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Monday, July 21, 2008

Why Obama cartoon failed to tickle

Call it the attack of the Jonathan Swiftboaters. A New Yorker cover illustration, showing Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim fist-bumping his gun-toting wife, fell a foul of the humour police Monday. To some, it was satire. To others, it was aid and comfort to the malice mongers who hide under the rocks of American politics. In the end, it was both.

“Successful” satire — mildly funny, generally anodyne and broadly therapeutic — needs an “April Fool’s” moment, when the joke is revealed and everyone is at least invited to have a laugh.

Like a practical joke, satire can be hysterically funny without a shared catharsis, but that’s often a cruel form of humour. To be effective — if by effective one means a teachable moment, a transformative bump forward in self-awareness — the humour must be widely appreciated.

New Yorker editor David Remnick found himself defending satire that seemed to go astray. On Saturday, before the July 21 issue even hit the newsstands, he said, “Satire is offensive sometimes, otherwise it’s not very effective.” Monday, he acknowledged the offence given, and the emotional pitch of the current presidential campaign, but stood by his cover.

“(The illustration) had a title — the title is ‘The Politics of Fear’ — and there is also a context,” he said. “It is appearing in the New Yorker.” By which he meant everyone generally understands where the magazine is coming from, that it is “liberal-minded” and doesn’t traffic in the kinds of slurs and innuendo the cover obviously lampoons.

Caught in the maelstrom of cable television blather, Remnick fell back on the time-honoured belief that offensiveness in satire is rather like the height of a diving board or a tight rope: It raises the stakes and, if the joke works, increases the return.

Which misses the other half of the equation: If you want satire to be “effective” (like a good editorial or a well-written position paper) you must aim at a wide audience, invite people in and wink with exaggerated meaning. In the cartoon, Obama almost looks as though he’s winking. But “almost” doesn’t count in socially safe satire.

Unfortunately, as debate about the image grew, the New Yorker missed a golden opportunity to question the rather odd American relationship to satire. Why must it be broadly effective rather than just funny? Why must humour, like grief, somehow be good for us on a deeper level? Instead, the magazine fell into the deadly trap of overanalysing the funny in public.

“The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall? All of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that’s the spirit of this cover,” the magazine said in a statement released Monday.

The New Yorker might have added that the image doesn’t even add up to a coherent set of prejudices.

It’s not clear how a Muslim man who keeps a painting of Osama bin Laden on the wall could survive marriage to a powerful, gun-toting, pants-wearing, independent woman. But no matter. If something satirical isn’t working for you, no matter how many times someone unpacks and analyses it, the joke won’t suddenly become funny.

And if the satire isn’t carefully calibrated to a target audience, then it will almost assuredly be remembered for its offensiveness rather than its supposedly palliative effect on the body politic.

The main problem with the New Yorker cover — if it’s a problem at all — is that its humour is intended for a relatively insular, like-minded readership: subscribers to the NewYorker, a presumably urbane audience with strong Obama tendencies.

No matter what the New Yorker says about holding up a mirror to prejudice, the cartoon certainly didn’t do that. It was more like a spyglass.

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