That New Yorker cartoon: an alternate take
I’ve been following the New Yorker/Obama cartoon dustup that my colleague, JS O’Brien, wrote about earlier today. In addition to the official and media reactions that have littered our news channels, I’ve also been tracking the heated debates raging across Left Blogistan with a mix of bewilderment and anger. I certainly empathize with JS and his “Archie Bunker” analysis – I grew up in the same kind of household he did and knew people who thought Archie was a true American hero. And there’s no doubt that the Manhattanite view of the world JS describes often lacks any meaningful grasp of what life is like on this side of the Hudson.
That said, there are some points where I think I disagree with JS – or perhaps it’s simply massive frustration masquerading as disagreement. Let’s work through it and see.
For starters, it seems to me that if a social commentator, whether writer, artist, cartoonist or otherwise, adheres to the standards JS sets forth, effective satire becomes almost entirely impossible – a fact that JS (himself an accomplished satirist) acknowledges:
…satire and parody work only when the topic can be taken so far to the extreme that everyone understands you are poking fun. Sometimes, itâ€™s impossible to do that.
The problem here is that in order for everyone to be in on the joke, it means that everyone has to possess a certain measure of intelligence and critical discernment. Unfortunately, our society seems to get thicker by the day. Since satire relies on intellect and wit, to a great degree this means that it’s directly at odds with the requisites of mass communication, which have to aim at a lowest common denominator. (And during election season, it’s wise to aim even lower than that.) Put another way, communication is a two way street. If you and I are to communicate, we have to invest good faith effort and we have to share some common lingusitic and intellectual ground. I can’t speak French if you don’t speak French. I probably can’t use words like “hegemony” if you didn’t go to graduate school in my field. And so on. It only works if we both fulfill certain requirements.
JS’s first couple of posts here at S&R confronted this very issue. His first, an extremely well conceived “intercepted letter” from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concerning Iran’s strategy for dealing with a US invasion, was obviously not intended to be “real,” and yet some allegedly bright readers failed to get it. His next post, the hysterical “Report to Tri-Galactic Sentient Council re: Batâ€™algah 3 Civilization,” was something of a poke at that crowd. He did prove that if you couch your satire as the work of actual space aliens you can get through to a larger segment of the population, so perhaps by my own analysis I have to concede his “so far to the extreme” point.
Still, that’s not a very satisfying standard for a satirist, and I’m keenly aware that JS isn’t alone in accidentally confusing some readers. Most of us here at S&R, at one time or another, have written things that readers have misunderstood. Some of those efforts were intentionally subtle while others ran afoul of cleverness-challenged readers. In the case of the subtle stuff, maybe you blame us. But if you missed on his Ahmadinejad post, I’m sorry, it’s all on you.
I also reflect on what this standard might have meant to satirists in other times. Jonathan Swift, arguably the greatest satirist of them all, would have been advised to keep “A Modest Proposal” to himself, for instance. Many people failed to get the joke – no, he wasn’t actually suggesting that the British upper class should eat Irish babies – and as I consider the responses I’ve seen from various bloggers on other sites over the last couple days, I wonder if some of them would have missed the point, as well.
I’ve come to accept, as I suspect has everyone associated with the New Yorker, that you have to draw the line somewhere. Mainstream news organizations seem to have set the bar somewhere in the vicinity of “half-bright 3rd grader,” while outlets like Salon and Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker have accepted that they’re writing for a more educated crowd – and in some cases, yes, an “elite” crowd. Here at S&R we’re trying to aim high, as well.
Some of those posting from the aformentioned Left Blogistan argue that whether the New Yorker cartoon is good satire is beside the point. They believe that it’s the sort of thing that conservatives can use for ammo. One comment I saw last night, for instance, suggested that this becomes ammo for the Rush Limbaughs of the world, who are ever looking for an outright lie to pander, and if they can’t find a lie then at least a good misdirection. Perhaps this is true – maybe, satire aside, this whole dumpster fire is bad for progressives fighting their way toward November through a treacherous realpolitik jungle. Obama’s official response, which strikes me as an embarrassing insult to every American with an IQ above 80, suggests that this is how he sees it.
But, first, where did we get the idea that Limbaugh, in the absence of a satirical cartoon by a New Yorker artist, would have to simply pack it in? I mean, it’s not like he has a history of fabricating the most vile sewage imaginable, right? Second, let’s think about the segment of the audience that’s succeptible to this kind of messaging. Is Obama really counting on this vote in November?
Why is this issue so important to me? If you’ve read me over the months and years, you know that I can be pretty savage when it comes to hammering on the stupid and the bigoted. When dealing with racists, for instance, I’ve harpooned people by using all kinds of unsavory language, up to and including “nigger.” Just a few days ago, in laying Jesse Helms to rest, I used the phrase “uppity Negro” in reference to one of Jesse’s opponents.
I do these things knowing full well that there are people who won’t get it. There are no doubt people out there who will see the word but lack the basic reading comprehension skills to parse the context. So instead of grokking that I’m mocking racists, they might conclude that I am a racist.
So why do I do it? Why does the New Yorker do it? Well, I don’t know the folks at the New Yorker, but I’ve made a decision that I’m done capitulating to ignorance under any circumstances. I can’t be all things to all people and would be stupid to try, so I’ve set my sights on an audience segment that’s a standard deviation or two up the ladder. I accept that someday this might bring a shitrain my way, especially in the unlikely case that I were to attain enough status and influence that my words could threaten powerful people. A noise machine like the one at FOX “News” could make things mighty tough for a guy like me.
But the alternative is, as I say, capitulation. Being dumb for the dumb. And when I do that, those who stand to gain from our dumbness win. They win big. How much money has our nation’s cynical power elite made since the election of George Bush by pandering to our least intelligent instincts?
There are those who will argue that you have to play the game if you’re going to win, and I certainly understand their point. But I remain reluctant to climb aboard. Maybe this has something to do with my lack of faith that winning the game, especially via this strategy, will result in the kind of victory I’m after. All I can do here is hope I’m wrong, I guess.
So I applaud the New Yorker for its aggressive abuse of those stupid enough to believe the caricatures and lies depicted on its latest cover. My best guess is that in the coming months I’ll be committing equally egregious sins against the sensibilities of my fellow citizens on both the “right” and the “left.”
At the same time, my personal idealism doesn’t make me blind to some basic pragmatic facts about “the game.” Obama needs to get himself elected if he’s to do any good in the world – fingers crossed – and this means he has to deal with things like the New Yorker cover in ways that I don’t. I get this and I accept it, even if I don’t much care for it. So for those of my colleagues writing from the progressive blogosphere, I hear your point.
In any case, I’m reminded of what I said to JS the other day as we drove down to Denver for the DNC walkthrough: nobody ever got elected by pandering to smart people.
So maybe he’s right, after all….