Mighty Red Pen

July 14, 2008

If satire falls in the forest…

Filed under: Lit review,Pop culture,Word wars — mighty red pen @ 6:13 pm
Tags: , ,

So, by now you’ve heard of the New Yorker Barack Obama cover controversy (you can read a pretty good round up and see a video of a New Yorker editor offering an explanation at the Baltimore Sun). Here’s the offending cover:

Here’s what the New Yorker had to say:

“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,” a New Yorker spokesman said in a written statement.

Here’s what the Obama campaign said:

Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman, said: “The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff tried to explain to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive, and we agree.”

Here’s more from “Rush Limbaugh was Right” by Gary Kamiya:

There is a also glaring lack of consensus among the critics about the very nature of the cartoon. Some find it too bland and safe, while others argue that it’s OK for the New Yorker‘s elite readers but too edgy for the masses. Those who find it toothless seem to do so in large part because it’s on the cover of the New Yorker. It’s all about context: If the same illustration appeared on the cover of Time, they would “read” it differently because Time lacks the New Yorker‘s arch, self-satisfied, knowing aura.

And here’s a bit from “The New Yorker Draws Fire” by Jack Shafer:

Although every critic of the New Yorker understood the simple satire of the cover, the most fretful of them worried that the illustration would be misread by the ignorant masses who don’t subscribe to the magazine. Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm wrote, “That’s the problem with satire. A lot of people won’t get the joke. Or won’t want to. And will use it for non-humorous purposes, which isn’t the New Yorker‘s fault.”

As a publications editor, I’ve been in plenty of situations where we have talked ourselves into thinking that some image or story was a good idea, but lived to regret it when the publication hit the light of day. So I tend to think that the New Yorker staff really did believe that this was a good cover, for the reasons they give above, but they will probably regret they used it. Over time, my sense has become that when you have to spend a lot of time explaining what the image or article is doing, it’s probably not doing what you want it to do — unless what you wanted it to do was generate a lot of confused conversation.

What do you think — is it satire or is it out of line?



  1. Of course it is satire. It is, however, not particularly good satire.

    Good satire takes the underlying theme and re-contextualizes it. Take for example “A Modest Proposal.” Swift didn’t just take all of the statements made about the Irish and lump them into one essay and expect people to see it as satire. He pushed the ideas to the next level, took the lack of concern for the plight of a starving people and turned into a proposal for cannibalism.

    I can see that the New Yorker might have thought they were doing the same thing by showing the Obamas burning an American flag in the fireplace in the Oval Office. The problem, however, is that the right-wing smear machine isn’t above claiming that is what will happen if you elect Obama.

    Because the opposition has been so asinine, satire this season is going to have a tendency to fall flat.

    Comment by David — July 15, 2008 @ 9:02 am | Reply

  2. I find it amazing to hear folks blame the right-wing for attacking Obama when it is the Left that has done the attacking so far. You can keep thinking it’s the right-wing, but I encourage you to take a look at your own party.

    Comment by Frank Drone — July 15, 2008 @ 10:51 am | Reply

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