That New Yorker cartoon: an alternate take

I’ve been following the New Yorker/Obama cartoon dustup that my colleague, JS O’Brien, wrote about earlier today. In addition to the official and media reactions that have littered our news channels, I’ve also been tracking the heated debates raging across Left Blogistan with a mix of bewilderment and anger. I certainly empathize with JS and his “Archie Bunker” analysis – I grew up in the same kind of household he did and knew people who thought Archie was a true American hero. And there’s no doubt that the Manhattanite view of the world JS describes often lacks any meaningful grasp of what life is like on this side of the Hudson.

That said, there are some points where I think I disagree with JS – or perhaps it’s simply massive frustration masquerading as disagreement. Let’s work through it and see.

For starters, it seems to me that if a social commentator, whether writer, artist, cartoonist or otherwise, adheres to the standards JS sets forth, effective satire becomes almost entirely impossible – a fact that JS (himself an accomplished satirist) acknowledges:

…satire and parody work only when the topic can be taken so far to the extreme that everyone understands you are poking fun. Sometimes, it’s impossible to do that.

The problem here is that in order for everyone to be in on the joke, it means that everyone has to possess a certain measure of intelligence and critical discernment. Unfortunately, our society seems to get thicker by the day. Since satire relies on intellect and wit, to a great degree this means that it’s directly at odds with the requisites of mass communication, which have to aim at a lowest common denominator. (And during election season, it’s wise to aim even lower than that.) Put another way, communication is a two way street. If you and I are to communicate, we have to invest good faith effort and we have to share some common lingusitic and intellectual ground. I can’t speak French if you don’t speak French. I probably can’t use words like “hegemony” if you didn’t go to graduate school in my field. And so on. It only works if we both fulfill certain requirements.

JS’s first couple of posts here at S&R confronted this very issue. His first, an extremely well conceived “intercepted letter” from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concerning Iran’s strategy for dealing with a US invasion, was obviously not intended to be “real,” and yet some allegedly bright readers failed to get it. His next post, the hysterical “Report to Tri-Galactic Sentient Council re: Bat’algah 3 Civilization,” was something of a poke at that crowd. He did prove that if you couch your satire as the work of actual space aliens you can get through to a larger segment of the population, so perhaps by my own analysis I have to concede his “so far to the extreme” point.

Still, that’s not a very satisfying standard for a satirist, and I’m keenly aware that JS isn’t alone in accidentally confusing some readers. Most of us here at S&R, at one time or another, have written things that readers have misunderstood. Some of those efforts were intentionally subtle while others ran afoul of cleverness-challenged readers. In the case of the subtle stuff, maybe you blame us. But if you missed on his Ahmadinejad post, I’m sorry, it’s all on you.

I also reflect on what this standard might have meant to satirists in other times. Jonathan Swift, arguably the greatest satirist of them all, would have been advised to keep “A Modest Proposal” to himself, for instance. Many people failed to get the joke – no, he wasn’t actually suggesting that the British upper class should eat Irish babies – and as I consider the responses I’ve seen from various bloggers on other sites over the last couple days, I wonder if some of them would have missed the point, as well.

I’ve come to accept, as I suspect has everyone associated with the New Yorker, that you have to draw the line somewhere. Mainstream news organizations seem to have set the bar somewhere in the vicinity of “half-bright 3rd grader,” while outlets like Salon and Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker have accepted that they’re writing for a more educated crowd – and in some cases, yes, an “elite” crowd. Here at S&R we’re trying to aim high, as well.

Some of those posting from the aformentioned Left Blogistan argue that whether the New Yorker cartoon is good satire is beside the point. They believe that it’s the sort of thing that conservatives can use for ammo. One comment I saw last night, for instance, suggested that this becomes ammo for the Rush Limbaughs of the world, who are ever looking for an outright lie to pander, and if they can’t find a lie then at least a good misdirection. Perhaps this is true – maybe, satire aside, this whole dumpster fire is bad for progressives fighting their way toward November through a treacherous realpolitik jungle. Obama’s official response, which strikes me as an embarrassing insult to every American with an IQ above 80, suggests that this is how he sees it.

But, first, where did we get the idea that Limbaugh, in the absence of a satirical cartoon by a New Yorker artist, would have to simply pack it in? I mean, it’s not like he has a history of fabricating the most vile sewage imaginable, right? Second, let’s think about the segment of the audience that’s succeptible to this kind of messaging. Is Obama really counting on this vote in November?

Why is this issue so important to me? If you’ve read me over the months and years, you know that I can be pretty savage when it comes to hammering on the stupid and the bigoted. When dealing with racists, for instance, I’ve harpooned people by using all kinds of unsavory language, up to and including “nigger.” Just a few days ago, in laying Jesse Helms to rest, I used the phrase “uppity Negro” in reference to one of Jesse’s opponents.

I do these things knowing full well that there are people who won’t get it. There are no doubt people out there who will see the word but lack the basic reading comprehension skills to parse the context. So instead of grokking that I’m mocking racists, they might conclude that I am a racist.

So why do I do it? Why does the New Yorker do it? Well, I don’t know the folks at the New Yorker, but I’ve made a decision that I’m done capitulating to ignorance under any circumstances. I can’t be all things to all people and would be stupid to try, so I’ve set my sights on an audience segment that’s a standard deviation or two up the ladder. I accept that someday this might bring a shitrain my way, especially in the unlikely case that I were to attain enough status and influence that my words could threaten powerful people. A noise machine like the one at FOX “News” could make things mighty tough for a guy like me.

But the alternative is, as I say, capitulation. Being dumb for the dumb. And when I do that, those who stand to gain from our dumbness win. They win big. How much money has our nation’s cynical power elite made since the election of George Bush by pandering to our least intelligent instincts?

There are those who will argue that you have to play the game if you’re going to win, and I certainly understand their point. But I remain reluctant to climb aboard. Maybe this has something to do with my lack of faith that winning the game, especially via this strategy, will result in the kind of victory I’m after. All I can do here is hope I’m wrong, I guess.

So I applaud the New Yorker for its aggressive abuse of those stupid enough to believe the caricatures and lies depicted on its latest cover. My best guess is that in the coming months I’ll be committing equally egregious sins against the sensibilities of my fellow citizens on both the “right” and the “left.”

At the same time, my personal idealism doesn’t make me blind to some basic pragmatic facts about “the game.” Obama needs to get himself elected if he’s to do any good in the world – fingers crossed – and this means he has to deal with things like the New Yorker cover in ways that I don’t. I get this and I accept it, even if I don’t much care for it. So for those of my colleagues writing from the progressive blogosphere, I hear your point.

In any case, I’m reminded of what I said to JS the other day as we drove down to Denver for the DNC walkthrough: nobody ever got elected by pandering to smart people.

So maybe he’s right, after all….

30 replies »

  1. Intellectual elitists will be first against the wall when the revolution comes!

    I’ll be hiding behind you.

    Damn the idiots – full speed ahead.

  2. I understand your point, Sam, but I still think that this particular cover didn’t make it clear enough that satire was intended. Yes, it’s satire, but given the political situation with Obama with respect to the Muslim BS right now, I feel that getting the satire of that cover takes WAY more thought than it should have.

    Of course, I’m a little more sensitized to it right now than I might have been otherwise, had I not been writing about this myself late last week, so feel free to take this with a grain or two of salt.

  3. Good for you for calling me out on the use of the word “everyone,” Sam. I”ve been known to crucify people for using allness terms like that because they’re so imprecise and downright wrong.

    I’m not sure where the bar should be, though. For instance, suppose I had published a cartoon showing an African-American with distended facial features and bulging eyes, whipped and mutilated, perhaps, hanging from a noose with a white hooded and robed man beneath him, using the caption “Justice is Served,” in the South of the 1920s. I might have meant that as satire, and I might have said that I was using parody to make my point about how terribly unjust and grotesque lynching was, but it’s a cartoon that could have been tacked to the bulletin board of every Klan meeting hall with reverence for its creator.

    So, I suppose that I agree that one must consider one’s audience when doing satire, but I think I might disagree about who the audience is for some publications. No doubt, Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Economist, et. al. have highly educated and economically upscale subscribers. But their audience goes far beyond that. These are highly respected publications, and their influence extends to other publiications. Even people who don’t read them often read quotes taken from them.

    In other words, the audience is much larger than one might think, and having influence, as these publications do, suggests to me a certain responsibility not to add fuel to the flames of bad ideas that influence bad human behavior.

    We’ve often discussed the fact that communication/meaning happens in the mind of the receiver, and all the sender can do is try to encode the communication in such a way that meaning perceived is as close as possible to meaning meant as we can humanly get. t’s a delicate art, and I will agree wholeheartedly that it’s damned difficult to do, and even the best communicators screw it up too often. In this case, I think the New Yorker screwed it up.

    As for people always perceiving parody when parody is meant, I think the Onion does a pretty good job.

  4. No, Sam, I didn’t. Now, that may be partly because I heard about it on NPR before I saw it, so that does mess with my perception a little. But no, I didn’t get that it was satire immediately.

  5. I don’t think it was particularly good satire – maybe that’s part of the problem.

  6. It should be noted that both of you (Slammy & O’Brien) might just be missing the point all together. There’s a lot of folks out in so-called “fly over” country who do get the satirical point and choose not to laugh at what the cartoonist wants them to laugh at. These folks understand Lenin’s term “useful idiots” and don’t want anything to do with New York or unbalanced so-called intellectuals either. Aristotle was right. Governments come and they go.

  7. Chuck:

    Having lived in fly-over country pretty much all of my life, I would say that you have hit on something. While there are many intellectuals in fly-over country, I think it’s quite true that to be learned, thoughtful, intelligent, curious, skeptical but not cynical, open but not gullible, is to be thought (as you say) “unbalanced” by many. To many I have met, the only balanced people are those who know the truth of everything by the age of eight and never change their minds about anything.

    Praise Jesus.

  8. I wonder if the back page advertiser had to pay extra for what will undoubtedly be a sold out issue.

    On my blog (shameless self promotion) I take the tact that Obama should simply play along with it. Lashing out like this will do little to help his standing with working class voters who already see him as an elitist. And the neo-cons who really believe he is The Manchurian Muslim will never be convinced otherwise –or at least they won’t stop slandering him with it.

    Oh, and J.S.: learned everything by eight? I thought it was by kindergarten. Then again, we are learnt in the American educational system, ain’t we?


  9. Target audience is important, however in this day and age one can never be sure where the lines get drawn. It reminds me of the business advice I got a long time ago “Always assume every email will be forwarded”.

    I don’t subscribe to the New Yorker, nor do I read it, therefor I haven’t seen ANY cover in months. Only because of todays electronic media is this a national topic. Once it gets into a greater arena it can be described or used in any way the “new author” chooses. These “new authors” are often targeting a much different audience.

  10. Wow! Dr. Slammy and I agree on something… 🙂 I’m sure we actually agree on many things, but it’s still a surprise when it happens. My comment of yesterday on dumbing down fits into this article almost seamlessly. Nice work sir. Keeping up with a modicum of intelligent people is all satire really needs. Kudos.

  11. As you say, Vlad, I imagine we agree on about 99% of the subjects out there. But it’s the nature of public discourse to find that 1% and argue about it.

    If we had a genuinely educated population in the US about 99% of what makes the evening news right now would never make it into the news at all…..

  12. That was just about the finest commentary I’ve seen on this issue. Also don’t forget to read the article within the New Yorker,Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama” by Ryan Lizza (who moonlights as perhaps the smartest talking head on cable TV).

  13. JS: I guess I come away from your argument seeing your point about those with a certain influence acting … responsibly? Maybe if I had a readership of 10M I’d behave differently (although I doubt it – but who knows). The problem is that whatever standard the New Yorker is bearing then becomes something you can only march under if you lack influence?

    Brian: All I can say is that you had to have been very distracted. I know you, and if you’re paying attention there’s no way in hell that cover buffaloed you for even a microsecond.

  14. Sam:

    The issue I’m skirting around has to do with interpretation. What I think you’re saying is that what you mean matters. I don’t believe that. I feel that what people interpret matters, since interpretation is what people will act on or not act on. What you mean is relevant only in your ability, or inability, to create the interpretation you want to create.

    Hey, if you want to just convey your thoughts to a tiny sliver of the American population, then that’s fine with me. But don’t expect to get much done against those who are conveying their thoughts, effectively to a much larger population.

    And don’t get bent out of shape when that much larger population occasionally misinterprets, or badly misinterprets, what you mean. After all, you’re not writing for them.

  15. When readers can’t understand the thrust of what a writer has written the traditional fall-back is ad hominem (at least these days). Seems as if at least one of us is writing for a far smaller audience than they believe.
    Fear the interregnum.

  16. Chuck: It’s hard to imagine a group that’s both smaller than what I have now and yet large enough to merit the term “audience.” As always, though, I try and concern myself with quality, not quantity. I’ve seen what the majority hath wrought and it looks to me like the sort of thing we need less of, not more.

  17. JS:

    I’ve dealt elsewhere with the corrosive effect that everything since Structuralism has exerted on our ability to make meaning and I don’t have the time (or energy) to repeat all that here. And even if I did, I’d only put people to sleep.

    But let me say this much. I certainly get how communication and the meaning-making process works. I’m aware that when I say or write something, what I intend isn’t always what people hear (or what their brains might make of what they hear). These are the realities of comm and I don’t think there’s any real argument about the process.

    So in one sense, what I mean isn’t everything. However, what the speaker intends damned well matters, and it HAS to matter in a culture that has any interest whatsoever in making sense of itself. If I take the post-structuralists at their word and play the theory out to its logical conclusion, then I can literally take your reply to me and “interpret” it to mean this: “Wow, the Chicago Bears desperately need a quarterback this year. It’s a shame Madonna is fritzing the spanarkel.”

    Let me repeat – I can do that LITERALLY. And you have nothing to say about it because what you think you meant hinges on your subjectivity which is a MYTH. The part of you that thinks you know what you said is a self-delusion.

    This is theoretical backdrop. I doubt you mean your analysis here in anything like this radical a sense, but the critical underpinnings come from the same place.

    Here, though, is the practical upshot. On one level you’re not only right, you’re incredibly right – it does me no good to be intellectually correct if I’m being flogged by my opponents, who are more concerned with the receiver end of the communication process. I’m worried about what I mean, dammit, while they’re more adept at leaving the audience in possession of what they want them to believe. Bad guys win, good lose, to put it mildly.

    And again, I GET that. Further, I’m not suggesting that the forces of light, such as they are, should abandon the pursuit of victory (and all that it requires). Fight fire with flamethrowers, as I said before.

    But this isn’t an either/or. Just as I’m not saying that what I mean is ALL that matters, it’s equally toxic to suggest that what the speaker intends doesn’t matter at all. If I buy that and live accordingly, then it all becomes a cynical, filthy race to the bottom. The only meaning that results is a lowest common denominator measure – how many people voted for A, how many people chose buy B.

    Yeah, that’s the direction we’re headed, and it won’t come as any surprise to you when I argue that the solution is a long-term commitment to education. Solid critical skills make us better at interpreting what the speaker meant, which makes us better at replying productively. From every trip around the communication loop emerges a higher order understanding and the cumulative effect is smarter speakers, more adept listeners and a stronger culture.

    Not everybody thinks about this issue in the macro, of course, but I suspect that everyone who’s in a successful marriage or relationship has seen it in the micro. When your partner says something, what happens when you willfully interpret it in a way that’s at odds with his or her intent?

  18. Just so you know, I’ll be setting you both straight this Sunday. That is all.

  19. Sam:

    You’re right. I never meant this in a post-structuralist sense. As you know, I deal with clients all the time who don’t get the fact, on a gut level, that communication is not conveyance. The person who wants to share meaning must do with the interpreters in mind, and encode that meaning in such a way that the interpreters are likely to get it. I’ve had clients insist on spending a great deal of money on fancy media when I have been told by their employees that the semantic weight they put on fancy media is something close to “lie.”

    Education, when done well, provides a cultural framework in which certain messages become better categorized, true, so I think you’re right about education.

    Until you try to communicate with, say, a group of Tajiiks.

  20. Obama also addressed the New Yorker’s cover depicting him in Muslim garb and his wife as an armed militant, saying it is an unsuccessful attempt at satire that will likely fuel misconceptions he has long battled over the course of his presidential campaign.

    But he downplayed the impact of the magazine’s illustration.

    “It’s a cartoon … and that’s why we’ve got the First Amendment,” Obama said. “And I think the American people are probably spending a little more time worrying about what’s happening with the banking system and the housing market, and what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, than a cartoon. So I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it.”

    “I’ve seen and heard worse,” he said. “I do think that in attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions about me instead. But that was their editorial judgment.”

  21. I’m coming in a bit late on this one, but I thought of something. Won’t there be a whole segment of the population that really doesn’t care what the cartoon looked like or meant, but is willing to spin it to their ends? Like all the people who didn’t see “The Last Temptation of Christ” but still condemned it, sight unseen? Or any of the Harry Potter movies. There ain’t a whole hell of a lot you can do about this segment unless you basically want to give up your 1st Amendment rights and self censor. But they’re out there, right?