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New Yorker Cover Not So Funny


Lots of Internet frenzy this morning over The New Yorker's cover, showing Obama in a turban, his wife armed with an AK-47 and her hair in an Afro, the two of them fist-bumping in the Oval Office with Osama's portrait on the wall and an American flag burning in the fireplace.

As you'd imagine, the Obama campaign has denounced it, as has the McCain campaign. The New Yorker's David Remnick (via Memeorandum) tells Rachel Sklar of HuffPo that it's satire. (The illustration is titled "The Politics of Fear," but you have to turn to the masthead to see the title.) Remnick: "...these imaginings and dark fantasies and misconceptions about Obama exist. And we're putting it all together in one image and holding a mirror up to it and showing it for it for the absurdity that it is." [Remnick tells Howie: "If I started self-censoring myself and my writers and artists because someone might take it askance, I'd publish nothing that wasn't bland and inoffensive...Satire is offensive sometimes, otherwise it's not very effective."]

Anyone with a brain and even a modicum of a sense of humor should be able to tell it's satire. Moreover, everyone knows that The New Yorker is editorially liberal. There's no serious issue here about intent -- any Obama supporter calling this a smear needs to take a deep breath.

It is possible, even in an election year, for this country retain a sense of humor, and its corollary, a willingness to impute to others the best of motives rather than the worst. Obama himself has talked about his desire to end this pattern of demonization of opponents. He's made it clear that he hates the way the national discourse gets side-tracked by minutia and nonsense. And yet this campaign year has been marked by a hypersensitivity to "gaffes," which sometimes are nothing more than an attempt at jocularity.

That said ... there's still a basic problem with The New Yorker cover, which is that it's not funny.

Here's a fundamental rule of humor: It must be funny to work. Another rule: "Almost funny" is invariably just as bad, and often worse, than being extremely unfunny. When something is "almost funny," but not genuinely funny, people can feel insulted, as if you're saying, "This is funny, and I'm laughing, but your sense of humor is so stunted and pathetic that you just don't get the joke."

I'm not even sure this cover is "almost funny" -- because it deals so heavy-handedly with such a sensitive topic. Osama on the wall, the flag burning, the Angela Davis wife -- the natural response is to cringe rather than laugh. Of course, political cartooning by nature deals with caricatures and heavy-handed images, but usually they're leavened by some kind of quip, some verbal wink. In this case there's no punch line.

The best response from the Obama camp would be to say, "We recognize that it was meant as satire, but must confess that we didn't get a single chuckle out of it. Better luck next time."

[Weingarten, famed humor expert, weighs in via in-house message: "I think it's a misfire. The problem is that New Yorker covers contain no type, so there was no way to frame this in a way people would immediately understand. I'd feel it was less of a misfire if the piece inside was about the efforts to smear Obama; but as a stand-alone this leaves itself open to reasonable criticism: Not everyone walking by a magazine stand and seeing this image will understand The New Yorker, gauge the likelihood that they would smear Obama, understand the nuances of parody, or notice the burning flag."]

[Update: Note how the foofaraw -- kerfuffle? -- kerfoofaruffle? -- over the New Yorker cover has swamped Memeorandum and nudged down the page the Obama Op-Ed in the Times, in which Obama says what he wants to do with the Iraq War:

"Only by redeploying our troops can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis' taking responsibility for the security and stability of their country. Instead of seizing the moment and encouraging Iraqis to step up, the Bush administration and Senator McCain are refusing to embrace this transition -- despite their previous commitments to respect the will of Iraq's sovereign government. They call any timetable for the removal of American troops "surrender," even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government.

But this is not a strategy for success -- it is a strategy for staying that runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, the American people and the security interests of the United States."]


More Achenblogrolling:

Jackie Papandrew suggests that we include a link to her column Airing My Dirty Laundry.

Jessica Ball tells us to check out Clastic Detritus, which has lots of links to geology blogs, including hers. She also plugs Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog (which I've linked to a number of times).

Someone named Cap'n Chucky suggests his blog heartofdogness.

By Joel Achenbach  |  July 14, 2008; 10:40 AM ET
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Next: Where Are My Bees?

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