In running its satirical cover of Barack and Michelle Obama this week, the New Yorker seems to have forgotten one important ingredient of really good satire. It has to be funny, as well as thoughtful.
As any comedy writer will tell you, comedy relies a great deal on timing. Where the New Yorker went wrong is launching the cover amidst news reports that some 30% of those polled either think Obama is a Muslim, attended a Muslim school or took his Congressional oath with his hand on the Koran. And sound-bites of “I don’t care what he says, his midde-name is Hussein and that says AyRab to me,” were not hard to find from factory workers in Ohio and ladies getting their hair done in West Virgina during those primaries. I saw such sound-bites on MSNBC, CNN and Fox news packages during those primaries.
As I watched New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick explain the definition of satire to the news cameras yesterday, I couldn’t help think of Don Imus and the lesson Remnick might have learned from the morning radio personality.
In April of last year, Imus infamously called the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball Players “nappy headed hos.” Any one who had listened to Imus and his cast for the years I had would have known that Imus was engaged in a seriously tricky and complicated form of satire in which you make fun of people (racists) by showing them how stupid they sound…by taking on the persona and language of the offender yourself. Or in the case of The New Yorker cover illustration, showing people who believe the Obamas are militant blacks that they aren’t by creating the most offensive stereotypical image you could think of.
Even good satire and comedy can be too clever by half to where the point has been lost. I recall about fifteen years ago, I sent an e-mail to a co-worker. We had recently experienced a hub-bub over a reporter who sent a derogatory e-mail about an editor to the editor in question by mistake. We laughed about it. Some weeks later, I sent this colleague an e-mail about her to her on purpose, though I had addressed it to another colleague. The colleague I thought I was having fun with never believed I had sent it on purpose, and our relationship was never the same. I was too clever by half.
This week’s New Yorker cover was a risky image to put on a magazine cover. And Lord, deliver us from magazine editors who don’t want to take risks, especially on the covers of their publications. But this is a rare case where I would have encouraged Remnick to test the reception of the cover with some people outside the magazine. The New Yorker is supposed to be a clever magazine. And it is. It could be that it might have been better received after the election, whether Obama wins or loses. But right now, the issue of Obama being defined just the way the New Yorker cover does is too raw a nerve for many Americans. Even as I spellcheck this blog entry, my spellchecker is offering me “Osama” as a replacement for “Obama.”
I get what Remnick was thinking. He was trying to explode the myth of Obama being a Muslim and militant black. And many will argue that what he did was perfectly appropriate. I heard one writer friend of mine say, “*&^%$ them if they don’t get the joke."
But perhaps we have had to many sentences from Dems and Republicans alike that started with *&^%$ them. And here we are in an energy and housing meltdown in an election year that has robbed many of us of ours senses of humor and irony. Perhaps the memory of Mike Huckabee's "joke" at the National Rifle Association meeting about someone taking a shot at Obama (on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's and Robert Kennedy's assasinations) is still in an uncomfortable place in our recent memories. Perhaps, even the memory of Hillary Clinton suggesting she should stay in the race until the convention "in case" anything happens to Obama, made most of us feel so uncomfortable and squeamish that we aren't quite ready for satire.
I notice that I don't see the cover image when I go to the New Yorker website.
This cover was probably too clever by a factor of two, and strayed into a toxic field of flat out offense rather than provocateurship.