Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pudd'nhead Pieties

The CEO of Roxie’s World has been out of the office this week for some health and beauty time – bath, haircut, and nail trimming at the groomer’s, a check-up at the vet’s to see how the latest course of antibiotics and pain meds is handling the latest eye and sinus infection. Never fear, though, kids. When the big dog’s away, the beta dogs step up to the head of the pack. Let’s look in on Moose and Office of Persona Management Director Mark Twain, who are having a working lunch at Ishmael’s, the bar around the corner from RW Enterprises’ global headquarters. Moose is tucking into a grilled chicken Caesar salad (dressing on the side) and a glass of non-sparkling water when Twain walks in, places his usual lunch order (a whiskey neat, fried mozzarella sticks, and a large order of hot wings with extra bleu cheese dressing), and slams the latest issue of The New Yorker down on the bar next to Moose.

Mark: Did you see this?

Moose: Of course. Nice to see you, too, Mark. By the way, if you keep eating like that, you’re going to end up like Tim Russert.

Mark: That self-important Irish gas-bag? Not bloody likely. Moose, I’ve been dead for ninety-eight years. Healthy eating is not high on my list of priorities, especially [with a sardonic glance at her salad] if it means suffering through bowls of rabbit food day after day. What did you think about this cover illustration?

Moose: Sorry, I forget about the whole dead thing sometimes. I thought The New Yorker cover was hilarious – edgy as hell and really gutsy in its willingness to traffic in images dredged up from the depths of America’s racial paranoia. That’s great satire, which we desperately need in this campaign as a way of publicly acknowledging how fraught and strange this moment is, as we stand on the brink, perhaps, of sending a black man to the White House. It beats hell out of a bunch of Kumbaya crap about how race doesn’t matter.

Mark: By Jove, Moose, for once you are right! That is exactly what I thought about the cartoon, but have you seen all the folderol about it in the press and the blogosphere?

[Twain begins pulling a bunch of press clippings out of his pockets and spreading them out on the bar.]

Moose: Oh, sure.

[Moose pushes aside her salad bowl and opens up her laptop. She has 17 tabs open in her browser, one on Roxie’s World, one on StatCounter, one on Facebook, and 14 to various blog and media reactions to the New Yorker cover. While Mark smoothes out his copy of Philip Kennicott’s ponderous Wa Po analysis of the politics and pedagogy of satire in relation to the cartoon of the Obamas in the Oval Office, she discreetly snatches one of his mozzarella sticks.]

Mark: Don’t think I didn’t see that. There is a madness about all this, don’t you agree? All these knee-jerk denunciations of a cartoon clearly aimed at shining a critical light on the scurrilous rumors that have swirled around Barack and Michelle Obama and at bringing to the surface white America’s lingering anxiety about the prospect of a black president. Isn’t it important to acknowledge that uncertainty as a force within the electorate, even as we rightly celebrate Obama’s presumptive nomination as the social and political milestone that it obviously is?

Moose: Oh, absolutely, Mark, but you know well the risks of trying to take a satirical approach to anything having to do with race, particularly for U.S. audiences. I mean, I get queasy every time I teach Pudd’nhead Wilson and have to explain the book’s complex tacking back and forth between biological and sociological accounts of racial and sexual difference, the thick layers of irony involved in its plot of “black” and “white” babies switched in infancy in a slave-holding community. Students are quick to dismiss the book as the racist product of a racist time, while I’m left unpacking the subtleties of satire and pointing out that you put quotation marks around the N-word in a troubling passage that seems to establish a determinative link between race and behavior. I gotta tell you, it’s not an easy sell.

Mark: “The N-word” – pshaw! If you capitulate to the demand to communicate in euphemisms, it’s no wonder you can’t explain irony to your students. What this country needs is a strong dose of truth-telling, and satire is an effective way to tell uncomfortable truths about the gaps between ideals and realities, hopes and fears. And here [gesturing toward an angrily annotated copy of Bill Carter’s NY Times article on the lack of humor directed at Obama so far] I see that comedians are claiming they haven’t found an aspect of Obama’s person or personality that seems ripe for comic exploitation. John McCain is old, they say, and we’re off to the comic races! Al Gore was pedantic, until he turned out to be right about everything, at which point he was re-anointed as prescient. But Obama, it seems, is precious – flawless and untouchable, beyond reproach, beyond the vulgar reach of humor. What rubbish! Uneasy ought to lie the head that wears a halo is what I say to that. No man is immune to the probing touch of humor, the withering deflations of the ironist’s deft sword –

Moose: Nor woman either, I hasten to add. Comics had no qualms about mocking Hillary Clinton’s blond ambition, her wonkishness, her marital woes.

Mark: Right you are, beloved feminazi. But I tell you, Moose, I see a danger to the republic in this reticence on the part of comics to subject Obama to even the mildest ridicule. The slavish press corps, reduced to being mindless purveyors of infotainment, has ceased to perform its job as the watchdog of democracy. It is left to the clowns, the comics, the jokesters, the wits to pull back the curtain and reveal the sniveling mortal who aspires to run the machinery of power. They alone can save the people from falling on their knees before a man who, in the end, really is just a skinny guy with big ears and a funny name.

Moose: Which, to his credit, Obama has repeatedly pointed out. It is one of his few genuinely funny lines, and it’s a great opening for comics, if only they would walk through it!

Mark: Why won’t they, Moose? How do you explain the reluctance?

Moose: It’s complicated, Mark. I think a lot of comedians have gotten caught up in the coolness of loving Obama. They can’t step back and mock him or it because they’ve invested whatever remnants of idealism they have in believing in this guy. Most political humor nowadays is about being snarky and cynical about politics and politicians, about proving that you’re onto the game and not being taken in by it. I think they’re afraid that if they start treating Obama the way they treat other political figures, he’ll disappear before their eyes. They’ll be left with nothing, and they’ll have forfeited their claims to snarky superiority in the bargain. Mostly, though, I think they’re worried about becoming you.

Mark: Me? Whatever can you mean?

Moose: Here’s the thing, Mark. You’re, like, the Great American Novelist, right? Brilliant guy. Taught us how to write in our own idiom, how to dig our fingers into the culturally devalued soil of the American experience and produce a rich verbal art that provoked laughter and a kind of awe. A hundred or so years later, Huck Finn is left off syllabi in high school English classes because its racial politics are too difficult to explain to young, modern readers. A single, searing racial epithet leaps off the pages and makes the book impossible to teach for fear of giving offense or sending mixed signals about appropriate and inappropriate language.

Mark: Oh, for goodness sake, Moose. No one is suggesting that comics should be using what you so delicately refer to as “the N-word” in relation to Obama, but would the etiquette police come pounding on the door if someone were to point out that his ears really are big and that his relentlessly high-minded yammering about hope and change, change and hope occasionally makes one long for a candidate willing to call on citizens to belch and fart, fart and belch? Actually, McCain could be just that candidate. What a brilliant line of attack for an old geezer who seems to have an intimate understanding of gastrointestinal distress!

Moose: Indeed. I will remind you that Roxie’s World has in fact pointed out that Obama’s ears are big, and there are some signs that comics are beginning to find their nerve. Jon Stewart did a hilarious bit last night on The Daily Show about The New Yorker kerfuffle in which he graciously offered the Obama campaign a comically and politically appropriate response to the cartoon (no, the senator wasn’t offended by the cartoon, because it’s Muslim extremists who get offended by such cartoons, and he is not a Muslim extremist) and chastised the media for producing their own two-dimensional caricatures of the Obamas. Here, take a look at this:

Mark: That is good. That Stewart fella is awfully funny, you know.

Moose: Oh, yeah. And our blog pal Jon Swift has a brilliant send-up of the whole affair in which he expresses his profound disappointment that The New Yorker had not in fact published the expose of Obama’s ties to Muslim and black nationalist extremism that he thought the cover illustration was meant to advertise. Or there’s this funny bit from 23/6 about how the illustration would have been a whole lot funnier if, like most New Yorker cartoons, it had featured animals rather than people (H/T to Eitan for pointing this out to us via FB). I know that analysis is fatal to humor, but maybe it’s a good thing that even the humorless Maureen Dowd is suggesting the Obama team should lighten up (ha-ha!), lest the candidate run the risk of seeming airless and inhuman. Maybe in the long run this tempest in a teapot will help us turn some kind of comic corner. Maybe people will realize it’s okay and even necessary to subject Obama to some friendly mockery as a way of acknowledging his palpable presence in our politics, our lives, our imaginations.

Mark: As always, Moose, your stubborn utopianism is a wonder to behold.

Moose: Now, come on, Mark, you know it’s true. To poke fun of someone – not malevolently, but not necessarily gently either – is a powerful way of signaling recognition in the social/political sense. To mock someone is to say I see you, I am taking you seriously enough to notice your quirks and foibles. I am taking your measure, and I will show you the respect of doing so out loud, in public, for all the world to see. That, as you well know, is equality. Comics are the truest democrats on earth.

Mark: Ah, my dear hormonally unbalanced friend. Wouldn’t you like a spot of whiskey to wash down that hot wing you just stole from my plate? And here, have some bleu cheese dressing, too. You know you hate that fat-free crap.

(Image Credit: Via, with credit to The Dave Thomson Collection.)


  1. Anonymous10:24 AM EDT

    Great dialogue! Mark and Moose! Loved it!!

    And it has changed my mind on the magazine cover. I have to admit that the New Yorker's in-your-face satire endeared me more to Barack and Michele, especially Michele, in her feisty feminist, take-no-prisoners costume. Also for the first time I noticed today how the cartoon keeps this new power couple looking, young, and trim, sexy and fit, full of youthful vigor!

    much love,
    CSL (mystery school I attended) Alumna
    (I'm done with the Imus thing)

  2. Thanks! So glad you enjoyed our latest dialog piece. You're right about Michelle, too -- She looks kinda Angela Davis-y, don't you think? Feisty indeed!

    I'm not sure that the Rutgers alums of Roxie's World will be able to adjust to your new blog name, CSLA. They are way over Imus, too, but we honor your connection to their grad alma mater, no matter how you wish to be known in these precincts.

    :-) & xo,

  3. Anonymous6:05 PM EDT

    Hi Roxie,

    Yes, they say it's Angela Davis, and the afro fits absolutely -- I Googled and found a gorgeous photo of Angela as she looks today in her sixties -- see at Wikipedia's Davis Page,

    thanks for the hugs, XO

  4. Anonymous11:25 AM EDT

    Bravo, Roxie! You're among the very few bloggers I've found who have accurately analyzed the New Yorker cover and observed that the point is to poke fun at Obama (or the Obamas), not at--as Remnick disingenuously insists--those who send around the viral emails.

    Or maybe the credit should go to Mark Twain? It's hard to figure out who we're agreeing with when you summon America's Greatest Novelist from the grave to help with the blogging.

    Anyway, our conclusion here at the House of Ironical Beagles is that Remnick is either incompetent like George Bush (who has led America into, among other things, wrong-headed adventures in the Middle East) or (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) "incompetent" like George Bush (whose buddies have benefited mightily from those adventures).

  5. Anonymous12:55 PM EDT

    Hi Roxie,

    I love your confab with the Great One, and it's funny, but I was just talking about Puddin'Head Wilson myself 2 days ago, right after taking a tour of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn. Great minds run into the same (even greater!) mind, I guess.

    I don't entirely agree with your analysis--I don't think the cover was good satire, and I think that the New Yorker was idiotic not to anticipate or claim to understand the firestorm that followed. However, I agree entirely with Moose on this: "I think a lot of comedians have gotten caught up in the coolness of loving Obama. They can’t step back and mock him or it because they’ve invested whatever remnants of idealism they have in believing in this guy. Most political humor nowadays is about being snarky and cynical about politics and politicians, about proving that you’re onto the game and not being taken in by it. I think they’re afraid that if they start treating Obama the way they treat other political figures, he’ll disappear before their eyes. They’ll be left with nothing, and they’ll have forfeited their claims to snarky superiority in the bargain. Mostly, though, I think they’re worried about becoming you."

    They should be so lucky! Sadly, of course, the real reason not to want to become Mark Twain has less to do with the strange career of Huckleberry Finn, and more to do with the untimely and tragic deaths of three out of four of his children. I'm always very moved whenever I'm reminded of that, especially when you consider what a cheerful, good-natured father he was. How tragic to outlive all but one of his children.

  6. Hi, Historiann -- Good seeing you again. Hope you had a good vacation and that you saw the clever homage we offered to you in the previous post, w/ the photo of Christina Aguilera up on a (wooden) horse. We bet you look just like her when you're up on a big old rodeo horse!

    We offer no defense of Remnick, who in all likelihood is incompetent and is obviously being disingenuous on the matter of the response to the cover. Given the nutty, super-sensitive (on some issues not others) world we live in, the response was perfectly predictable. It's summer. Nothing is really happening in the prez campaign, and no one really understands the banking crisis, so, hey, let's go crazy over a magazine cover. Quelle surprise!

    We thought the cover was good satire just because it crystalized something that doesn't often get acknowledged -- i.e., the enigmatic nature of both Obamas. He's done well by being a screen upon which a lot of voters have been able to project all kinds of unfulfilled political longings, but there's a negative aspect to that, too. For some voters, he and Michelle can be a screen for projecting racial/racist anxieties about power and social change. Whatever its deficiencies, the cartoon, we think, conveys some of that.

  7. Anonymous6:44 PM EDT

    Hey, thanks for the Christina on the Pony--very cool (and much too flattering!)

    I agree with you entirely about the projections on the blank screen aspect of Obama's success.

  8. Anonymous9:01 PM EDT

    One might compare the NYer cover with all the cartoons showing George W. Bush in what has now become a standard trope: he is shown as a child, generally half the size (or less) of the "adults" in the panel, often wearing a cowboy suit or on a hobbyhorse. None of those cartoons can be read as making fun of the view that Bush is childish or immature.

    So the New Yorker cover is good satire--if you're Rush Limbaugh.

    What's unfortunate is that the actual cartoon editor of the New Yorker is really a very smart guy--well-read and surprisingly up-to-date on theories of humor and cognitive analysis of (duh!) visual humor--who could probably have helped Remnick out on this. If he'd bothered to ask.

  9. Wait, Dudley -- Did you switch sides in this debate, or did we misread you the first time? Could be the latter -- We are all highly medicated at the moment and not quite at the top of our games.

  10. Anonymous3:07 PM EDT

    Sorry for the confusion, Roxie. I didn't switch sides, although I am disposed, being a beagle and all, to sometimes follow a trail a bit off course. I'll try again.

    Remnick, the NYer editor, claimed that the cover satirized, not the Obamas, but what are called in that wonderful phrase, the "low-information" people, the ones who believe he's a "secret Muslim," that Michelle is a radical, etc. I said he's wrong about that, witness the fact that all those cartoons showing Dubya as a child are not satires of people who think Dubya is childish, but rather claims that Dubya is childish in some respect. (We could do into detail about why that is so, but this is probably not the place for a lecture on cognitive processing of political cartoons, and I would in any case have to call in my human for that one, and you just don't--trust me on this--want to get her starting pontificating on this subject.)

    Therefore, Remnick either (a) is incompetent--he doesn't get how this cover works; or (b) he wanted to undercut Obama. (I am quite sure Rush Limbaugh thinks the cover is a fine satire--or possibly that it's not a satire at all. But in any case, if you're Rush Limbaugh, you will conclude this is a fine piece of humorous art. [If you're Rush Limbaugh and reading Roxie's World,... well, we'll let that go for now.])

    Bob Mankoff, the guy who actually is the Cartoon Editor for the New Yorker, the guy you submit cartoons to if you want them published there, is really quite smart and keeps up with the research on cognitive processing of humor. If Remnick had taken a few moments to walk down to Mankoff's office, we suspect Mankoff could have helped him out on this a bit. But apparently he didn't.


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