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New Yorker's impaired sense of irony

There is a massive tempest in a teacup at the moment, concerning this week's New Yorker cover. It is obviously satire; is it in poor taste? Is it a brilliant statement about the absurdity of the charges that have been levelled against Barack Obama? Is it astoundingly tone-deaf? Or are Americans just irony-impaired?

It seems to me that the New Yorker is the irony-impaired party here; perhaps their cartoonist's theme song should be Alanis Morissette's "Ironic", filled as it was with descriptions of things that are not ironic at all. The cover is drawn like any old political cartoon; these are, of course, almost always satire, just as the New Yorker's cover claims to be. The message of most political cartoons is clear - it's putting a satirical spin on some situation its subject was in. The message of, say, this one is to satirize the (real) hypocrisy of the US about global pollution. This one is making fun of Jesse Jackson based upon things he's really said and done.

The problem with the New Yorker cover is that there is no clue, either visual or via a caption, to tell the reader "this is a satire of something that isn't real", or "this is a satire about a bunch of false images of the subject." You're expected to take a leap of comprehension that isn't normal for political cartoons, with no cue to do so. If that cartoon were printed on the cover of some sort of Fox News magazine, without caption, the message would be clear: Obama is a Muslim terrorist-loving America-hating weirdo. As it is, coming from the New Yorker, the reader is left with (not particularly funny) ambiguity, and confusion about what the message is supposed to be. Basically, if the whole image were drawn inside a TV screen box with a logo of "Fair and Balanced" or some such, it would have been a lot funnier, much more understandable, and probably not have caused a whisper of outrage.

So the critics of the critics, in a sense, are right. Americans are terrible at irony. It's just that the New Yorker is right up there with them.


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Comments (2)

Marc Hummel:

I think your article contains the answer to the question you are asking: "If that cartoon were printed on the cover of some sort of Fox News magazine..."

The fact that it was printed on the cover of the New Yorker, and not just some other magazine, IS the context/caption/whatever you need to tell you that it's satire. Every subscriber to the New Yorker "got it" when they saw it in their mailbox.

The problem was when "the media" picked it up and showed it to a bunch of people unfamiliar to the New Yorker without (or even with) an explanation of the magazine's demographics and/or political stance.


Hello, and welcome to my tiny little corner of the Internet.

I do think it was clear to subscribers that the cartoon couldn't possibly have had the "Fox" interpretation, and that it must therefore have been meant as some form of joke or satire. So you're right that they probably "got it" at least to that extent. But I still think, as I said above, that the overall message was too ambiguous. And so it wasn't particularly funny, and didn't particularly work.

(I'm sure there was a lot of out-of-context ignorance in the mainstream media, but being way over here in the UK I didn't see very much of that. I mostly saw the cover discussed in a few forums where I am a member, with their fair share of New Yorker subscribers. And there were plenty of subscribers who thought it didn't really work either...)

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Posted on July 15, 2008 6:19 PM.

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