Thursday, July 24, 2008

Strike While The Irony's Hot

The anger of so many liberal Democrats at the New Yorker’s cover cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama was only to be expected, of course, especially the Obamamaniacs for whom hushed reverence before His Total Coolness is the only acceptable attitude. As the satirist Ellen Willis once wrote, “Humorless is what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls.It carries no imputation of humorlessness if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth.”

Humor isn’t really the issue, though. I didn’t think the cartoon was funny because I don’t like the artist’s style, and he didn’t do anything with the joke, but I recognized that it was satire and what it was intended to mean. The outrage was especially ironic because it tended to come from apparently white, educated liberals, the kind of people who look down on literalism and ignorance in their political opponents. For that matter, I’m sure many of these people must be, if not fans, then at least aware of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park, and The Onion, the pillars of mainstream American satire. So their objections that the New Yorker cover was tasteless must be disingenuous. More likely, though, they’ve just chosen to forget that good satire is tasteless, offensive, and outrageous.

Most of them have heard, surely, of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, published in 1729, which advocated fattening Irish babies for the tables of English diners. Can you get much more tasteless than that? Maybe – in 1967 Paul Krassner published a piece in his magazine The Realist, parodying William Manchester’s tome The Death of a President; in one scene Jackie Kennedy discovered Lyndon Johnson copulating with her dead husband’s neck wound. Barbara Garson’s play Macbird! also mocked Johnson bitterly and tastelessly, casting LBJ as Macbeth.

At his Counterpunch site Alexander Cockburn wrote:

The editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, claims to be stunned and upset that satire has been confused with reality. … Either Remnick is being disingenuous or he’s really stupid. Anyone familiar with editing material for the internet knows that satire is always taken as literal truth.

Fair enough, except for that last remark about the internet: satire has always been indigestible to many people. Cockburn should know, having written and published a fair amount of satire himself, including a famous 1983 piece depicting Adolf Hitler interviewed by Andy Warhol. Notoriously, the popularity of Norman Lear’s sitcom All in the Family relied at least partly on viewers who admired Archie Bunker and didn’t realize that the program mocked him.

The singer-songwriter Randy Newman, whose best work is built on American politics including racial politics, has often been (mis)taken literally. Most singers who cover his song “Sail Away” change the line “Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me” to something like “Climb aboard, little child…” – apparently unaware that the song’s narrator is a slave trader luring Africans aboard his ship. A few years later, his “Short People” (“got no reason to live”) inspired controversy and protest, giving him his first hit, to Newman’s amusement. I wonder what the people who admire “Political Science”, which calls for America to “drop the Big One” on an ungrateful world, think it’s about; judging from this YouTube video and the comments it inspired, at least some think he meant it literally. And most effective of all, his “Rednecks” enraged white liberals for its use of the N word and its indictment of Northern racism, and white Southerners for its negative stereotyping of white Southerners. (“College men from LSU / Went in dumb, come out dumb too.”)

The reasons why the New Yorker’s Obama cover enraged so many liberals are obvious enough (to me, anyway): it’s Just Not Nice to make fun of someone they like (not a uniquely liberal belief, of course), and it’s a cliché that Americans in general don’t have much of a feel for irony. As I’ve suggested before, the American distaste for irony may have roots in our puritan heritage, which doesn’t like ambiguity. But deafness to irony may not be quite the problem either. I think the same people who were furious at the New Yorker can follow satire when its target is someone or something they don’t like, as with Vanity Fairs parody of the New Yorker cover, which mocks John McCain as an old man with a walker and his wife as a pill-popper in sweatpants while the US Constitution burns in the fireplace. As satire, it’s about on a par with Rush Limbaugh’s infamous joke about Chelsea Clinton as the White House dog (which Limbaugh later pretended he didn’t mean). But the comments at the VF site are revealing: for one commenter “The important difference between this cover and The New Yorker cover is that the satire here is based on facts. Excellent!” But the New Yorker cover was based on the fact that many Americans believe that Obama is a closet Muslim; that fact was cited by many of the cover’s critics as a reason why it was bad. (But then, Obama fans didn’t react kindly to Naomi Klein’s earlier reminder that being called a Muslim isn’t a smear.)

[P.S. Rereading all this, I realized that the people who complained about Blitt's cartoon but liked the one in Vanity Fair really don't understand what satire is. They think it means something like "Hahaha! John McCain is old! Rush Limbaugh is fat!" Which means they are as dumb as any dittohead who thinks "Michael Moore is fat" is a devastating critique.]

At its most basic, satire can’t be fact; it involves stretching fact into caricature until it shows the horrifying reality on the other side of caricature. (Today The Nation weighed in with its own contribution, a cartoon which shows Eustace Tilley sitting stunned on the floor of the Oval Office, one eye blackened, his monocle smashed, and a bloody tooth on the carpet, while a grinning Michelle brandishes a sign saying “Get Whitey” – just kidding, it says “Round 2”. Barack proudly holds up the fist with which he decked the effete rascal, and with the other hand tosses the offending issue of the magazine into the fireplace. The Nation site touts the image as “Edgy, controversial, hard-hitting... and funny.” Haw, haw, haw. And does The Nation think this is a positive image of Obama for progressives?)

Because I refuse to split the world into good guys and bad guys, I also think that good satire should be double-edged: it should make the viewer uncomfortable, laughing and wincing at the same time. It’s not really odd that nominally Christian Americans prefer to ignore the beam in their own eyes -- that too is one of Jesus’ teachings that most Christians prefer to ignore – they’re just leaning harder on the sheep vs. goats Manichaeism of the rest of Jesus’ teaching.) That’s why in my satire of the Greek system, for example, I used the rhetoric of the antigay Christian right, to try on the perspective of a position I deplore; and why it was both depressing and gratifying to find that other gay people would thoughtlessly welcome seeing fraternity boys and sorority girls as if they were, well, queers. If satire doesn’t stir the satirist’s own anxieties a little, it’s not going far enough.

I can’t shake the feeling that for white liberals, anyway, Barry Blitt’s cartoon (probably unintentionally) touched a nerve: their own desire for a nice Negro politician who isn’t angry, won’t make them feel uncomfortable or guilty, a Magic Negro who will give them what they want without requiring that they change themselves. Remember that appalling video from earlier this year, with Obama fans telling us what they want to find under the tree this Christmas?

“I would like to see a cleaner earth for my child that I’m bringing into the world very soon,” says one smiling young woman. “It’s time for change,” a serious young white man agrees, “I want a better future for my children.” “I would like our environment to be safe,” an elegant African American woman adds. “Someone to actually make a difference in my generation,” says a white man with close-cropped hair and what appears to be a bruised eye, wearing a bomber jacket and hoodie. “I would like to see us in a world without fear,” says a man with his arm around a smiling woman. “Basically, um, I just want the war to end,” says a young Latina who earlier assured the viewer that “Esto es nuestro America.” The expectant mother returns with “I would like the rest of the world to think highly of our amazing country.” Also I’d like an Xbox, a Hannah Montana DVD, and a Cabbage Patch doll, okay? … If I were going to satirize this video, I’d show Obama dressed in work clothes, shuffling and scraping as he pushed a broom, mumbling, “Yes’m, I’ll clean up the earth for you right away, ma’am. A world without fear, suh, comin’ right up!”

Blitt could have made his satire less ambiguous, by (say) showing Rush Limbaugh peeking through a window and being shocked by having his worst fears about the Obamas realized: like Omigod, they really do want to Get Whitey! Whether that would have appeased those who attacked the cartoon, I don’t know. But I think the real problem was that the cartoon aroused white Obama fans’ fear that in reality Obama is an Angry Black Man, a Jeremiah Wright, an anti-Claus who’ll leave a lump of coal in their stockings instead of a new iPhone, a pony, and world peace.

This has nothing to do with Obama’s actual policies, about which his fans prefer not to think very much. (But then, neither do his enemies.) He’s not a secret militant, very much the opposite: he’s a mainstream American politician, ready to uphold and sustain the Imperium. Their hatred of ambiguity extends to an inability to understand what he says he’ll do: if he says he’ll withdraw US combat troops from Iraq, they’ll fail to notice that he won’t withdraw support troops, and that the occupation will go on. As long as Obama can maintain the Santa Claus façade, flattering his fans’ image of themselves as enlightened and compassionate people who are fundamentally different from that awful man Bush and his dupes, they’ll ignore or explain away what he actually does; they want to feel good about themselves, not change the world – or themselves.

And, to confirm once again that reality outruns satire, a new piece by Nicholas Kozloff just appeared at Counterpunch. Kozloff, who wrote a decent biography of Hugo Chávez and just published a new book on political changes in South America, compares Obama’s views on Latin America with McCain’s. Funny thing, though: Kozloff says virtually nothing about Obama’s actual views, while giving McCain’s in detail. He says that

an Obama victory would take a lot of wind out of Chávez’s sail. To an extent, Chávez was able to leap on to the world stage as a result of U.S. misdeeds and imperial misadventures. The war in Iraq is enormously unpopular in South America, and Chávez has been able to raise his profile as a result of his long-standing criticisms of U.S. foreign policy. It is difficult to imagine that Chávez would have achieved the same degree of political notoriety had Bill Clinton been in office and not George Bush.

If he were to win, Obama would start off his administration with an enormous amount of goodwill in South America simply by dint of his racial origins. Many Afro-Latinos in South America—particularly in Brazil—would see an Obama victory in Washington as an enormously positive social step. …

Obama could capitalize on this goodwill by withdrawing troops from Iraq. The new U.S. president could then increase economic aid to impoverished South American countries or promote free trade deals with small nations such as Ecuador. Chávez has long decried the excesses of globalization, but Obama might be able to steal some of the Venezuelan leader’s thunder by negotiating separate trade deals that protect labor and the environment. In this way, Obama could put a break on ALBA expansion and frustrate Chávez’s international ambitions.

Kozloff says nothing about Obama’s declared intention to maintain the embargo against Cuba, or his hostility to Chávez, or his endorsement of Reagan’s foreign policy, or his support for Colombian terrorism (via), or his generally patronizing attitude toward Latin America, exemplified by his Miami speech of last May. (I dissected it here.) True, if Obama becomes President, he could withdraw troops from Iraq (though he doesn’t intend to end the US occupation entirely [via Chris Floyd), and he could win goodwill by adopting policies helpful to the poor in Latin America and elsewhere, or by giving everybody lollipops. But will he? Ignoring Obama’s known intentions, Kozloff offers only fantasy in their place.