Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The New Yorker Cover

Over at BlueOregon, I posted some thoughts about the New Yorker cover that's attracting so much attention. I made the mistake of writing a ruminative rather than pointed piece (the thesis of which eluded many commenters), and if I had to do it over again, this is the post I'd write.

The cover of the New Yorker, for those unfamiliar with the form, employed satire. To miss this rather obvious fact is to miss the entire point of the cover.
Satire (n) - Irony, sarcasm, or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice, or stupidity.
Since it is the use of sarcasm to expose folly and stupidity, what folly and stupidity is being exposed? Here's one interpretation, from the comments:

So implying that the next President of the United States is a flag burning, afro wearing, muslim, fist bumping radical is satire and those of us who find no humor are too dumb to get it...please.

Racism continue because good people don't see the harm.

This commenter exactly inverts the target. The target is not Obama nor blacks nor Muslims; it is those who characterize Obama as a "flag burning, afro wearing, muslim, fist bumping radical." It is a critique of racism and political smearing and stupidity, not an affirmation of those things.

I think there was something more to the cover. In addition to satirizing the very nasty form of smear politics and covert racism, it also pokes fun at the entire enterprise of outrage that currently fuels our political discourse. Everything is the cause for outrage in this election. Sometimes satire is critical to cut through the BS. Outrage can be a powerful motivator--all revolutions are founded on it. But outrage as political maneuvering is base and offensive. And a perfect target for satire.

Finally, the purpose of satire is to tweak. Let's go back to the definition: it employs sarcasm or caustic wit. It's not a rhetorical device designed to persuade, it's a mocking form. Mark Twain is the most famous of our literary satirists, and he was brutal. It's designed to shock and offend and, ultimately cause a sudden flash of insight.

I'm not surprised so many people found the cover unfunny. Half of them didn't realize it was satire, and the other half commiserated with the targets of the satire. Those being satirized never find it amusing, almost axiomatically. It's not the purpose of the satirist to edify but to outrage. In this way the cartoon was a massive success. That the cover itself perpetuated yet another round of outrage is a perfect irony and perfect vindication to the cartoonist Barry Blitt and the New Yorker. I'm sure they're toasting its success with a twinkle in their elitist, blue-state eyes.

Outraged? Good; that was the point.

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