Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The problem with satire as a political tool is that it’s virtually
always a two-edged sword. One would expect the editors of a literary
magazine like The New Yorker to realize that. Its July 21 cover
caricaturing Barack and Michelle Obama as Oval Office revolutionaries,
complete with Kalashnikov, a portrait of Osama bin Laden and an American
flag ablaze in the fireplace, couldn’t help but cut several ways. Had
the drawing more resembled its subjects—the thin-lipped Obama is
portrayed with thick, pursed lips—the controversy might have been
sharper. As it was, furious debate erupted about whether a cartoon
lampooning the crackpot whisper campaign portraying Obama as a covert
Muslim and his wife as white hating extremist might reinforce those
smears among the influential Moron American community. The correct
answer is: We’ll see. Satire’s more ambiguous than its keenest
practitioners sometimes acknowledge. Consider my two literary heroes,
Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. Although each was celebrated for his
clarity of style, both saw their greatest work misconstrued and misused.
Orwell, who revered Swift and wrote “Animal Farm” in frank imitation of
“Gulliver’s Travels,” also wrote an influential and spectacularly
wrongheaded essay about it.
What artists intend has a limited effect on audience response. Swift’s
antic imagination often seemed at odds with his conservative principles.
As a young Anglican priest, he wrote “Tale of a Tub” to mock the
excesses of Puritanism and the corruptions of Catholicism, explosive
political issues in 1704. So vivid was his imagery, however, that Queen
Anne wrongly suspected him of atheism and banished him to Ireland, the
land of his birth.
Swift got even in “Gulliver’s Travels,” where the minuscule Emperor of
Lilliput charges the gigantic hero with treason for extinguishing a
palace fire by urinating on it. His anonymous pamphlet, “A Modest
Proposal,” was a deadpan proposal that English landlords fatten native
Irish children for roasting instead of letting them starve.
Swift’s fierce indignation made him a national hero; he became the
Solzhenitsyn of 18th century Ireland. But the English quit treating the
Irish worse than cattle only after IRA terrorists drove them out in
Orwell first submitted his satirical allegory, “Animal Farm,” to British
publishers in 1943. He was infuriated when editor/poet Eliot refused on
patriotic grounds to publish a book depicting Soviet leaders as pigs
immediately following the siege of Stalingrad, the bloodiest battle in
human history, and the turning point of World War II. Orwell thought it
folly to delude oneself about communism, even as Josef Stalin’s armies
were decimating the Nazis.
After the war, “Animal Farm” became an instant classic. It’s arguably
the most influential political book since 1945. Yet Orwell had to
explain that he meant to attack communism, not democratic socialism,
which he passionately favored. Millions of readers didn’t get it.
By 1948, Orwell found himself explaining that “1984,” his futuristic
anti-totalitarian novel, wasn’t a prediction of what would happen, but a
satirical warning against what could. Like Swift’s, his vivid imagery
sent inadvertent messages he hadn’t foreseen.
Both authors added concepts to the language: “Lilliputian,” “ Yahoo,”
“Big Brother,” “doublethink.” But never entirely on their own terms.
And the Obama cartoon? Well, it depends. Whether verbal or visual, any
time an artist tries to say something by depicting its opposite in
parodic form, the potential for misunderstanding is great. The implied
target of the New Yorker caricature isn’t the Obamas, but conspiracy
minded rubes taken in by viral e-mails suggesting there’s something
furtive and sinister about the presumptive Democratic nominee.
They look at him, they see a Muslim secret agent cunningly programmed to
surrender America to the terrorists who won’t salute the flag, took his
oath of office on a Koran and whose wife wants to kill white people.
Before chastising the magazine’s hoity-toity attitude, let’s stipulate
that some fools do buy this nonsense. As they’re surely 21-percenters,
however—people who still think President Bush is doing a bang-up job—the
political impact is apt to be nil. But if I were making an anti-Obama TV
commercial, I’d definitely secure the rights to Carly Simon’s “You’re So
Vain.” As a young literary scholar of my acquaintance put it, “Satire
can tell us things about the artist’s community that The New Yorker may
not have intended. The cover lampoons the portrait of Obama as an
Islamic militant, but it also illuminates some real misgivings about the
many things we just don’t know about him behind his hope-y change-y
façade. It gives us a glimpse of anxieties perhaps even felt by the
over-eager media. Most people won’t believe the extremist portrait, but
they’ll intuitively grasp the uneasiness behind it.” The real danger’s
not that Obama is perceived as a secret agent, but that he is seen as an
unknown quantity, too glib a shape-shifter to be trusted. Despite
worshipful media coverage of his pilgrimage to the Middle East and
Europe, that remains a strong possibility.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.