Leader Blues

Friday, July 18, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Satire hits target

The raging controversy over this week’s cover of The New Yorker is a better allegory for this presidential campaign than all the rest of the paranoia and insanity that governed its ups and downs.

Both the John McCain and Barack Obama campaigns condemned the magazine for the cover and there were calls for a nationwide boycott of the magazine and its advertisers. The cover, which was typical of thousands of satirical cartoons that have draped the great magazine’s front since its inception in the 1920s, portrayed Sen. Obama and his wife as Middle Eastern terrorists.

Many people, though probably few of the magazine’s sophisticated clientele, thought it an insult of the likely next president of the United States and his wife and believed that it was designed to harm his candidacy. It may indeed have that effect, but if the artist and the magazine had a political motive at all it was almost certainly exactly the opposite. The cover satirized the right-wing campaign to demonize the couple as secret radical Muslims bent upon harming the country.

Satire is The New Yorker’s stock in trade, and its covers and interior cartoons have been lampooning the social order and political puffery with such regularity that it is dull and almost conformist. The July 21 cover is a pictorial counterpart to any of a score of Stephen Colbert shows on the Comedy Channel. Colbert’s schtick is to pretend that he embraces even the most absurd right-wing dogma as he tears into authors and liberal intellects who consent to come on the show and engage in fierce tongue-in-cheek combat with him. But no one calls for Colbert to be banished for the deadpan bigotry that falls from his lips.

The studio audience howls. Everyone there and presumably the national audience understand the real message.

New Yorker readers will have the same appreciation for the ridiculous. The controversy spreads the cover to a much wider and less discerning audience, some of whom may view it as confirmation of the dastardly rumors spread by political enemies of the Democratic nominee for president. But satire always carries such risks. There no doubt were people who believed that Jonathan Swift, whose pamphlet “A Modest Proposal” was published in 1729, advocated that poor Irish families boil their year-old babies for food. Three hundred years should not have left us less cosmopolitan.

-—Ernie Dumas