The two day sensation created by The New Yorker’s cover Portraying Michelle and Barack Obama as fist-bumping terrorists, is pretty stale news now, but some interest continues in asking why such an open satire fails, as I believe it did, and what the character of Satire itself is that makes it sometime as dangerous to its creator as to it audience. “The one thing that most readers don’t understand is satire,” George Lockwood, a former newspaper editor, now a professor of newspaper ethics, told USA Today on the day the cover appeared (July 14 for the July 21 week).   His comment confirms the common experience of thousands of teachers in exposing generations of 18-year-olds to the mental strain of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and other political/satiric writing. That long experience does support some claim to insight in my case; so comes this discussion.  

The image of my title may help the beginning focus on the human experience of Satire.  The amusement park, the funhouse, the carnival, all usually feature the distorting mirror with the convex, concave or varying surface  Depending on where your reflection is caught in it, you are suddenly  the world’s most overfed human, or, only a step to one side, a six-foot victim of anorexic consumption. The exaggeration is comic precisely because it is an exaggeration: It distorts the reality of body shapes which we know in a way we know to exist at the extreme, but in a way we can’t or won’t apply to ourselves except humorously,  You know you don’t really look that way, don’t you. (or do you?). At its simplest level this is an operative metaphor for the  questioning affect Satire has on readers, but, one that is merely accidental in Satire’s basic tactic, that of mockery. Consider the mirror again as you see a five foot tall woman of  large girth pass the glass with only a sidelong glance, then pass on. She knows what’s in the glass and doesn’t find the exaggeration funny.  As a basically cruel tactic of Satire, mockery (the name most likely drawn from the mixed animal-human figure of the drunken and licentious Classical Satyr) is always out to target something or someone. The charge of cruelty is greatly reduced, however if the particular satire’s  distortion of persons or ideas “works”— that is,  it can be seen as generally accurate and corrective in its aim—by people who recognize those aims— whether or not they agree with the satiric method..

The wildly mixed, but mostly critical reception of The New Yorker’s cover argues, as I suggested above,  that it failed as effective Satire, so far as its  teachable audience was concerned. And that audience was about as vast as an image can produce.  The teachable audience is the key term, and Satire, to be effective, requires a clearly targeted “in-group” to share enjoyment in targetng its sharpest barbs.

The New Yorker’s immediate readership, sophisticated in the ways of its humor, doubtless did understand the message that Senator Obama and his wife were not the terrorists some people suspected them to be, and those maintaining such suspicions were being mocked for entertaining them as being  either crazy, wrong-headed, or insane. Unfortunately or not, a much larger general, and probably equally sophisticated group of respondents such as Professor Lockwood, “got” the cover in a way obviously not intended or expected  by the magazine’s editors.

That group took the cover as essentially and elitist nostrum, saying to them, “only we understand how stupid, wrong headed, probably racist some Americans are”. They understood that  imagined statement as a dangerous thing to imply by illustration on The New Yorker cover, since the Satire  clearly a substantial group of Americans who might very well believe the Obamas are Moslems, even spies who  if empowered by election would hang Osama bin Laden’s portrait over the hearth where the flag was seen burning.. Even  Obama himself, while first laughingly dismissing the cover as “just a cartoon,” (wise politically, I agree), came then, to admitting the probable strengthening of false stereotypes concerning himself and his wife among “some people.”  Political poll taking has shown that over twenty per cent of Americans share to some degree the opinions of “some people,” a dangerously large group for  a magazine  to “encourage,” whether by accident or not, critics can assert. This, after all,  for the presumed reward  of enjoying some people’s ignorance if they missed the satire, or their mocked  reduction of dignity if they didn’t. This group might  include those milder Obama defamers who, if they feel, even appreciate, the slap of the satire, don’t appreciate what they might justly see as its elitist rancor against their  personal opinions, and surely, it must include New Yorker readers who simply didn’t like the cover in the context of an election.

Here I will turn back to  the object  lesson given us by Jonathan Swift in many a classroom for comparison, both in  his success and in  a kind of failure produced not by the writer’s disregard of his known audience, but only by ravaging time itself.

Swift’s essay, “A Modest Proposal,” published in 1729, targeted his own people, the ruling Protestant Irish Ascendancy, in their blithe conduct of business in the face of  the terrible poverty and indeed some starvation of  the (largely Catholic) poor.  The exaggeration of the piece is in its recommendation that the people of substance should see the advantage, indeed the Christian charity, of   entrepreneurial types  “farming” small children born to overburdened mothers as food for dinners at the grand dining room tables. Somewhat I rrelevantly, he didn’t care much for Americans of the period either,  as can be seen in the following excerpt:

“I  have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed  is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or broiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

The teaching experience I referred to in my opening paragraph almost invariably  resulted in the Freshman student (here stereotyped for convenience) responding in the mildest case with a bewildered, “Who is this monster and why does he write, and why do  we have to read such terrible stuff?” That is a legitimate reaction.  The  people I taught were not alive in 1729; they knew nothing of the Irish poverty of the time and very little of poverty anywhere, most of them, at any time. The larger Irish public Swift wrote for felt the message in their bellies and later raised a statue in honor of their satirist defender.

The students I taught became a teachable audience for Swift’s satire only over time and with much information to clarify his motives. Teachers have a tendency to enjoy this situation (being frequent satirists of students, themselves), and that is a wrong motive, ethically speaking, which I admit to owning as a beginner, myself.  It is the motive of the rhetorical trick called ironic positioning, another way of expressing the attitude of the in-group. It says, “I and educated people of my kind know something you don’t and that is funny.  Pay attention and you won’t be laughed at.” That presumes of course, the best of students, the perfect audience, those whom we understand and who understand us—always a dangerous assumption. 

To be brief in ending this writing, The New Yorker apparently failed in the justification of its cover as satire, partly because, whatever the written content to support the satiric image on the cover itself, that cover was a fixed image separated from its satiric defense in words. The magazine, I think misunderstood the dangerous breadth of its visual volley, and thereby narrowed the audience sympathetic to its motives, its justification for mockery. That large but sympathetically narrowed audience apparently thought the game not worth the inflammatory candle, and resisted looking in the shapeshifting mirror.

Kenneth MacLean

Be Sociable, Share!