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They Must Be Joking

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, July 17, 2008

An expression of outrage is the highest compliment that politicians can bestow upon a satirist. So when spokesmen for Barack Obama and John McCain echo each other and many another stuffed shirt in complaining about the current cover of The New Yorker, the magazine's editors and cartoonist Barry Blitt should accept such remarks in precisely that spirit.

From Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, there have always been people who didn't get it -- or worried about the damage that would ensue when other people didn't get it. Today in America, despite the rising influence of "The Daily Show" and The Onion, it can be hazardous to be too hip for the room.

Critics of the cover drawing -- which depicts Obama in Muslim garb and his wife, Michelle, as an urban guerrilla, sharing a fist bump while the American flag burns in the Oval Office fireplace beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden -- have called it "tasteless" and "offensive," or in the words of one media critic, "highly offensive." Evidently many Americans, especially in politics, the news media and the blogosphere, prefer their satire to be inoffensive and tasteful. But are satirists obliged to cater to them?

Other critics have sniped that the cartoon of the Obamas "wasn't funny." This is a matter of opinion, of course, but satire isn't necessarily intended to elicit guffaws like a Jay Leno monologue or a Jack Black pratfall. Sometimes satirical drawings provoke laughter, and sometimes they simply provoke. Measured as provocation and as the focus of debate, the New Yorker cover is actually a huge success.

And then there are the critics who charge that The New Yorker, a liberal publication, has damaged Obama's candidacy. Scores of angry readers reportedly have vowed to cancel their subscriptions in protest. But is the purpose of a magazine -- even a liberal weekly -- to help a candidate for president, and trim its articles and drawings to fit the agenda of his or her campaign? Not unless it is a wholly owned publication of the candidate's political party.

Those who are offended, outraged and worried over the Blitt drawing are certain that while they get the joke, some other category of Americans won't. While they accuse the magazine's smarty-pants staff of "elitism," that term seems more apt in describing those who assume that most Americans are too stupid to understand the cartoon's meaning and context.

As editor David Remnick felt compelled to explain, he assumes the risk that cartoons and art will be misinterpreted, either willfully or obtusely, when his magazine makes fun of racists and sundry blowhards. (He also assumes the risks inherent in editing a publication that wins prizes and makes money, thus inciting a degree of envy among peers who eagerly pounced on this "mistake.") In this instance, the national controversy that exploded on cable television and the Internet ought to ensure that everybody paying attention will realize, if their brains didn't immediately process "joke," that the cartoon is not to be taken literally.

The inescapable fact is that both editor and cartoonist are all too accurate in their assumptions about the whispering campaign conducted by the far right against the Obamas -- libeling them incessantly on Web sites, on cable television and talk radio, and via anonymous e-mail chains and blasts.

There is no point in pretending that this campaign of slurs about their religious beliefs and patriotism doesn't exist. Certainly, that isn't the attitude adopted by the Obama campaign, which set up its own Website to counter the slurs. When one of every 10 Americans wrongly believes that Barack Obama is Muslim, that suggests the right-wing propaganda is working. At least The New Yorker has prompted many commentators to acknowledge that such claims are "lies," as David Shuster has repeatedly noted on MSNBC.

The Obama campaign is well aware of the problem, which is why they have adopted a counteroffensive strategy, including the Website. But blasting The New Yorker in high dudgeon was surely a mistake. Even if they didn't think the Blitt cartoon was funny, they should have laughed.

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