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.