July 18, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Obama on The New Yorker

The now infamous New Yorker cover featuring Barack and Michelle Obama (the latter dressed in military gear complete with a rifle draped over her shoulder) fist-bumping in the White House while a portrait of Osama bin Laden looks on and an American flag burns in the fireplace, is quite clearly a broad satire of certain misperceptions (or distortions) of the Democratic candidate. Satire is often quite broad, as in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (where the ironic persona proposes the eating of Irish babies for nutrition and profit), for hyperbole is one of the satirist’s handiest tools. Of course, satire works, as any writing works, within a given context, and it’s understandable that Barack Obama would call the cover offensive in a context where many people are in fact taking offense. At the same time, it should not take a very elaborate analysis to understand the cartoon cover as satire in a rather recognizable vein.

Satire–an attack or criticism, using humor, of some vice or folly–goes back to the ancient world, as the terms marking tone readily indicate. Juvenalian satire (after the Roman poet Juvenal) tends to be quite harsh and righteous while Horation satire (after Horace) tends to be gentler and is more likely to include the satirist in the overt or implied attack. So Barry Blitt’s New Yorker cover criticizes the silliness of attacks on Obama as other, as politically suspect, as lacking in patriotism, etc. and does so in quite exaggerated terms. Blitts’s cartoon no more implies that some right-wing commentators and other figures consider Michell Obama to be a terrorist (for example) than Jonathan Swift literally meant to say that the English were ready to eat Irish babies. At the same time, Swift’s satire implies a sense in which English landowners already were eating up the poor, in metaphorical though still powerful terms. Likewise, Blitt’s cartoon implies that some comments about Obama distort his image, and dangerously so. (Do we really want to live in a world where the lack of a lapel pin can mean so much?) The title of the cartoon, “The Politics of Fear,” helps to bring the point home.

Further, the tone of Blitt’s cover slides to the Juvenalian side of the scale, for it provides an extreme version of the distortions of Obama’s character and political position. I suspect it’s difficult to be very Horation using a single image frame–it’s part of the challenge of the genre (that of the single-frame political cartoon) to get as much implication as one can into the single picture. It may be that, as the old adage has it, a picture is worth a thousand words, but we still need the adage to make the point as succinctly and strongly as this one does.

These terms of analysis should be available to any fairly bright high school student. In fact, these are the terms that I used when I taught a course in satire years ago at a preparatory school, St. Louis Unviersity High School. I learned them from my colleague there, Bill George, who invented and developed the course. If he is teaching the course still, I suspect that he will use Blitt’s New Yorker cover the next time around. So I have hope. We need as much nuanced understanding as we can muster.