Political Culture: What’s So Funny ‘Bout Fist Bumps and Barack Obama?

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

For four days now, the left side of the electorate has been scratching its collective head and asking itself, “Why don’t I think this is funny?” Of course, “this” is the cover of the current issue of the New Yorker; it has inspired all manner of hand-wringing and tsk-tsking – as well as a series of progressively more desperate attempts by the man who green-lit the gag, New Yorker editor David Remnick, to scream to the masses, “Would you people just lighten up?”

One general theme of the criticism is the fear that while the cartoon clearly was intended as satire, it might be “read” as true by a certain unsavory slice of the populace. This view is summed up in a cartoon by the Washington Post‘s Tom Toles:

Another suggestion, particularly among lefties, is that the New Yorker has offended its target audience because it published an image that eventually might have been dreamed up anyway – by a magazine that caters to Obama haters rather than his likely constituents. Some have noted that they wouldn’t have been surprised to see such a cartoon, stripped of any ironic context, on the cover of National Review. Cartoonist David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has lampooned such literalism, imagining a liberal’s fantasy of how National Review could offend its own audience:

Speaking for myself, my soul-searching over the New Yorker cartoon is directed in part toward my own insecurities. To wit: If New Yorker readers are supposed to find this cartoon wryly witty, yet I don’t find it all that funny, then what’s wrong with me? Am I not erudite enough, not sophisticated enough? Shouldn’t I just, you know, lighten up?

Admittedly, such a sentiment could easily be applied to Obama supporters in general, who have proven extraordinarily touchy about jokes made at his expense. (It’s not for nothin’ that Jon Stewart recently felt the need to admonish his audience, after one gag had fallen flat, “You know, you’re allowed to laugh at him.”) Indeed, it seems the only acceptable witticisms are ones that make fun of his perceived purity and repetitive message, as in the latest JibJab animation released yesterday.

l will posit, however, that there are plenty of reasons to find the New Yorker cover more distasteful than side-splitting – and they aren’t all as simple as those noted above.

Let’s face it, liberals have had it up to here with the caricatures perpetrated by the right – particularly the ruse that we and our leaders are somehow “anti-American,” which the New Yorker cover is satirizing. Of course, we have our own unfortunate ideas that feed into our response: namely, that too many Americans are gullible enough to believe any ridiculous notion the right wing feeds them (such as “Obama’s secretly a Muslim”), and that conservative opinion leaders are a nasty bunch of fuckers who rely on lies, fear, and name-calling (i.e., labeling John Edwards a “faggot,” or using the phrase “terrorist fist jab” during a supposed newscast) to perpetuate an agenda that couldn’t win an election otherwise.

Sadly, recent surveys suggest that the gullibility concern, at least, has some merit: According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, one in eight Americans still believes Obama is a Muslim. Is it possible that 13 percent of the public are such “low information seekers,” to use a currently popular phrase, that their “knowledge” on this matter is limited to one of those disgusting e-mail chain letters? I’d argue that that’s not possible, and that a vast majority of those 13 percent are folks who have simply chosen to believe a falsehood despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The wise-ass liberal response to that last sentence is, “Of course! They’re Republicans.” While this, too, is a caricature, it is difficult to ignore the extent to which the concept of “truth” has become more malleable over the last eight years — from “There is, in fact, an operational relationship” to “We do not torture” to “The science is still unclear” and beyond. One day, I promise, our descendants will marvel that there was an era in which such a phrase as “reality-based” came into widespread usage – and that members of one political party would use that phrase without irony to dismiss the arguments of the other.

Sure, the number of Americans who subscribe to the Bush administration’s “alternate reality” seems to have shrunk precipitously over the last two years. But who’s to say that some significant portion of the electorate won’t get fooled again, and allow themselves to be persuaded that the Obamas are, if not secret terrorists, then at least fifth-columnists who don’t have the nation’s interests at heart? (If Obama is elected, can Fox News rise above its temptation to continue trumpeting such innuendo about a sitting president?) The New Yorker cartoon, despite its stated intentions, doesn’t help deflate that possibility.

To say that the cartoon is not funny because it bears “the ring of truth” is patently absurd. Yet to say it falls flat because it bears “the ring of truthiness” is not only absurd, it’s accurate.

Of course, humor often is a temporal phenomenon; as Carol Burnett (and, later, Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors) famously said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Depending on how things work out, there’s a pretty strong chance that on November 5, a lot of people who currently are not amused will suddenly find that New Yorker cover downright hilarious. And that, too, may be part of the problem.