15 July 2008

Tasteless Satire? I Would Say the Opposite: Spicy and Bitter!

Both defenders and detractors of the New Yorker's Obamas-as-Terrorists satirical cover cartoon, The Politics of Fear, miss their respective points. It is true what critics of the cartoon say, that the cover art is tasteless and offensive. But it's supposed to be tasteless and offensive! Just ask Northrop Frye:
“Two things, then, are essential to satire; one is wit or humour founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd, the other is an object of attack” (p. 224). Irony itself is the “humor founded on … a sense of the grotesque or absurd,” as Frye describes. Irony is the delivery vehicle; it is the attack that transforms irony into satire. As Frye observes, “The chief distinction between irony and satire is that satire is militant irony” (p. 223). [Quotations from Frye, N. (1957). The Anatomy of Criticism: Four essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.]
Militant irony - I like that. Sort of fits with the subject matter. The key to understanding the problematics with the cover is to understand who, or what, is the target of that militant irony according to who views the cover.

There are many in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who are literalists. They often appear on the right of the political spectrum. They do not understand the nature of either irony or satire - they are the say-what-you-mean-and-mean-what-you-say, plain talkin' folks that largely voted for GWB in the first (and second) place. Many of these people, who have already expressed their distrust of Barack Obama, will only see the cover, and not read - let alone understand - the accompanying article on "politics of fear."

As it stands, depending on which poll you read, somewhere in the vicinity of one-third to nearly one-half of Americans polled in fact believe that Barack Obama is (or was) Muslim (he isn't and wasn't), and/or cavorts with terrorists (he doesn't). For them, the satirical nature of the cartoon will be missed, and their politics-of-fear beliefs are confirmed and reinforced. They will not perceive, nor be able to comprehend, that it is their own beliefs that are being satirized through, in Frye's words, "wit or humour founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd."

But in thinking about it, humour founded on fantasy, the grotesque and the absurd sort of describes American politics these days, doesn't it?

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Anonymous said...

The only reason that this Mr. & Mrs. Obama satire DOES have impact — and may very likely spread — is because like all good satire, or good humor for that matter, there’s more than a germ of truth in it. Otherwise, the satire would utterly roll off the Obamoids’ backs, having no impact.

Mark Federman said...

That's right, malloy, but not the way I think you're thinking of it. The satire is of those who continue to promote the lies about Barack Obama, which is why the cartoon is satirical as opposed to libellous. By making the image so over-the-top with respect to all the false accusations of the extreme right wing, the absurdity of those accusations is brought into sharp focus.

As for the candidate himself, he is indeed allowing this to roll off his back, once again demonstrating that he is a bigger man than the haters and the liars. Good leadership qualities there, I think.