Sunday, July 20, 2008

Defending the New Yorker cover

After reading this article on WireTap magazine criticizing the recent New Yorker cover with the Obamas. Among other things, the article considers the image to be not satire but racism veiled as irony. One comment suggested that the image ought to be contained in the thought bubble of a bigot, to make explicitly clear that the image is "satire". But after reflecting on what the image says, as I should have already, I have come to appreciate the image as I think it was intended - a satire that challenged its readers to make their own judgments, and that implicates all of us in perpetuating the stereotypes it depicts, rather than blaming them on an imaginary bigot.

Good satire challenges the reader's own responsibility to the issue. If the New Yorker cover had a thought bubble from a "Fox News Exec" or a white hillbilly to clarify that the New Yorker does not believe these things about the Obamas, the reader would be excused from considering their own responsibility in propagating the false allegations and stereotypes. "Oh," we might think, "the New Yorker is not saying that I think this, or that our society is painting this picture". By blaming the racist images on another, the cover would excuse us from confronting our own complicity in propogating these ideas, and from considering how we out to respond to them on a personal level (Actually, the same cartoon with a thought bubble around it would be the real piece of racism).

Satire looses its bite when we contextualize it out of its meaning. The most famous piece of satire in perhaps all of English literature is Jonathan Swift's, "A Modest Proposal", in which he suggests that Irish babies ought to be eaten to control the island's population. At no point does he suggest that he's only joking. He also does not provide a literary thought bubble, such as "The following is what a bad person might say". He presents his case about baby eating and relies on the intelligence and morality of the reader to figure out that his piece is satire.

This New Yorker cover challenges us to confront our own stereotypes and make our own judgments. It neither blames the stereotypes on someone other than the reader nor relieves us of the responsibility of thinking about, understanding and then responding to the image ourselves.

When I first saw the cover, I, too, was shocked. But upon reflection, I think have learned a little about stereotypes and my own and my society's often unknowing role in propogating them. And isn't that exactly the point of good satire?

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