Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Satire Is DOA in the Fox/Springer Age

See this? It's the July 21 edition of The New Yorker. Look closely: Barack Obama is drawn as a Muslim, his wife Michelle as a terrorist (complete with 1960s Black Panther 'fro), and they've appointed the Oval Office with a portrait of Osama Bin Laden. They're giving each other a fist bump. For warmth, they're burning an American flag in the fireplace.

Subtle, it ain't. So the New Yorker staff thought they were safe running it, since everyone would clearly recognize that each of these visual cues represents one of the many grotesque depictions thrown at the Obamas by the conservative right.

You know, the attempts by Faux Snooze to construct the senator as a Muslim by running photos of him in African (not Middle Eastern) tribal costume, and by calling him "Barack Hussein Obama" in order to emphasize his middle name, shared by a deceased Iraqi dictator. The attempts by right-wing interwebbers, through utterly fabricated and groundless lies, to paint Mrs. Obama as an America-hater whose giving of congratulatory dap to her husband was, as the Hyena Network put it, "a terrorist fist jab?" Sean whatshisname, on the same network, playing up a refusal (!!!) by Senator Obama to play the ridiculous and meaningless whose-lapel-flag-is-bigger game by simply not wearing one. And the absolutely terrifying coincidence of the last name, Obama, rhyming with the first name, Osama.

These, of course, are the things that matter when an economy is tanking, a financial system is teetering on collapse, a water supply is drying up, a fuel crisis is worsening, a health care system is out of control, and poisoned food is becoming epidemic. You revert to kindergarten tactics and try to make the other kid cry so he'll quit and go to a different school.

The New Yorker was counting on cover-viewers being able to put their bullshit detectors on High Alert mode and recognize the cover as mocking those tactics. Unfortunately, as a post-literate society we're no longer very capable of a level of intelligence that can distinguish satire in semiotic allusion. In the Fox/Springer Age when everyone talks over each other at full volume and calls it "intellectual debate," satire will always be in danger of backfiring and being taken literally.

And it has. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have condemned the cover as "tasteless and offensive." And the National Organization of Women laments that it "promote[s] racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, [and] bigotry."

WB thinks the cover is actually brilliant, but there's a problem in the social stratification of media literacy that we need to be concerned about. Regular readers of The New Yorker will most likely "get" what's going on with the cover, and most will understand the points it's making. The other 99.8% of the population, including Obama's own campaign and NOW? Not so much.

If you play only to the elite few in your core audience, you're elitist. If you play to the "groundlings" in the general public, as Shakespeare well knew, you've got to make the jokes obvious.

Sadly, obviousness is what The New Yorker was aiming for all along.
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