Archive for Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Truth now more ridiculous than satire

July 16, 2008

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"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled..." - Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal, 1729"

Satire is tricky.

It makes its point by exaggerating wildly with a straight face. In inflating a thing beyond all common sense or propriety, it seeks to render inconsistencies and hypocrisies glaringly apparent. Satire seeks truth in the ridiculous. For illustration, see any given episode of "The Colbert Report."

What makes satire difficult is that sometimes, people don't realize they are being had. Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal," for instance, had some convinced he wanted to eat babies; they didn't realize he was actually attacking people's blithe unconcern with the plight of the poor. For that matter, when "All in the Family" came along two and a half centuries later, some folks saw Archie as the soul of reason.

I have experience in this. Some years back, I satirized a study that said many Americans think news media routinely get the facts wrong. In a column "defending" media accuracy, I made misstatements so grandiose - Bob Hope was host of the "Tonight Show"; Quincy Jones was his bandleader - I thought no one could miss my point.

Silly me. I got hundreds of e-mails "correcting" my supposed errors.

So I feel The New Yorker's pain. The magazine is under fire for a cover illustration depicting Barack Obama in the Oval Office wearing a turban, bumping fists with his wife Michelle, who wears an Afro, fatigues, and has an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. Osama bin Laden watches from a portrait on the wall. An American flag burns in the fireplace.

The Obama and McCain campaigns have pronounced the cover offensive. There have been calls for a boycott.

Me, I like the cover. It strikes me as an incisive comment on the fear mongering that has attended Obama's run for the presidency. Still, I understand why it is incendiary: Some of us will take it seriously.

To be effective, satire needs a situation it can inflate into ridiculousness. But the hysteria surrounding Obama has nowhere to go; it is already ridiculous. In just the last few days, we've had Jesse Jackson threatening to castrate him and John McLaughlin calling him an "Oreo."

Add to that the whispers about Obama's supposed Muslim heritage (not that there's anything wrong with that), the "terrorist" implications of bumping fists, and Michelle Obama's purported use of the term "whitey" (a word no black person has uttered since "The Jeffersons" went off the air in 1985) and it's clear that "ridiculous" has become our default status. What once were punchlines now are headlines.

So, as absurd, as over the top, as utterly outlandish as The New Yorker image strikes the more sophisticated among us, there is a large fringe out there for whom it will represent nothing more or less than the sum of their fears.

Indeed, as I sat down to write these words, there beeped into my mailbox an e-mail with this subject line: "WOW, The New Yorker got it exactly right, for once." Said without a trace of irony.

But increasingly, that's who we are in this country: ignorant, irony-impaired and petrified. So maybe we should just cancel the campaign and ask that the last intelligent person turn off the lights when he or she leaves. And bring the last book with you. Nobody here will need it.

Somewhere between the stained blue dress and the vice president shooting a guy in the face, between swift boat lies and "war on terra" alibis, the absurd became the ordinary, facts became optional and satire became superfluous.

We are beyond satire, my friends. These days, there's nothing more ridiculous than the truth.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Comments

Confrontation 6 years, 9 months ago

Yes, the adult magazine readers have emerged. I'm honestly insulted that someone would think that I come from Lawrence. Also, just because something is a cartoon doesn't mean that it won't be considered as an accurate depiction of someone. How long have fools on this site been accusing Obama of the same thing? I don't have a problem with satire, but I do have a problem with ignorance. Invictus, I apologize if I accurately described you and your family.

Confrontation 6 years, 9 months ago

The real problem is that many idiots don't get the satire of the cover. Rednecks all over Kansas saw the pic and are spreading the lies. Republicans are drooling over it like an adult magazine.

chet_larock 6 years, 9 months ago

Pitts can be hit or miss (lots of misses) but he nails this one. Kudos.

fu7il3 6 years, 9 months ago

I don't usually agree with this guy, but I have to say, we as a society have lost our ability to take a joke. Everything we do offends someone. I'm sick of it. Lighten up, people.

Satirical 6 years, 9 months ago

Confronation...So, just to be clear, you have a problem with ignorance but no problem with this satire of Obama?

Satirical 6 years, 9 months ago

An extremely well reasoned article that states exactly what I was arguing yesterday on the post for the article "Magazine cover called 'tasteless, offensive' by Obama campaign"

fu7il3 6 years, 9 months ago

Saying they don't get the satire of the cover is like saying people don't get the satire on the comics page. I don't think Obama or you are really giving the average person any credit.

Satirical 6 years, 9 months ago

Confrontation..."The real problem is that many idiots don't get the satire of the cover."First, I doubt anyone looked at the cover and thought it was an actual photograph. It was clearly a caracature.Second, it doesn't matter if people mistakenly believe it to be accurate or not. Satire has been around for hundreds of years. I didn't hear any liberals clamoring that all the satire against Bush, Cheney or McCain should stop because of fear of misinformation (and there has been plenty).

TopJayhawk 6 years, 9 months ago

Well hey Confrontation, why don't you move. What makes you such a snob. I'm also sorry you have no better self esteem than to have the City you live in define your existence. I can give you the name of several good therapists if you like.

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