George A. Magalios
July 14, 2008
Cynical irony is a social disease born of cowardice, arrogance, and a derisive sense of humor based on negativity and schadenfreude. In the contemporary political realm of cartoons, sit-coms, talk shows and the relatively recent phenomena of mock news shows such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report”, one sees the development and seepage of irony into the popular cultural mainstream at an unparalleled level. We are taught to laugh along with the inside jokes of today’s ironic humor and as we do so, we attain a phantom sense of self-gratification and a feeling that we are a part of (or apart from?) a unique club outside the purview of reality. Ironic humor has been with us since the time of Socrates in the dialogues, where it was used for virtuous aims within the Platonist ideal world right up through the first mock newscasts on Saturday Night Live. What distinguishes the poetic forms of irony of Plato, Jonathan Swift, and Monty Python, from the cynical irony of The New Yorker, is both intent and form. The irony of the philosopher is one at the service of truth and uses its wit to deconstruct untruth. The irony born of cynicism cannot countenance truth and uses negativity for the purposes of humorous self-entertainment. Cynical irony’s pervasiveness in other fields of knowledge, from contemporary art, film, and music is often no less cynical and is perhaps the most ominous sign of the current post-millenial conditions of apathy and defeatism. In short, irony is an easy way out, away from sincere, difficult, and positive thinking. It is a release valve for the steam of frustration that also leaves in its wake, a lack of earnest engagement with life’s questions concerning the good, the virtuous, and the heroic. Irony has become a psychological crutch for the masses and cynical irony has become a mental poison.
The cover illustration of the July 21, 2008 edition of The New Yorker Magazine presents an interesting case of duplicitous cynical irony trying to mask itself as a progressive ironic attack on right-wing prejudices and racist stereotypes while in truth it functions as a dark ressentiment over the defeat of Hilary Clinton by Barack Obama in the race for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination. Ressentiment, French for literally, “the sensation of feeling something over and over again”, and commonly, but inadequately, translated into English as “resentment”, is a deep form of existential bitterness and anger, often present without one’s awareness. What makes the New Yorker cover insidious is that while claiming to attack the prejudices, fear-mongering, and fears of the Republican and right-wing machine, it perpetuates those very same qualities in a powerful visual form, and feeding the very hatreds and prejudices it claims to usurp.
The cover, depicting Obama dressed in a turban and Middle Easter tunic with sandals accompanied by his wife Michelle carrying what appears to be a rendition of a jihadi (Kalashnikov?) rifle, wearing a big 1960s style afro while she is giving her husband a dreaded “fist bump”, includes a portrait of Osama Bin Laden in the background and an American flag burning in the fireplace, all of which takes place in the Oval Office of the White House. The illustration’s attempt at ironic political humor claims to be functioning as satire and employs a crucial variable in the history of irony: humor, and demonstrates the importance of perspective in the equation of what one may find funny. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates many falsehoods about Obama that have been propogating as attempts at smear and fanning the paranoias of bigotry: that Obama is Muslim, that because his middle name is “Hussein” he cannot be trusted, that he is some sort of radical Black power figure in hiding, etc. With these untruths and ill-informed attempts at political wit comes a danger. What a KKK member may find humorous in a racist joke, the progressive AFL-CIO crusader will, in all likelihood, deplore. Humor is a powerful weapon, regardless of what political cause employs it.
Humor is the psychological weapon of mass destruction in the mediasphere and the New Yorker has employed it for this end in much of its history, some of it controversial, some of it not, but all of it akin to the bright adolescent trying to acquire both attention and new friends. What is important in deconstructing political cartoons, and indeed, all forms or attempts at irony, is the source. The source is the cipher that unlocks the code of irony.
In the case of the Obama cover this source is an urban, though not always urbane, weekly publication, often seen as the preeminent literary American periodical, in the cultural, financial, and media capital of the United States that also is the home of one, Senator Hilary Clinton who used many cynical racist, sexist, and opportunistic forms of innuendo in her attacks on Barack Obama during her campaign. Thus, without much imagination, one is hard-pressed to avoid making the judgment of a guilt by association or, more precisely, guilt by ressentiment over the Senator Clinton’s failed bid to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. Despite the claims of the illustration’s artist, Barry Blitt, and the magazine’s editor, David Remnick of attempting to point out and belittle, or weaken the power of such hateful depictions of Obama and his wife by the rumor-mongering classes on the Internet and the Machiavellian politicos in the Republican wing of our corporatist political system, the illustration is an affront to any supporter of justice, decency, and truth and any opponent of the perpetuation of hate and hateful stereotypes. It is a poor veil of irony.
Forget about Barack Obama, the issue here is larger than a presidential candidate. What is at stake is the perpetuation of destructive and ruinous imagery that has a long and painful history in the United States and that is lamely served up as some kind of progressive liberal political commentary. The cover is not only cynical, it is obscene on two fronts: because it attacks a candidate attempting to run on virtue, and because it attempts a dissimulation out of weakness, and is therefore hypocritical. The New Yorker cover is a sign of the typical cynical irony of many urban thought-processes: “I am smarter than you.” I am cooler than you.” “I am in the know.” Such an attitude, obviously condescending and self-serving, suffers from a weakness of will that knows no affirmation and cannot contemplate a positive relationship to ideas or to the harsh countenance of political realities. It must always succumb to a negative attack or critique, even when it is trying to mask itself as progressive. Cynical Irony is a form of weak thinking that gives in to negativity even while trying to appear progressive.
What makes the case of the New Yorker cover interesting is the possibility that it may in the end, in spite of itself, help Barack Obama’s campaign because of the outcry it has garnered so far. Read the responses to it in The Huffington Post, the majority of which condemn the cover. If indeed this was the case, it would be irony of another kind: poetic.