Monday, July 21, 2008

Left I on New Yorker Obama Cartoons: Willful Demagoguery

Ever read something you wish you'd thought of yourself? Once blogger Left I explained it, it was so clear. Satire is when there's a difference between the reality and the "satire." When the New Yorker reproduces exactly what the most ruthless and vicious elements of our society believe and attempt to propagate, it's like trying to get away with a calumny by saying (as Left I points out), "Some people say, Senator, that you beat your wife..."

Before I read Left I's two blogs which are worth quoting entire, I was confused. As a long time New Yorker subscriber I guess I didn't want to believe what my eyes were telling me (despite Jeffrey Goldberg and so much else). I was also reminded of the incident of the Dutch cartoons where right wing forces tried (and succeeded) in raising tensions between the communities.

Apropos, the New York Times in its regular Sunday (7.20.08) political cartoons section, featured one from the Los Angeles Daily News replicating the New Yorker cartoon. Patrick O'Conner's version has Bush in the Oval Office toting Michelle's Ak-47 and fist bumping Cheney dressed in Taliban garb (complete with sandals) while the Constitution burns in the fireplace underneath a painting of Richard Nixon flashing V for Vendetta.
My question naturally about the Daily News cartoon is: Is it satire?
Racism as "satire"
by Left I on the News
You've probably all seen or heard about the latest New Yorker cover (at left) which the magazine defends as "satire." No, anti-black racism (Michelle Obama as an armed black militant) and anti-Arab racism (Barack Obama depicted as a Muslim burning the American flag and honoring Osama bin Laden) is not "satire," and it's not just "tasteless and offensive" as the Obama camp labels it. McCain won't even go that far, apparently doesn't think it's offensive himself, he just would "understand if Senator Obama and his supporters would find it offensive".

The whole cartoon is kind of like the scurrilous "some people say" mode of reporting which has overrun the national media. They never make accusations themselves, you understand. "Some people say, Senator, that you beat your wife. How do you respond?"

Some people say :-) (no, really, I heard someone on TV say it) that the cartoon is just "politically incorrect," and people who don't like it are just insensitive. But criticism of "political correctness" almost always disguises the real message behind it. If someone is fat, making a joke about them being fat could be described as "politically incorrect" (not to mention tasteless, offensive, insensitive, and downright bad manners). But if someone isn't fat, making a joke about them being fat not only isn't funny, but it reveals the joke-teller's prejudice against fat people.

I can't speak for the actual prejudices of the artist or the editors of this magazine. But for reinforcing existing prejudices, they've managed to do a heck of a job. The same "defender" of the cartoon I heard on TV made the argument that people who read the New Yorker won't believe the cartoon represents anything real, and anyone who does wouldn't have voted for Obama anyway. Maybe, maybe not, but wherever they stand, their subconscious prejudices have been enhanced. Maybe they won't ever make a public statement about Muslims, but deep down inside they might well be a little more inclined to think of all Muslims as bin Laden-loving, America-hating terrorists, and support legislation or vote for candidates who reinforce those ideas. Not to mention the effect the cover and its attendant publicity will have on the millions of non-New Yorker readers who see it and have their prejudices reinforced.

How about a cover making fun of Obama for talking out of both sides of his mouth on Iraq, or a host of other issues? How about a cover showing Obama saying "let's withdraw troops from Iraq" and then saying "let's send more troops to Afghanistan" labeled "man of peace?"? But this cover? To me, it's blatant racism, and I'll have none of it.

Update: I should have commented on the New Yorker's defense: the cover "combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are." Really? How does it show them for "obvious distortions"? Maybe Michelle Obama really was an armed Black Panther when she was young. How would this cover show such an idea as an "obvious distortion"? Maybe Barack Obama really is a closet Muslim. Plenty of people believe it (of course, plenty of people still believe that there were WMD in Iraq and even that they were found after the invasion). How would this cover demonstrate that that idea was an "obvious distortion"? It does nothing of the sort.

Second update: CNN (I think) did a feature where they interviewed people in front of a newsstand, asking if this cover made them feel positive or negative about Obama. It was of course an edited piece, but everyone they showed thought it was negative. And the figures they gave on, e.g., how many people believe Obama is a Muslim, emphasized all the more that encouraging that belief with this cover is a gross disservice to the truth. There are lots of reasons not to vote for Obama (from my point of view). The "fact" that he's a Muslim, which he isn't, certainly isn't one of them, and it shouldn't be for anyone on the right (i.e., in the wrong) either. The New Yorker's reinforcing of that belief is truly despicable.

--posted @ 7/14/2008

Once again on satire

I've been thinking some more about the New Yorker cover and the question of satire. Long-time readers may recall that we've had disagreements here over Stephen Colbert, whose "satire" I have claimed is often not (although I feel that less so recently than I did a year or two ago).

Expanding on things I've written before, here's my working definition, which applies to Colbert and the New Yorker: if the only thing that distinguishes alleged "satire" from an original is the source, it isn't satire, it's "imitation." It may or may not be funny, but it isn't satire.

If you could take a transcript of a Colbert interview, hand it to Bill O'Reilly, and have him read it without batting an eye, then it wasn't satire - it was imitation.

Likewise, imagine if the Obama cover had appeared not in the New Yorker but in "Ku Klux Klan Monthly." Would it be satire then? Hardly. People would immediately brand it as scurrilous racist trash. How about a more "respectable" (and actually existing) magazine like National Review? Same deal. I doubt people would just be talking about how it was "tasteless." Nor would they be claiming with a straight face it was "satire."

Satire has to be distinguishable in some way, if only with a wink (but preferably with a lot more), from the original or the imagined original or it isn't satire. Take the New Yorker cover. Most people will be familiar with the famous "a New Yorker's view of the world" which shows an utterly distorted view of the country from the point of view of a New York-centric person. It's obviously exaggerated, and funny (well, it was the first time). The Obama cover could have been done as "a right wingers view of Obama" as both a parody of the "New Yorker's view of the world" and a satire on ludicrous right-wing views of Obama, with a cover making it clear that the object of the satire wasn't Obama, but the ridiculous rumor-mongers. It didn't do that, though.

Real satire is both over the top and, and the same time...not. Stephen Colbert's talk at the White House Correspondent's dinner in 2006 was one of the best examples ever, a nuclear bomb of satire, so powerful that, to mix metaphors a bit, it went over like a lead balloon with the crowd and the corporate media because it hit too close to home. The New Yorker cover, as is, could never be that, because something that corresponds too closely to something actually believed by far too many people couldn't possibly be over the top.

--posted @ 7/15/2008


Ronald said...

AJ wrote:
My problem with the Left is that their program consists
of a panoply of possible racism of which they are eternally vigilant against..
This is a static and mechanical approach which is basically liberal in content..
It prevents us from assessing the actual significance of any particular oppression..
e.g. Palestinian oppression by the Israeli's is viewed as a problem of inequality between Jews and Palestinians....not an issue of imperial annexation and brutal oppression by an illegitimate force....
its like looking at American settlers killing Indians and saying "why can't we just get along"

P wrote:
Playing the DA here:

I'm not sure "difference" is the defining characteristic of satire. It is "the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule" to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices. It doesn't make any difference if everyone agrees or disagrees with the points of view being expressed (like what stupidity or a vice is), or what is the quality of the humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule being used. Thus, the cartoon is satire from the perspective of someone like Hannity, Malkin or Coulter, for example, whom, I suspect, you refer to with 'ruthless and vicious.' Who said satire has to be kind or unoffensive? Both cartoons are satirical. Blogger Left I may also be taking himself too seriously, playing the politically correct indignant role?

Does the first sentence in para 3 of Racism as "satire" make sense to you? Shouldn't it be ...people who don't like it are just too sensitive"? OR "...people who like it are just insensitive"? Anything but what B L I wrote? :-)

Further, does he misinterpret the NY's defense in Update 1? Did the NY mean that the images were "obvious distortions" and not the Obamas (who I think are obvious shams).

Also, he fails to convince in Update 2 with an appeal to "everyone," who, if they are most Americans, are notoriously biased by media conditioning, and naturally would react with negativity to such an influence. Are cartoonists supposed to coddle and adjust for presumed prejudices of the masses? The polled ones could even have misinterpreted the question, as in 'did you get a positive or negative feeling about Obama,' OR 'was the cartoon expressing a positive or negative feeling about Obama' which Left I implies with "they thought IT was negative."

Finally, Left I seems to imply that satire must impart a positive feeling about its subject? When you ridicule someone, laugh at them--this is necessarily supposed to evoke positivity? Not sure that's part of the definition either.


PS - Could this be a GREAT example of a colossal waste of time and attention in the context of what's going on in the world? Really!

EC wrote:
I prefer the Siegel article in Sunday’s NYT News of the Week in Review section (under “Ideas.”) An incredibly smart piece. Best, EC

T wrote:
Here's a colleague's pretty smart take on the cartoon.


AJ wrote:
How about a cover making fun of Obama for talking out of both sides of his mouth on Iraq, or a host of other issues? How about a cover showing Obama saying "let's withdraw troops from Iraq" and then saying "let's send more troops to Afghanistan" labeled "man of peace?"? But this cover? To me, it's blatant racism, and I'll have none of it.

A wrote:
These are my thoughts and feelings, too.

RS wrote:
hmm, I do not think Obama has ever positioned himself as a "man of peace". He opposed the war in Iraq on pragmatic grounds. Basically that is was stupid.

Ronald said...

P wrote:

Not to waste too much time on this thing, but now I've read something I wish I'd thought of :-)

You may know of Jay Ambrose, a syndicated columnist, who used to be the Washington honcho of Scripps Howard. I disagree with almost everything he writes, as he is a StatusQuovian system worshipper, and very slick at leaving out critical factors and making cases. In fact, he used to get on my nerves so much, at one point I was going to create a web page just to counter his bullshit :-) But every once in a while he gets one on the nose. Such is the case with the NY Obama cover in a column today. First, he sees it as satire. But the key thing he points out is "...the magazine is taking a shot at the people who have ginned up nonsensical claptrap about [Obama]. [clip] [Satire] takes what its creators consider a stupidity or iniquity of some sort and puts it center stage, perhaps exaggerating it, so that the rest of us can catch onto its true nature, or maybe just have a hearty laugh at what we already recognize as doltish." Prior to this section, he says "...those who gasp ... need to take a couple of aspirin, lie down somewhere and recover from their obtuse literalness."

Wish I'd thought of it when I wrote before--although I was in the park, anyway :-)