Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How The New Yorker is different from The New York Post

Since the IJG dabbles in musical satire and potentially offensive comedic bits from time to time, I try to cut other similarly-inclined artists a lot of slack. Many of my own cultural heroes have pissed somebody off at some point, and I get how that's an occupational hazard for anyone interested in playing around on the fringes.

That's why I didn't say much about the New Yorker cover that caused such controversy during the last presidential election. I mean, on the one hand, I could understand why people were so offended by it.

But I also understand that while politics is a field that calls out for clarity, good art, alas, is often ambiguous. I don't know if the New Yorker cartoon was good art, but it was certainly ambiguous, in that multiple interpretations could be credibly attributed to it. One of those interpretations -- that Obama was a terrorist looking to destroy the US -- was indeed offensive and racist. And the last thing anyone needed at that moment in the campaign was another instance of a fundamentally stupid assumption recklessly tossed into an already volatile discourse. The fact that there was an alternate interpretation of the same cartoon -- a Cleavon-Little-in-Blazing-Saddles interpretation, in which Obama, looking directly at the viewer, seemed to be saying "excuse me while I whip out, and taunt you with, every ridiculous preconception you have about me" -- was less important than the fact that the very people who didn't understand that Obama wasn't a terrorist in the first place would probably never understand that take on the cartoon.

In any case, the bigger point is that with the New Yorker cartoon, at least there was a credible alternative to the racist interpretation. Which is more than can be said for this travesty published by the New York Post.

When pressed about the possible comparison of Obama to a dead chimpanzee, Post editor, Col Allen, provided this rationalization:

The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington's efforts to revive the economy.

Allen is right that sometimes the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike things can lead to witty social commentary. I seem to remember a political cartoon from the 1980 presidential campaign, in which Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Walter Mondale were pictured as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, singing, respectively, "If I only had a brain," "a heart," and "the nerve." But that cartoon worked because there was a connection -- a surprising, funny connection -- between the three candidates and their three unexpected doppelgangers from the Wizard of Oz. In the end, the illustration eloquently and elegantly summed up some of the political criticism that was floating around at the time.

The Post cartoon also makes a connection between two seemingly unlike things, but it is not the connection the paper so disingenuously claims -- that both stories merely happened to be in the news at the same time. Any idiot could create a cartoon using that technique -- and, say what you like, the cartoonist in this case, Sean Delonas, doesn't seem to be an idiot. (He does, however, seem to be a bit of an asshole.)

No, the specific juxtaposition speaks volumes. I mean, shit. Instead of a dead chimp, why not choose other topical and current images of demise? Why not the geese that flew into the engines of the Hudson plane, for instance? Why not the latest kid to get booted off American Idol? Why not the (unfairly) disgraced Michael Phelps? Couldn't the caption "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill" have worked equally well in any of those scenarios?

No, there was a particular reason Delonas chose to link the chimp story with the story about Obama's stimulus package -- which was, incidentally, how the bill was described ad nauseum in the weeks leading up to its passage, so no claiming that the unnamed author of the stim is actually Pelosi (as if murdering a different politician would somehow be more palatable). The idea of a "police shooting" comes ready-made with certain associations. The idea of using a chimpanzee as a stand-in for a human being comes ready-made with certain associations. We may not want to admit those associations to ourselves. We may want to pretend that they refer to ancient history. But pretending and denying are not viable (or sane) responses to pathological phenomena.

And don't kid yourself: if we still have this sort of thing floating around in our national psyche, then "pathological" is really the right word.

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