymore, American audiences are quite capable of recognizing political cartoons.

I'm not insisting that The New Yorker is responsible for how people consume this image; I would insist that their po'faced shock that anyone might consume the image differently than they intended (and let's be real here -- this kind of social frisson is precisely what was intended) is what chaps my natural black ass.

Allow me to blow your minds: satire attempted is not necessarily satire executed. The bargain-basement Jonathan Swifts who rush claim that they are skewering the fatuous and ridiculing the foolish are the spiritual cousins of the "just kidding!" brigade. I'm not trying to suggest that there are subjects that are unfit subjects for satire. In fact, I'm not trying to suggest anything anymore because I have already expended more psychic energy on this lazy cover than it deserves.


Malloy said...

The only reason that this Mr. & Mrs. Obama satire DOES have impact — and may very likely spread — is because like all good satire, or good humor for that matter, there’s more than a germ of truth in it. Otherwise, the satire would utterly roll off the Obamoids’ backs, having no impact.

Adams said...

That's the most absurd thing I've yet read in all the commentary about this cover. What, pray tell, is the "germ of truth" contained in this image? That the Obamas are black? That they walk upright? That they have been known to bump fists?

thptpth said...

I agree with Kim McLarin - if you have to explain the joke, that's a good sign it probably wasn't funny to begin with.

I think the New Yorker (i.e., David Remnick) saw the cartoon, anticipated the controversy (and the ensuing sales uptick and extensive media coverage) and just went with it purely for business reasons. Any publicity is good publicity, right?