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The Quicksands of Satire


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Below is a column I wrote that will run on the Opinion Page of the Sun-Sentinel on Wednesday, July 16:

In keeping with the superheated rhetoric of the campaign season, an enormous brouhaha has erupted over the latest cover of the New Yorker magazine, which depicts a turbaned Barack Obama in the Oval Office fist-bumping his wife Michelle. Her hair is coiffed in an Afro, and she is toting an AK-47. There is an ornately framed portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall, and an American flag is burning in the fireplace. The cartoon has been described as inflammatory, and has been condemned by both the Obama and McCain campaigns as insulting and in poor taste.

Satire as a rhetorical device has been around since the ancient Greeks. Probably before that, even, when some Neanderthal stand-up comedian mimicked the effeminate spear-throwing style of his tribal chieftain and got bonked on the head with a club. Speaking as an editorial cartoonist, I have learned, painfully, that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who understand satire, and those who don’t. It would be easy to take the elitist route, and say that an understanding of satire comes as the result of education, but I remember that there were plenty of people in college who relentlessly took things they saw and heard at face value. They were a minority, to be sure, but I think the inability to read the intent of a message as being the opposite of what they are being presented with is a genetic thing. It should not be looked down upon any more than the inability to distinguish colors. You either have the gene, or you don’t.

I suspect that the Obama campaign understood the satire the way it was intended, as a device to showcase exactly how absurd are the many accusations being made about Barack Obama’s (and his wife’s) general suitability to be the President and First Lady. They are running a campaign, however, and they know that when the “satirically challenged” vote, their vote is worth just as much as those who “got” the cartoon. Hence, the show of huffiness. As for the McCain campaign, they’re just making some cheap points, pretending to be great humanitarians while knowing full well that the cartoon reinforces the subliminal and enduring message that opponents of Obama’s candidacy have been so effectively spreading.

As satire, I thought it was a good cartoon. It could have been drawn better, but that’s just a matter of personal taste. Whether it should have run at all is a more nuanced matter. If I were an editor of the New Yorker, I would be fully aware that my readership is a self-selecting group that would more than likely not only understand the satire of the cartoon, but get a hoot out of it. Being familiar with the editorial and visual content of the New Yorker, I am guessing that those who lack the satire gene are unlikely to spend their money on the magazine, so no harm done except when the cover is displayed in public, or becomes the property of the blogosphere and cable TV, as it now has.

From an editor’s point of view, the cover has pleased the magazine’s readership, become controversial, and as a result, sold more magazines—which is the goal of publishing a magazine. From the point of view of a concerned citizen who is interested in making sure the best man for our country is elected President, regardless of who he might be, anything that gets the less-capable person elected for the wrong reasons is to be avoided.

Categories: 2008 Presidential Campaign (79), Barack Obama (172)
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Comments

Chan - in principle, I guess I agree with you. I doubt that anyone who is/was going to vote for Mr Obama has had a change of heart because of this cartoon. The 30% or so of the population who will vote for Mr McBush would never vote for Barack Obama. The last sentence in your column for the 16th sums up my own apprehension about the cartoon, however.


As an American of African descent, I found this New Yorker magazine cover extremely offensive. Since the New Yorker is probably a private company I guess they can do what they want with their cover. But I think they should be fair by publishing an equally offensive cover of the opposition candidate. If not, then the I think the democratic candidte should sue them for defamation of character or something to that effect.


My only issue with the cartoon was that it didn't include an element of who it was satirizing. If they had a picture of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly embracing cowering in fear with the existing cover image in a shared thought balloon, that would have sidestepped the controversy and still got the point across.


As these comments show, no one gets it. Maybe 1% of the readers. In that sense, it was a bad call. If they did have to run it on the cover, they maybe should have put a caption on it for the 99% who will take it at face value. Think of all the Palm Beachers who are posting it on their fridge at this moment, with no whiff of understanding about what it's really trying to say.


Chan Lowe criticizes the New Yorker cover for projecting a negative image of his candidate, Sen. Obama, yet he employed nastier tactics during the campaign season by relentlessly trashing Sen. Clinton in his political cartoons.


Mr. Lowe, I love your cartoons and look forward to them each day. Over the years I’ve grown to understand your slant on life even when I don’t always agree. Familiarity with your work allows me to accept your cutting edge satire and appreciate your insight.

And there in lies the problem with the New Yorker cover.

For those subscribers of the magazine, they have come to understand the editors slant on life even when they don’t totally agree. The familiarity with the publication’s work allows them to accept the cutting edge satire and appreciate the insight the magazine brings to the public.

Since the cover first appeared, it has been displayed and talked about endlessly on every newscast and political discussion, newspaper, and radio show, probably even the Cartoon Network. Millions are seeing and hearing about it for the first time having never read or even seen a copy of The New Yorker. And to many of those millions, this one-time snapshot taken out of context is insulting and disgusting. And that will be the lasting impression they carry away with them concerning the magazine and perhaps even the ridiculous image of Barack and Michelle Obama.

The New Yorker is free to publish anything they want. And we should be proud to live in a country that lets them do so. But I wonder if they really thought this one through completely? I wonder if they realize that a whole bunch of folks won’t “get it” for all the wrong reasons?


Please forward this note to Mr. Lowe as I feel his comments about The New Yorker magazine cover contained some "cheap" shots at McCain (who have publicly denounced The New Yorker cover). Lowe should do his cartoon thing and not engage in editorial comment as he has done today in the Sun-Sentinel.

Gerry Katz


Those who "don't get satire" aren't necessarily genetically defective. When a comedian's audience groans at a joke, he doesn't explain to them that they're just not sophisticated enough to get it. He writes it off as a joke that didn't work.

I'm a lifelong New Yorker reader and I believe I have the satire gene Chan Lowe refers to. I can see what the cartoonist was attempting but I still winced at the image. Sometimes it's the satire that misses the mark--not the reader.


Don't forget the power of a cartoon. Bck in the 1890s, Thomas Nast's cartoons were intrumntal in getting rid of Boss tweed and his Tamany
Hall gang. Most of the people couldn't read but they understood the cartoon illustrations of the corruption. Unfortunately, the New Yorker designed the cover for New Yorker readers and didn't realize how widespread the distribution would be. Many people don't get humor and fewer understand satire.
I think it is something for New Yorker editors to make note of.


OK, Mr. Chan I get the satire. Now, when is McCain going to get the same treatment. How about a cover with Cindy McCain with pill bottles, next to McCain in a wheel chair & a picture of the U.S.S Forrestal. The rumor is that McCain did a wet start on his jet plane which resulted in a devastating fire that killed 134 sailors on 7-29-67. Then we could add something about the favorable treatment McCain is alleged to have gotten as a prisoner of war. Finally, we could add something about his Alheizmer & failing memory for good measure. Now, how do you think that would go over? Is satire, why don't you get it? Lighten up pal!


Oh, I forgot to add, the cartoon cover listed above should all occur inside a Lincoln Savings & Loan Bank, with depositors & tax payers clamoring at the door. How's that for satire?


I have a pretty good "satire gene", but I could not laugh at this New Yorker cartoon. I tested that with some of my friends who also have pretty good "satire genes". No luck there either. No, this cartoon is too much over the head. A caption such as "Politics of Fear" may have softened the blow. But, the way it stands, it backfires. It is sad, that a progressive magazine such as the New Yorker throws raw meat to the other side to chew.


As an artist who often does political satire and caricatures I am fascinated by the controversey over the New Yorker's OBAMAS cover issue.
I might have solved the problem by running the caricature full page inside the magazine to illustrate the story rather that to run it on the cover.


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About the author
Chan LoweCHAN LOWE has been the Sun Sentinel’s first and only editorial cartoonist for the past twenty-six years. Before that, he worked as cartoonist and writer for the Oklahoma City Times and the Shawnee (OK) News-Star.

Chan went to school in New York City, Los Angeles, and the U.K., and graduated from Williams College in 1975 with a degree in Art History. He also spent a year at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.

His work has won numerous awards, including the Green Eyeshade Award and the National Press Foundation Berryman Award. He has also been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His cartoons have won multiple first-place awards in all of the Florida state journalism contests, and The Lowe-Down blog, which he began in 2008, has won writing awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists.
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