Political satire a two-edged sword

Published 12:53 pm Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The problem with satire as a political weapon is that it’s virtually always a two-edged sword. One would expect the editors of a literary magazine like The New Yorker to realize that. Its July 21 cover caricaturing Barack and Michelle Obama as Oval Office revolutionaries, complete with Kalashnikov, a portrait of Osama bin Laden, and an American flag ablaze in the fireplace couldn’t help but cut several ways.

Had the drawing more resembled its subjects — the thin-lipped Obama’s portrayed with thick, petulant lips — the controversy might have been sharper. As it was, furious debate erupted about whether a cartoon lampooning the crackpot whisper campaign portraying Obama as a covert Muslim and his wife as white-hating extremist might reinforce those smears among the influential Moron-American community.

The correct answer is: We’ll see.

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Satire’s more ambiguous than its keenest practitioners often acknowledge. Consider my two literary heroes, Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. Although each was celebrated for his clarity of style, both saw their greatest work misconstrued and misused. Orwell, who revered Swift and wrote “Animal Farm” in frank imitation of “Gulliver’s Travels,” also wrote an influential and spectacularly wrongheaded essay about it.

What artists intend has a limited effect on audience response. Swift’s antic imagination often seemed at odds with his conservative principles. As a young Anglican priest, he wrote “Tale of a Tub” to mock the excesses of Puritanism and the corruptions of Catholicism, (explosive political issues in 1704). So vivid was his imagery, however, that Queen Anne wrongly suspected him of atheism and banished him to Ireland, the land of his birth.

Swift got even with “Gulliver’s Travels,” in which the miniscule Emperor of Lilliput charges the gigantic hero with treason for extinguishing a palace fire by urinating on it. His anonymous pamphlet “A Modest Proposal,” suggested with a straight face that English landlords fatten native Irish children for roasting instead of letting them starve. Swift’s fierce indignation made him a national hero; he became the Solzhenitsyn of 18th-century Ireland. But the English quit treating the Irish worse than cattle only after IRA terrorists drove them out in 1921.

Orwell first submitted his satirical allegory “Animal Farm” to British publishers in 1943. He was infuriated when editor/poet T.S. Eliot refused on patriotic grounds to publish a book depicting Soviet leaders as pigs immediately following the siege of Stalingrad — the bloodiest battle in human history, and the strategic turning point of World War II. Orwell thought it folly to delude oneself about communism, even as Stalin’s armies were stymieing the Nazis.

After the war, “Animal Farm” became an instant classic. It’s arguably the most influential political book of the past half-century or so. Yet Orwell had to make clear that he meant to attack communism, not democratic socialism, which he passionately favored. Millions of readers didn’t get it.

By 1948, Orwell found himself explaining that “1984,” his futuristic anti-totalitarian novel, wasn’t a prediction of what would happen, but a satirical warning against what could. Like Swift’s, his vivid imagery sent inadvertent messages he hadn’t foreseen and couldn’t control.

Both authors added concepts to the language: “Lilliputian,” “Yahoo,” “Big Brother,” “doublethink.” But never entirely on their own terms.

And the Obama cartoon? Well, it depends. Whether verbal or visual, any time an artist tries to say something by depicting its opposite in parodic form, the potential for misunderstanding is great. The implied target of The New Yorker caricature isn’t the Obamas, but conspiracy-minded rubes taken in by viral e-mails suggesting there’s something furtive and sinister about the presumptive Democratic nominee.

They look at him, they see a Muslim secret agent, cunningly programmed to surrender America to the terrorists. He won’t salute the flag; he took his oath of office on a Koran; his wife wants to kill white people. Before chastising the magazine’s hoity-toity attitude, let’s stipulate that some fools do buy this nonsense. As they’re surely “21-percenters,” however, people who still think President Bush is doing a bang-up job, the political impact is apt to be nil.

But if I were making an anti-Obama TV commercial, I’d definitely secure the rights to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” As a young literary scholar of my acquaintance put it, “Satire can tell us things about the artist’s community that The New Yorker may not have intended. The cover lampoons the portrait of Obama as an Islamic militant, but it also illuminates some real misgivings about the many things we just don’t know about him behind his hope-y change-y faáade. It gives us a glimpse of anxieties perhaps even felt by the overeager media. Most people won’t believe the extremist portrait but they’ll intuitively grasp the uneasiness behind it.”

The real danger lies not in the perception of Obama as a secret agent, but as an unknown quantity, too glib a shape-shifter to be trusted. Despite worshipful media coverage of his pilgrimage to the Middle East and Europe, that definitely remains a strong possibility.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at genelyons2@sbcglobal.net.)