July 16, 2008
Can't Take a Joke
By Mary Lyon
"Outside of basic intelligence, there is nothing more important to a good political cartoonist than ill will."
-- Jules Pfeiffer
Evidently there's a lot of surprising ill will with the latest New Yorker magazine cover. That's gotta be Barack Mohammed Obama there, right? (See! I KNEW his middle name was un-American!!!) There he stands in his mullah costume, a portrait of his "idol" Osama - the guy whose name even Chris Matthews continues to mix up - hanging on the wall, above a fireplace where the flag is not only NOT being worn as a lapel pin, but is being burned for kindling. And look at Michelle Obama there in her combat fatiques and assault rifle - like a latter day Angela Davis. The gesture between Mr. and Mrs. Obama? Total vindication for snarky Fox anchor-blonde E.D. Hill - that must be the "terrorist.fist.jab" she speculated about on the air. And look! There it all is, conveniently wrapped up in one neat package, on the cover of The New Yorker.
But maybe it's not all that surprising. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the joke. Guaranteed - there are people in this country who already have this kind of caricature epoxied onto their brains. Either they're staunch, intellect-negating Limbaugh devotees or they swear by Fox News or they gobble up a continuing series of idiot emails shrieking all kinds of sinister-sounding, deceitful, unsubstantiated, utterly fictitious, and hideously paranoid nonsense. I've received a number of those emails from people smart enough and sufficiently well educated to know better. I've debunked a few, sometimes in great detail. It's earned me more than a little hostility from some senders (and recipients) who now resent me as much as they do the dreaded Barack, or Hillary, or Bill, too, or liberals in general, because I dared to try to disabuse them of their cherished misconceptions.
I'm a graphic artist myself. I've drawn a few cartoons along the way, too, many of them satirical. I never used pen or pencil points sharp enough to draw blood, though. Beauty, humor, satire, and anti-Americanism are in the eye of the beholder, and for far too many, seeing stuff like this is all the believing they need. Without any prompting, my son, the student of politics and rock music, went immediately to - "oh NO!" when he and a friend looked up the New Yorker cover on the internet. His friend responded with a worried gulp and a "wow, that's really bad." They're smart kids. They're pretty sophisticated. Ordinarily they get it. But this one stung. These are kids who pay attention and totally get Stephen Colbert. But they were stopped cold at The New Yorker.
If my favorite young people, and many of my friends are troubled by it, I can't help but pay attention. I don't want to be a Miss Priss and go ballistic just because the artist's rendering isn't pretty. Nor do I want to do anything to compromise the First Amendment. Heaven knows we have enough of our Constitution under assault already. Even the agonizingly curvy Jessica Rabbit once lamented that "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way." But I'm also deeply torn by this, too.
The New Yorker cover brilliantly jabs at the heart of the misplaced prejudices some of us are still trying to conquer, and others among us are hoping to exploit and inflame. It also skewers the whole concept of elitism. Over and over I've heard the question asked - well, who's going to read this? Just effete East Coast snobs who are already used to smirking at the so-called "low-information voters?" Does this cover massage the superiority complex of the literati? Will the same people at whom they turn up their noses point to the new New Yorker with a self-satisfied - "AHA! Told ya!" Whether we subscribe or not, or have ever read a sentence of the literary contents, most of us will indeed have seen that cover by the time all the shouting dies down.
Perhaps the problem exists because the drawing itself is incomplete? To make it misinterpretation-free, maybe John McCain should appear in the picture dressed in 13th Century Crusader costumes. Messers Limbaugh and O'Reilly could be depicted as Klansmen. Jesse Jackson might even work in there, too, as long as he's shown carrying a mean-looking miniature guillotine. How painful can we make it? Would everyone get the joke then? Would the satire be more obvious?
Or, is this just one of those things you're not supposed to lampoon - because it isn't funny? Comedy writers for various shows ranging from Jon Stewart's to Conan O'Brien's have already noted they're mostly hands-off about Barack Obama:
"The thing is, he's not buffoonish in any way," said Mike Barry, who started writing political jokes for Johnny Carson's monologues in the waning days of the Johnson administration and has lambasted every presidential candidate since, most recently for Letterman. "He's not a comical figure," Barry said.
Sometimes jokes fall flat. And the whispering campaign that paints Obama as some sort of suspicious terrorist-sympathizer is no laughing matter - particularly when too many Americans may be deciding how to vote for president based primarily on such distortions. And it matters when only a one-sided presentation makes all the noise and gets all the attention. If it were mine to draw, I might have added a caption, or maybe enclosed the entire cover image in a thought bubble depicting the dreams of a sleeping Reverend John Hagee. At that level of satire, make sure it makes like JibJab and offends everybody.
I learned a great lesson early in my career - about The Flat Statement. It had to do with the U.S. and Iran. We wrote newscasts with a headline (more or less a tease), our names, then the lead story. The lead, one particular day, seemed clear. It was a verbatim quote from the Ayatolla Khomeini, who'd just issued a public "death to America" call. You couldn't just quote the Ayatolla's inflammatory statement scrupulously, just by itself, and leave it at that. Such an incendiary thing couldn't be free-standing. The sentence had to be complete with attribution to allow for the nuance required to understand the offensive statement in context: "The Ayatolla Khomeini says ." Seems to me The New Yorker cover is an inflammatory quote - left flat-footed, standing alone.
Don't get me wrong. This is no call for censorship. At least not censorship that's imposed from the outside. The race issue is still SO volatile, along with its shadows that stretch into terrorism that I think everyone has to be a little more mindful in what we're characterizing, and how. I think The New Yorker editors could have put a bit more thought into it than just - "let's provoke." How do we provoke? Why do we provoke? Whom do we provoke? For what reason do we provoke - REALLY? 'Cause some things just may not be all that funny.