Tuesday, July 15, 2008

That New Yorker Cover

As everyone knows by now, the New Yorker published a controverisal cartoon on the cover of its latest issue, which depicts Barack Obama in Muslim garb, doing a fist bump with his wife Michelle, who is carrying a machine gun. Oy!

What's interesting to me about the cartoon controversy is what it shows about the importance of context in interpretation. As I look at the cartoon, in its context as the cover of the New Yorker, I see an unsuccessful attempt at humor. I can see, as the New Yorker's editor, David Remnick claims in defense of the cover, the attempt to satirize right-wing attacks on the Obama's patriotism. But it's too complicated to be really funny. You have to first get over your shock at what the cover depicts, then think about what it means, and finally get to the point of recognizing it as a satire of what it depicts. It's not nearly as funny as the cover from a few months ago that depicted Obama and Hilary Clinton in bed together, both reaching for a ringing red phone at 3 a.m. That one also satirized an attack on Obama, but in a playful, instantly funny way. This one doesn't work for me, but I do see it as attempted humor.

But what if the National Review or the Weekly Standard had published the exact same thing? I would be outraged! I wouldn't see it as funny at all. I wouldn't even see it as an attempt to be funny. I would see it as an outrageous, totally unwarranted attack on Obama's patriotism, not as a satire on such attacks.

It all goes to show you how challenging interpretation is, and how delicate humor is. The exact same thing can have different meanings, depending on who says it.


Anonymous said...

I thought about the cover in light of the Washington Post article about voters in Flag City, Ohio, who believe false rumors about Obama's religion and beliefs. Do you think there is a risk that a segment of society will not understand the humor in the cover and it will confirm their worst suspicions? Or are those voters already so far gone that it doesn't matter?

Chris said...


My guess is that the voters in Flag City, Ohio wouldn't know how to find a copy of the New Yorker if they wanted to.