The New Yorker magazine never used to traffic in provocative cover art. Quite the contrary, in fact. For most of its eight-decade history, the cover was blissfully unplugged from the news. The Great Depression was nearly 10 years old when finally, on March 11, 1939, the editors deigned to approve a cartoon depicting a street-corner salesman trying to sneak his apples into a rich guy's limousine. More typically - and these are actual examples - the covers depicted a bird perched on a whale, geese aflight over a marsh, a barn with a tree, a dog on a beach, a train on a bridge, a clown on a horse.
Such was the standard until Tina Brown swooped in during the '80s and brought the venerable magazine into the era of heat and buzz, where it remains today. Shocking covers, while still relatively rare, are great devices for provoking discussion and raising the magazine's profile. There was such a moment back in 1993, when the cover depicted a Hassidic Jewish man kissing a black woman, at a time when black-Jewish relations were tense in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. And this week, of course, we have the cartoon of the Obamas in Muslim garb, showing some black militant 'tude as they bump fists and burn the American flag beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden.
As The New Yorker itself might put it, this cartoon is now The Talk of the Town. And I am probably the last commentator in America to weigh in. In our instant analysis culture, it is probably a misdemeanor crime to take several days to sort out one's conflicting thoughts, but I have willfully done so at the risk of arrest, if only in the interests of sounding more coherent in the end. And so, here's my take on it:
Good idea. Bad execution.
I have no problem whatsoever with satire as a literary tool; quite often, I myself like to dabble in it. Satire by nature is supposed to be provocative. Good satire takes the kernel of something real and exaggerates it for comic -and even educational - effect. Good satire ideally attracts a broad appreciative audience that can share the laugh and maybe learn something besides. Good satire, inevitably, will also tick off a lot of people, and that's an acceptable collateral.
The estimable editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, has sought this week to defend the magazine along those lines. In his words, "Satire is offensive sometimes, otherwise it's not very effective." I would put it differently. Just because a piece of satire is offensive, that doesn't necessarily mean it is effective.
And the Obama cartoon is not effective. It is a misfire, because, as executed, it does not identify the target it seeks to satirize. For the liberal cognisenti that subscribes to The New Yorker, the cartoon surely has sufficient implicit context; the lies and smears about Obama are self-evidently preposterous, and deserve to be smugly dismissed. But for the millions of Americans who are still prone to believe the worst about Obama, irrespective of factual reality, this cartoon image may well prevail, stripped of all context.
Granted, that might sound condescending, akin to my saying, "Smart people will get the joke, but the stupid masses won't." The best response is to cite the latest nonpartisan Pew poll, which reports that 12 percent of voters - that translates into roughly 10,000,000 people - still persist in believing that Obama is Muslim. And that is actually two points higher than the percentage Pew reported in March. So let us simply stipulate that, while it is wrong to imply that most Americans are stupid about Obama, it is factually accurate to state that a large and perhaps pivotal segment of the population is stupid about Obama. And the ignorant are likely to view the New Yorker visual (widely circulated, thanks to the outcry) as mere affirmation of their ignorance.
Just yesterday, I received a letter (the snail mail old-fashioned variety) from a guy in Ohio who told me that Obama had been a big topic of discussion at his "weekly afternoon gathering at the Club." As a guide to this recent discussion, he helpfully included a page of the talking points. One excerpt: "Obama takes great care to conceal that he is a Muslim....(He) will not show any reverence for our flag. While others place their hands over the hearts, Obama turns his back to the flag and slouches." (That latter lie is a new one.) I am comfortable suggesting that this gentleman from Ohio is not viewing the New Yorker cartoon in the same spirit as the magazine's subscribers.
The cartoon would have been far more effective if executed differently, although I confess that I am uncomfortable second-guessing an artist. I am reminded of the scene in the film Amadeus, when the dim-witted emperor rebukes Mozart by suggesting that the composer's famed piece of music entitled "Abduction from the Seraglio" had "too many notes" and would sound a lot better if he simply took some of them out....But still. At the very least, the tiny title of the cartoon, which appears only on the table of contents page (where only regular readers would spy it), might have worked better if it had appeared with the cartoon itself. "The Politics of Fear" at least indicates the intended context.
Even better, the cartoon could have been more effective if the intended target had been visually depicted. Perhaps a generic talk-radio loudmouth, in a thought bubble, could have conjured this apparent nightmare image of Obama in the White House. Or perhaps the entire image could have been conveyed on a television screen, with a Fox News crawl along the bottom; that, after all, would have addressed the kernel-of-reality element, since it was a Fox host who jokingly floated the notion of a "terrorist fist jab."
As Nick Anderson, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, was quoted as saying the other day, satirists must be clear in order to be truly effective: "If the satirist fails to make the point clearly enough, the whole enterprise backfires in unintended misinterpretation." That sums up this episode quite nicely. Such are the pitfalls of provocative art in the era of heat and buzz.