Tuesday, July 22, 2008


The New Yorker cover with an image of Barack Obama and his wife, presented by artist Barry Blitt as terrorists, created an uproar.

It was intended, in good faith, as satire. The definition of this term starts as follows in my online Macintosh dictionary:

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics...

For me, there's a slight but significant hitch in this case of alleged satire. The artist has indeed used exaggeration to depict the Obama couple as imagined by their enemies, but the resulting concoction is simply not funny. There is no hint of humor or irony in this caricature, which does nothing to ridicule Obama's mindless opponents. For me, this cover drawing is far too literal to merit the title of satire.

Let's move back in time to the Nazi epoch. Many Germans looked upon Jews with delusions of a similar craziness to those concerning Obama today. The typical Jew was stigmatized as ugly, evil and cruel, caring only for wealth, and capable of taking control of weak nations (like France) that had allowed themselves to become the victims of Bolshevism. A well-meaning but unimaginably naive magazine might have thought it funny to put the following image on their cover, as an intended satire of Nazi nonsense:

Alas, far from being a humorous satire intended to ridicule Nazis, this poster was a nasty specimen of hate propaganda, designed to promote a notorious film, Der ewige Jude [the eternal Jew], supervised by Joseph Goebbels and directed by Fritz Hippler. So, you might say that there's a fine line separating satire from offensive shit. The distinction resides in the talents and desires of the individuals who are manipulating, for good or for evil, such powerful messages.

I've often felt that Americans don't always reveal a firm and subtle mastery of political humor and satire. They tend to remain too close to the literal surface, without an aptitude for handling what the French refer to as the second degree of irony, which occurs at rare moments when a skilled humorist succeeds in making fun of fun itself.

In the neighboring domain of stage comedians of the one-man-show kind, I've often been intrigued by comparisons between celebrities from Australia, Britain, America and France. It's a vast and fascinating subject, which cannot of course be handled summarily, here in my blog. In fact, it would be an excellent subject for a doctoral thesis in sociology, provided that the researcher could incorporate video excerpts into his/her thesis.

As for me, I find that the most brilliant political cartoonists, the funniest stage comedians and the most expert producers of TV satire in the world happen to operate right here in France.

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