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The New Yorker Cover and the Challenge of Satire

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Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Culture Critic
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; 2:00 PM

" 'Successful' satire -- mildly funny, generally anodyne and broadly therapeutic -- needs an 'April Fool's' moment, when the joke is revealed and everyone is at least invited to have a laugh. No, Bob, it's not Friday, it's still Thursday; that report isn't due for another 24 hours and you can climb off the ledge now. Like a practical joke, satire can be hysterically funny without a shared catharsis, but that's often a cruel form of humor. To be effective -- if by effective one means a teachable moment, a transformative bump forward in self-awareness -- the humor must be widely appreciated."

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Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott was online Tuesday, July 15 at 2 p.m. ET to take questions about the New Yorker's controversial, satirical cover, and how it failed and succeeded.

The transcript follows.

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Philip Kennicott: Good afternoon and welcome to the chat. Please send questions and comments...

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San Francisco: I think the New Yorker's cover was an unsuccessful satire because it wasn't clear that it was supposed to parody conservatives' projections about Obama. It would've been more successful if they'd shown Karl Rove or John McCain imagining the cover. As it is, conservative blogs have embraced the cover.

Philip Kennicott: A number of readers have suggested something similar, that the cover needed some graphic or title to contextualize it. The problem with that, however, is it can make the cartoon painfully literal. Any cartoon with a label that says, "this part's funny" probably isn't.

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Washington: I wish Mr. Obama could have had the grace to laugh off the New Yorker cover; instead, this whole campaign is starting to become a contest of who has the thinnest skin. A couple of months ago, the New Yorker had a wonderfully funny cover of Sens. Obama and Clinton under the covers in a shared bed, both reaching for the red phone at 3 a.m. Did anyone get upset about that picture?

Philip Kennicott: Humorlessness is always the danger in politics. I pointed to the "prissy dudgeon" of the Obama campaign in my story. That said, however, I think both campaigns have been remarkably restrained about this. If anything, it's the political audience, the voters, the media and the blogosphere, that has jumped on this issue.

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Meaning of Satire: I personally disagree with the notion that successful satire should at its zenith have a moment where everyone is let in on the joke. The whole point of satire is that only a certain kind of perceptive individual with some kind of exposure to the satirized object will see it for what it's worth. And I agree with Remnick -- if everyone "gets" the satire, then it hasn't been successful. I personally found the cover hilarious and really smart and daring. And yes, it may be elitist, but we're talking New Yorker here!

Philip Kennicott: I agree with you... and tried to distinguish between "effective" or "socially safe" satire, and the more dangerous, anarchic, free-wheeling kind. Which I love. The cartoon failed as "safe satire," but not necessarily as good satire.

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Laurel, Md.: I'm one of those people (and I'm assuming there are lots of us) who think that any who would be swayed by superficialities of Sen. Obama's background is someone who wouldn't vote for him anyway. Is there any indication that things like this are affecting the swing voters in the swing states?

Philip Kennicott: Obviously, the effect on any one daily event in the campaign can't easily be judged. Nor can it be quickly assessed. In my interview with Mr. Remnick, I did ask him about the long-term effects of a controversial New Yorker cover published years ago, the famous 1993 Spiegelman "kiss," and he said he knew of no lasting impact on the magazine. That isn't a political answer, but it is worth pondering.

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Boston: How does this New Yorker's cartoon compare with the Prophet Mohammed cartoon made by the Danish? I mean, are they both offensive, or are they just freedom of expression?

washingtonpost.com: Discussion Transcript: Kennicott on Violent Response to Danish Cartoons (Post, Feb. 10, 2005)

Philip Kennicott: They're both manifestations of the glorious freedom of expression. The reactions differ, obviously. I'd rather be David Remnick fending off cable television than the publisher of the Danish cartoons, facing the real possibility of violence.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: This magazine cover not only feeds the problem, but it is a stepping-off point for discussions that also feed into the myths and the untruths that are magnified by how it is discussed, even on so-called left-wing cable networks. It is not enough for the pundits to say the allegations are untrue when they then conflate the untruth with a "perceived" problem that people don't know Obama and that Obama must inform the people.

Obama has made many speeches and answered questions about his upbringing through ads. Journalists have a duty to uphold their trust and unequivocally need to denounce these untruths, period -- and without opening the door by conflating it with another "Obama problem." Wouldn't it be nice if the journalists actually did their jobs and reported the truth rather than discussing the lies that merely perpetuate the myths?

Philip Kennicott: The Washington Post has published many stories about the rumors and innuendos, and also about the strange willingness of people to believe them despite manifest evidence to the contrary. I can't see how ignoring the problem will make it go away. Exposing it, through satire, may or may not help. But I don't think it can hurt.

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Reading, Pa.: Do you think the editors knew this cover would get so much attention? With sales of paper news and magazines slipping, do you think it was calculated to sell product and get some free publicity ?

Philip Kennicott: I don't know about the internal deliberations that led to the publication of the cover. I suspect that they expected controversy, but perhaps not on this scale. Every magazine uses its cover to gain attention and readers. I like to believe that there was no particularly craven exploitation of controversy in the choice of this cover. But I wasn't there.

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Anonymous: Satire not only can parody, but also can reflect your actual views as well. These images and views are subliminal issues that haunt Obama and his wife.

Philip Kennicott: I don't think this is the case with the New Yorker cover. But I put this comment from Anonymous out there because it is a recurring idea in discussions of humor (and embarrassing mistakes, misspeaking, etc.), the sense that more is revealed than the author, or cartoonist, may have intended. See "parapraxis" in your Freudian dictionary.

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Boston: What is interesting about the New Yorker is not that it is satire but that it expresses the truth about many of Obama's positions. He has close relations with flag-burning terrorists (William Ayers), refuses to wear a flag pin or pledge allegiance ,and his wife is not proud (read ashamed) of America. Where is the satire?

Philip Kennicott: Obama doesn't burn flags, he doesn't advocate burning flags. Nor does he admire Osama bin Laden. He has worn the flag pin, just not always. He has asserted his patriotism and his wife has attempted to explain her remarks about being proud of America. The satire is precisely directed at people who conflate the issues you raise with terrorism, anti-Americanism and violent partisanship.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm a New Yorker subscriber and thought the cover was good satire. Here's what I can't quite grasp: What is it that's supposed to happen if Those Other Dumb People, the ones we're so worried about, fail to get that the cover is satire? I mean, even my uncle with no critical thinking skills isn't going to see the cartoon and think it's some secret photograph showing Obama's true daily life. Is the greatest fear that The Dumb People will make it into posters and hang it on their walls? And if so, who the heck cares?

Philip Kennicott: I tried to suggest that with print, in particular, there is a fear that we can't monitor its consumption, and interpretation. So yes, the fear is that other people will take the wrong message from this image.

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Arlington, Va.: Satire, first and foremost, must be funny. There is nothing funny about this cartoon. (I'm a New Yorker subscriber, and so part of the snooty demographic I'm sure they aimed this at that should "get it.") It is poorly executed; if the title appeared on the cartoon it might help; if it was conceived as a painting by a right-wing blogger or a thought balloon over Sean Hannity's head, it might help; but as is, it simply doesn't work, and it's also offensive.

The self-satisfied rationalizations of David Remnick (who, by the way, is the son of friends of my family but gets no slack for that) are pathetic, and reek of the rarefied New Yorker (magazine and people) attitude that they "get it" and others should too. I think that this will have some affect on the election -- they've handed the ignorant boobs who believe the crap they were trying (but failed) to satirize a perfectly conceived vehicle to spread their lies to others who won't "get it" either ... and they could affect an election.

Philip Kennicott: I doubt it will effect the election. And if the New Yorker stop being "rarefied," why would we keep reading? Once again, I vote against the thought bubble, or posting a title on the image. If we take interpretation out of the hands of readers, we're in a scary place.

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Bellingham, Wash.: First, I'm a subscriber, I love the New Yorker and look forward to it in my mailbox every Friday. I loved the cover a while back with Obama and Clinton fighting over the phone at 3 a.m., but what the heck were they thinking this time? My concern isn't that the cartoon wasn't funny (which it wasn't). My worry isn't that some "nut-job right-wing bumpkin" who isn't as smart as me won't get it.

What chaps my hide is that the vast majority of folks who will see the cover won't see it on the newsstand, but instead will experience it thru the lens of FOX News and Limbaugh et al. Those outlets are not going to cover the "subtleties" of the "satire." It will be presented as either "Obama can't take a joke" or more likely, "Obama objects to being portrayed as a Muslim terrorist" without bothering to explain that he is neither.

Second, it's pretty lame to say "see, it's a joke -- it's right there in the title of the cartoon" when the title is in six-point type five pages into the magazine at the bottom of the table of contents. That's not helping. Finally, I'm expecting an apology -- and not of the "we're sorry you didn't get it" variety -- before I renew my subscription. Thanks for the chat...

Philip Kennicott:"Finally, I'm expecting an apology." Really? Will that help? Hasn't the rhetorical exercise of offense and apology become just a bit old, by now? Apologies, as you note, are rarely sincerely. And they are received by people who are rarely forgiving. So often, political and cultural controversy feels like a chess game, rather than a real exchange or debate.

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Philadelphia: I have not yet seen the magazine, but it is my understanding there is no accompanying article on Obama in that issue. I should think if one is going to do a cover that there should be a related inside story, especially one that could go into explaining the message behind the cover. Seriously, if I see someone on a cover, I expect there to be an article about that person inside the magazine.

washingtonpost.com: Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama (New Yorker, July 21 issue)

Philip Kennicott: In fact, there is an article about Obama in the issue, though it's not specifically about "the politics of fear." One thing I love about the New Yorker is that it doesn't feel obligated to tie its covers to particular stories. That gives the cover artist considerably more freedom.

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Arlington, Va.: Today's editorial said that humor must be widely appreciated, and I couldn't agree more. I wasn't offended by the cover, but I didn't understand it, and I certainly didn't understand why it was on the front of a liberal magazine. I thought the New Yorker had changed its tune. This reminds me of the old "if a tree falls in the forest" riddle: If a joke isn't funny (or no one gets it), is it still a joke?

Philip Kennicott: I think a lot of people got the joke. People who get jokes laugh. People who don't, or are offended, make noise. Also, it's worth pointing out that not all humor is funny, at least in the sense of making a roomful of people fall over with side-splitting laughter. If every joke had to register six or higher on the laugh-o-meter a lot of mildly amusing, but thought provoking humor would be left on the sidelines.

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Boston: Why do politicians have to speak in such grand absolutes. "Tasteless and offensive"? Why can't he just say he thinks it's not funny and move on. Obama made a point of mentioning this over-the-top wordplay was silly with the earlier "reject" vs. "renounce and denounce" flap during the primary, so why get roped into this unfunny nonevent?

Philip Kennicott: The "tasteless and offensive" remark was from the campaign. Obama, at least as of yesterday, just smiled and refused comment.

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To Bellingham, Wash.: It's easy to cancel a subscription online, as I found out yesterday. You even will receive an automatic refund!

Philip Kennicott: As a working journalist, can I just suggest the possibility that we not all cancel our subscriptions every time something offends us? I know it's tempting. But here's an analogy: I live in a neighborhood with about two really good restaurants, at which I don't always have a really good meal. If everyone refused to return based on one overcooked plate of tuna, I'd live in a neighborhood with no good restaurants at all.

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Anonymous: Did Obama give the story longer legs with his reaction, and do you think he now wishes he had just ignored it or laughed it off?

Philip Kennicott: I'd love to see politicians laugh more things off. But I don't think Obama had many choices about how to nip this in the bud. I don't think he actively fanned the flames, however.

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Penfield, N.Y.: The MSNBC mavens are making such a deal of this that you would think the New Yorker had given McCain a victory in the Supreme Court. Certainly all the people who still think Obama is a Muslim and care whether he is or isn't not only wouldn't vote for him, but probably don't have the New Yorker on display in their local newsstands. The real problem is that it makes Barack look like a Muslim sissy while Michelle looks like the terrorist we all would love to be captured by.

Philip Kennicott: Some sensible observations on cable television, followed by a bit of curious personal fantasy. Make of it what you will.

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Arlington, Va.: As an agnostic centrist who'll likely be voting for Obama this fall, I found The New Yorker's cover to be completely irresponsible. I think the whole issue of Obama being a Muslim/non-Muslim is completely irrelevant, because the Constitution does specify a little thing called "freedom of religion." And really, what business is it of ours what faith he belongs to? He has the right to worship as he pleases, just as you and I do. As such, it's nobody else's business but his how he worships.

But what bothers me even more is the automatic association that being a Muslim equals being a terrorist. Why does this stereotype keep getting perpetuated? Frankly, I'm shocked that there are those who are ignorant enough to subscribe to that stereotype, and the New Yorker sure didn't help matters -- their claims of satire notwithstanding.

Philip Kennicott: This post suggests that while thinking the New Yorker's satire failed, the writer nonetheless has entered into the issues raised by the cover and thought them through reasonably. So did it really fail?

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Crystal City, Va.: Would there be such a big outcry if Sen. McCain had been the subject of a New Yorker cover?

Philip Kennicott: It would depend on how he was depicted. Suggestions? What hidden, dark, but untrue thoughts do liberals hold about John McCain that might be satirized on the New Yorker cover?

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Washington: I am genuinely puzzled. How, exactly, would an anti-Obama person use this cover to prove all those allegations about Obama?

Philip Kennicott: I don't know. But this is more proof that we have entered into what might be called the age of "magical truth" when it comes to images. Particularly photographs and printed images (as opposed to what we find on television and the Internet). We fear their very presence might somehow confirm truths that are obviously absurd. We impute this bad habit to other people, rarely ourselves.

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Woonsocket, R.I.: I've been thinking about this cover, and in retrospect I'm glad about one thing: That it included no reference to Obama's reversal of positions on FISA or abortion rights. Unlike everything portrayed in the cover, the FISA and abortion issues are real. As for the cover itself, you must be deleterious happy! When's the last time anyone from the New Yorker got so much press and TV coverage?

Philip Kennicott: I'm not particularly happy or unhappy about the attention this cover has received. Perhaps the publishers of the New Yorker are. I don't know. But remember, the old bromide about any attention, in journalism, being good attention isn't necessarily true. A lot of publications have a brand name, and a reputation for probity or ideological consistency, that is at least as important to them as mere numbers of readers. This one reason the Washington Post doesn't publish scantily clad pin-ups on the cover.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Bellingham, Wash.: "Second, it's pretty lame to say "see, it's a joke -- it's right there in the title of the cartoon" when the title is in six-point type five pages into the magazine at the bottom of the table of contents. That's not helping."

Mr. Kennicott, how many times in the past year has the New Yorker had a title or a caption on it's cover? Most covers don't have a single word other than "The New Yorker," "price" and the issue date. Bellingham, Wash., claims to be a subscriber. Apparently, contrary to what The Post might think, some people who get it still don't get it.

Philip Kennicott: A reader makes a point...

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Silver Spring, Md.:"It's easy to cancel a subscription online, as I found out yesterday. You even will receive an automatic refund!" Lord, who are all these easily-offended, humorless New Yorker subscribers? I assumed, based on the content and, you know, the whole rarified-atmosphere thing we've got goin', that we would all get this sort of thing. And if not, that we'd be able to let it roll off our snooty backs. I'm totally weirded about by the anger these people are showing at one cover in years of reading.

Philip Kennicott: Another reader, standing to the side of the fray, finding it all just a little bizarre...

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"Finally, I'm expecting an apology." Really? Will that help?: True, it won't undo the lameness of the cartoon, but it would help me feel better about forking over another $49.95. It's not about fixing it for me, but acknowledging the harm and taking some responsibility for the action. It would help set the magazine apart from the mouth-breathers who will be shilling the cartoon from now until November.

Philip Kennicott: You suggest canceling your subscription as a corrective action, to steer the New Yorker in the right direction. Fair enough. But I suspect that the increase in self-scrutiny at the New Yorker that you'd like to see happen has/is/will continue to happen, especially in light of the last 24 hours.

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Fairfax, Va.: People just seem upset that someone out there is dumb enough to think it's not a joke. It's still an effective satire. What's next, I no longer am allowed to laugh at "Borat," because some people don't know it's a joke.

Philip Kennicott: Fortunately, we all do most of our laughing at this sort of thing at home. Play on, Borat! But imagine a dystopian future where laughter could be monitored, in public and private. Yuck, my skin is crawling.

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New York: Is it fair to say that I got it, I just didn't think it was funny? And I wondered if it would have a corrosive effect on Obama's identity? On the other hand, I still laugh when I look at Steinberg's cartoon of a New Yorker's view of the world.

Philip Kennicott: As I tried to argue in my piece, I think the current cover is rather similar in many ways to the famous Steinberg cover, at least in its innate New Yorkiness.

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New York: The last time the New Yorker got a lot of coverage was for last week with Seymour Hersh's story. This New Yorker is not my father's (or William Shawn's) Oldsmobile. Though not quite Tina Brown's.

Philip Kennicott: Someone who follows the ripples coming from Manhattan.

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Washington: I'm an Obama supporter, and I thought it was hilarious -- not on the strength of the cartoon, but on the fact that a portion of the population would take it and the general rumors it satirized seriously. I would laugh equally hard at a cartoon of Bush and Cheney in some basement bunker masterminding some sort of Sept, 11 conspiracy -- there's a large segment of the population that seems to believe that. I mean, these are the most bumbling "masterminds" this country has ever seen. If Americans can't laugh at our absurdities once in a while (left and right), we'll never grow to recognize them ... or overcome them.

Philip Kennicott: An answer to my call for cartoon suggestions...

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Lancaster, Pa.: I think of it had been inside the magazine, rather than on the cover, I would have been more comfortable with it. The demographic that gets it would have seen it. As it is, I just worry that the image reinforces the ideas it's trying to make fun of.

Philip Kennicott: I post this as perhaps the most representative observation I've received today.

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Any cartoon with a label that says "this part's funny" probably isn't.: Bingo! Cartoon not funny. Cartoon only serves to perpetuate that which it attempts to satire. Cartoonist, please return to drawing board. Editor, please stop making excuses for crappy cartoon.

Philip Kennicott: Or maybe this is the most representative (from the "didn't find it funny" crowd):

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Herndon, Va.: Remnick said the illustration was titled "The Politics Of Fear. Why didn't they print that title on the cover? I think that would have made their intentions more clear.

Philip Kennicott: And this brings us pretty much full circle, from the "put a label on it" folks:

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Washington, aka La La Land: I wonder if all those Republicans with a new found sense of satire would be making the same comments if the cover had had Bush snorting a line off the desk in the Oval Office with Cheney sitting on the sofa stuffing money from an oil sheik into his pockets. I'm also sure than many offended Obama supporter would be e-mailing links to that to all their friends once they got up off the floor from laughing.

Philip Kennicott: Another cover suggestion, though it came in before I solicited ideas. I have to say, I'm not sure anyone would find this funny, though some people might find it satisfying to see in print.

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Philip Kennicott: And there it is, another fun-filled hour of cartoon navel-gazing come to a close. I've enjoyed fielding your questions. And I encourage cartoonists everywhere to keep pushing us into uncomfortable places.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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