I think the cover was hilarious, but whether it is or it isn't is no longer the issue, at least for me: I'm more interested in the "harmful" part.
It's true that satire is a risky business these days: I've been badly bitten myself. There's too much information-flow, too many extremes. Satire, after all, is based upon exaggeration for effect, but everything these days is exaggerated, and its only intended effect is usually literal acceptance. Faith healing evangelists out-Gantry Gantry; a Republican celebrates Hitler's birthday; Obama is the anti-Christ (a trope that the New Yorker missed--I would have liked an upside-down cross on the wall); 9/11 was an inside job. The President of the United States, told of the World Trade Center calamity, couldn't tear his attention away from a children's book.* We have wide-stance anti-gay crusaders, frolicking priests, literally loony miracle cures, political yahoos stalking children, foam food, animal weddings and Christ on a
How do you satirize this stuff? There's simply no room left for exaggeration, and even if there were, folks would take it seriously anyhow. That's the argument about the New Yorker cover. And it's wrong.
We are talking about a political campaign, allegedly an exercise in democracy, in the land of the First Amendment where almost everything goes. There's a hubbub of voices, brought to us by mass media that, as the name implies, mediate: we get nothing raw, everything slanted, translated, reformulated and carefully selected. We are challenged, even the most politically savvy of us, to keep our feet and figure things out.
In this maelstrom where all extremes meet, the race for the centre is well under way: Obama is betraying every principle he never had and McCain is simpering platitudes to a people already ODing on them.
It's the eye of the storm. Head for calm, where nothing moves. Say nothing, do nothing, that could offend anyone. Pretend to be just like the other guy, and let the people decide, if they're still awake.
And the worst part is that so many people agree that this is just as it should be. The inherent elitism here should be soundly rejected by any progressive. Instead, it's embraced. Americans are just too dumb to figure out the satire, the story goes--hence it's failed satire. Doesn't this sound suspiciously akin to the "soft bigotry of low expectations" of which we as progressives are occasionally accused by conservatives (who apparently prefer the hard bigotry of no expectations)? It's something to be steadfastly avoided, I would have thought, by anyone who supports that fundamentally democratic principle: power to the people.
Let's untangle all this. First, there is no homogeneous American audience, dumb or otherwise. It's precisely for that reason that Obama and McCain, like most other presidential candidates within living memory, are seeking that safe centre where all the vectors cancel out. It's a lousy strategy, and it makes for political elevator music. Eventually all that matters is whether this candidate has bad hair, or that one wears a flag pin. This sort of stuff leaves most people unsatisfied, or in a continued state of somnambulism. But that doesn't mean that they are all the same, or that they like things as they are, or that there is no alternative. It's just that no one's giving them a chance to have anything else.
Secondly, there are smart Americans and benighted ones, but few of them ground their beliefs in and make their political choices on the basis of a cartoon. If they do happen to see it, they might misinterpret it, take it seriously, or get the point, but not too many will confuse it with a photograph or a text or Holy Writ. For American voters already predisposed to see Obama as a monster, the cartoon will simply play back a message they've already received. (Gordon Liddy tells us the New Yorker finally got it right. This has my friend Chet worried. But seriously, does anyone except a jittery liberal or two give an airborne fornication about that woo-woo nutbar and anything he says?)
For those who like Obama, or dislike the shrill wingnuts and the lies they tell, they'll either see the cover for the send-up of the screechy Right that it is, and chuckle, or they'll get offended, or they'll do both, the latter for rhetorical effect, or because they believe their fellow-citizens won't get it, or because they don't get it. And then there will be people who are just puzzled, and even more people who will never get to see either the cover or the controversy.
The media are not exactly fanning the flames here, either. They're giving play, not to the cartoon, but to the controversy around it--a controversy manufactured by timorous liberals. All the reports I've seen get the satire angle right. Ordinary Americans reading about the controversy will grab the main elements: the cover wasn't intended to be taken literally, but some nervous folks in the Obama camp think it will be. And those average American voters have every right to be offended, not by the cartoon, but by the profound condescension and disrespect for them that the Obama camp is nervously displaying.
But the real threat here is more general: we're watching our progressive allies hammer yet another nail into the coffin of political debate. Anything that rises above a dull literalism, or ventures into wit, or indeed requires anything on the part of the masses except absorption, is to be avoided at all costs. It'll be slapped down from all sides as "tasteless and offensive" (McCain's folks know an opening for a high road dash when they see one). Should such fare be carefully labeled for the unwashed so they know what they're actually seeing, as Spike Lee felt constrained to do for his film Bamboozled? "The following cartoon, although intended to be humorous, contains images that some voters may find offensive or disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised."
This isn't politics; it's palliative care.
But the stakes always seem to be too high for us progressives to take unnecessary chances. We need to court the "mainstream," the wisdom goes, even if that stream runs in narrower and narrower channels every day. This is a political campaign, and so we need to be political, and not offend all those stupid voters. Ditch the satirical cartoons, OK? And ditch any serious policy options, while we're at it.
Progressives are, I had hoped, about more than good ideas and possible alternatives. We're supposed to be about process as well: a democratic process that involves and challenges people, and gives them control of decisions that affect them. How does this square with deliberately sheltering them out of fear that they might be misled by this, or offended by that? Who the hell do we think we are? Where do we think we're going with this?
Real cut-and-thrust political commentary in the country of the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates has been turned into bland pudding, and we're in that goo up to our necks, even those of us who aren't American but support this strategy, if strategy it can be called. And partly because of this, real choices disappear. Suddenly our guy is no longer clear on getting the troops out of Iraq. In the Senate he votes for a dangerous new government spy-on-citizens bill. On the campaign trail he expresses support for the death penalty for non-capital crimes. He speaks up for traditional marriage, and against inner-city handgun control. He thinks more young people should join the army.
Just as well, say his strategists and allies. Otherwise we might get George Bush again. Well, fellow progressives, that we will--no matter how the ballots are cast. And we're doing our bit to ensure it.
*(Well, there was indeed a little room for satire there...)