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Comedy is serious business. There are many reasons why, not the least of which is the fact that when you fail, the results are far worse than when you are insufficiently dramatic. Failed comedy is painful at best and can often be offensive because good comedy typically nudges at the boundaries of what people typically find acceptable or appropriate. This is why the debate over the New Yorker cover isn't just a tempest in a tea pot, but rather touches upon a lot of serious issues which do deserve some consideration. Given what I do here, I could hardly let it pass by without comment, could I?
A lot of different people have weighed in on this, but I find the ideas from Tom-Tom to be the best: Tom Tomorrow and Tom the Dancing Bug (Dan Perkins and Ruben Bolling, respectively, but Dan-Ruben doesn't sound nearly so catchy, does it?). They disagree with each other, yet I think that both of their positions are worth reading.
Tom Tomorrow argues that satire necessarily leaves a lot unsaid and to demand that satirical art or cartoons make everything explicit is just absurd. He's right — any sort of satirical piece does not and cannot keep drawing attention to what the ultimate target of the satire is or the fact that it is satire. Good satire always forces you to fill in some of the blanks yourself and lets you make the connections between the satire's target and the stupidity that's being highlighted.
All in all, though, Tom Tomorrow's argument isn't quite compelling. Part of the problem is that he uses his own work as an example of satire that leaves things unsaid, showing how silly it would get if he spelled everything out. His work, though, always says a lot more than the New Yorker cover. Tom Tomorrow is able to include a great deal of text and several panels of art. Even his simplest weekly cartoon can provide more information about his intent that the New Yorker cover, and that's where a major problem lies.
Tom the Dancing Bug lays this problem bare by asking the simple question: how are you supposed to discern the satirical intent of the cover? He never mistook it for having racist or negative intent, but only because he's familiar with the artist and of course with the liberal orientation of the magazine. The exact same cover could have appeared in a radically different magazine and interpreted in a completely different manner. And there's the rub: if the intended audience has to know so much about the artist/author and context in order to figure out that it's satire rather than serious, then the creator has not succeeded.
The New Yorker cover fails as good satire because there's nothing in the art itself that sends the message "I'm ridiculing the people who believe this stuff." Everything was a faithful representation of what real people really believe, a fact which Tom Toles made a point of in his cartoon about the issue. Go ahead and look at his cartoon — is it funny? The joke only works insofar as the New Yorker cover fails. Perhaps the addition of a couple of trully over-the-top elements would have helped — something like Rush Limbaugh's head mounted on the wall — but some of the anti-Obama people are so deranged that I'm not sure anything would be extreme enough to be truly "over the top."
Satire takes human follies or vices and holds them up to ridicule - usually through the use of irony, parody, lampooning, etc. Good satire is often true enough to what its lampooning to require the audience to think for a moment about whether the material is genuine or not. The less true you are to the original, the more likely you may only be ridiculing a straw man; the closer you are to the original, the more biting and effective your ridicule can be.
You cannot mimic the real thing exactly, though, because then your attempted denunciation of folly will only serve to promote it as well. You need to be "over the top" just enough for the audience to realize that however true the material sounds, it's not genuine and is instead ridiculing the genuine article. The biggest exception to this may be satire that ridicules a position not so much (or not just) through lampooning it, but also by drawing true believers into supporting a more extreme version of their own ideas in order to show just where that position leads.
I've been assuming throughout that the New Yorker cover was created with only the best and most innocent of intentions, but it has to be made clear that this assumption is not completely unassailable. The purpose of satire is to hold up some vice, folly, or idea to ridicule. If you are going to satirize racist ideas, you had better succeed in actually holding them up to ridicule. If you don't, then you are just presenting those same racist ideas in a more ironic or "hip" manner — and the effect of that is just to give racism a new outlet or form of expression. Failed satire is merely unfunny; failed satire of racism is both unfunny and denigrating — and if that happens, we have to ask about what those responsible really, truly, and honestly think.
AJ Plaid (whose blog I'm adding to my RSS reader) makes a case for racism not just being part of the effect, but also the production of the New Yorker cover:
The publication, in trying to show off its renown urbanity, showed themselves far more closely aligned to some of those “hardworking [read: non-hip, non-New Yorker reading] white folks” who may hold these beliefs that the Obamas aren’t true Americans, who will use the White House to carry out the collective and international revenge for people of color against white people, as the high afro-wearing Black militants (think 6os era Black Panthers) and non-Western garbed folks seem to signify in the popular consciousness.
The editorial staffers also must not have heard the ad nauseum arguments of their fellow media workers employing racist and sexist stereotypes of presenting the Obamas as “angry”—especially presenting Michelle as an “angry, vengeful Black woman,” as the cover more subtly conveys with the framed picture of Osama bin Laden over the fireplace, which has a burning flag in it. In other words, the New Yorker cover isn’t hip at all; it’s the antithesis—damn tired.
I touch on gender issues more than racial ones, but in neither case do I create relatively unadorned presentations of racist or sexist assumptions, beliefs, or stereotypes in a way that assumes that merely being "ironic" is sufficient. In every case, I try to include something in the image (never mind the accompanying text) designed to let the audience in on the "joke" — that while it may at first appear to be propaganda for white supremacism or male supremacism, I'm actually attacking those ideologies. Remember: satire is a form of humor, and if you have to keep explaining the joke to people, it's not funny anymore. If I have to keep explaining to people what my real intent is in my images, then I'm not actually being funny. Insofar as the New Yorker has had to keep explaining what their intent was, they failed in making good satire.
Sometimes I think I've been successful, as when I'm using Nazi propaganda posters and German fraktur fonts. The flap over the New Yorker cover forces me to stop and think a bit more about my work, though. Maybe I haven't always been successful. To what extent have my own pieces succeeded in lampooning the ridiculous and to what extent have they failed because they could work equally well as propaganda on behalf of the ridiculous? (We can pretend that those which are simply bad don't exist, OK?) I've always tried to be "over the top" in some fashion, but I've also tried to avoid hitting people over the head with the message.
On reflection, I'm concerned that I have failed too often. Merely using fraktur-style fonts may not quite enough to convey the criticism and ridicule. I'm also not sure about depicting a guy in a Klan hood overseeing an election. I know that I'm not trying to present any of that in a positive light, and fortunately no readers here have taken them that way — or at least no one who wanted to comment. What if someone saw the image without the accompanying sermon, though? What would they think?
I've benefited from being able to include text in the images and, in the worst cases, at least there is the accompanying sermons. It may be unreasonable to expect people to know you and your publication in order to know that you're being satirical, but it's not quite so unreasonable to take into account accompanying text when interpreting an image (by the same token, the New Yorker image might have done better if it had appeared inside, next to an article about all the silly beliefs people have). At the very least, though, the image is the first thing people see so perhaps I need to be more conscious of the possibility that people will form incorrect conclusions before they read the text.