The ancient Irish believed that a poet's satire had the power to kill the target of his scorn.
That might even have been true in the sort of traditional society where shame still was an operative emotion. It's a little harder to believe in the current American context, which is just one of the things that makes the bipartisan hysteria about this week's New Yorker cover rather difficult to swallow.
Just in case you've missed it, the magazine's cover is a cartoon by veteran illustrator Barry Blitt depicting Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, in the Oval Office, presumably after his inauguration as president. The senator wears Islamic garb, including a turban, while the new first lady sports an Angela Davis-style Afro and has an AK-47 slung over her back. The couple bumps fists while an American flag burns in a fireplace whose mantel is topped by a portrait of Osama bin Laden.
Anyone with an ounce of wit and a passing acquaintance with what's been going on during this presidential campaign will recognize Blitt's illustration as a compendium of the various false and defamatory allegations about the Obamas that have been spread across the Internet in what amounts to the cyber-spatial equivalent of an old-fashioned whispering campaign: In this fanciful netherworld, the presumptive Democratic nominee is unpatriotic, a secret Muslim and an appeaser of terrorists, while his wife is an anti-American harridan whose college thesis advocated black supremacy.
New Yorker Editor David Remnick told the Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar that, in his view, the cartoon holds "up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's -- both Obamas' -- past, and their politics. ... The fact is, it's not a satire about Obama -- it's a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama."
Obvious as all that may be, it didn't prevent a panoply of grim-faced pundits from parading across the cable news channels solemnly pronouncing the cover either offensive or unfunny. Whatever it is that makes CNN's commentators "the best political team on television," it certainly isn't a sense of humor. In fact, it was downright grotesque to see Bill Bennett and L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks holding forth on the magazine's racial insensitivity.
In fact, I couldn't help but think that the former Los Angeles police chief's sudden emergence as an art and comedy critic might have something to do with his current race against Mark Ridley-Thomas for the county supervisor's seat in the heavily African American 2nd District, where Obama probably enjoys a 98% approval rating among registered voters.
It's interesting that this controversy -- which drew in both Obama and John McCain -- should have arisen in what's a kind of golden age for televised political satire. Still, in an interview with the New York Times, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart -- who is as sharp a political satirist as any now working -- said that jokes involving Obama often seem to fall flat with his audience. "People have a tendency to react as far as their ideology allows them," he said by way of explanation.
Maybe it's not just political correctness but our division into blinkered red and blue camps that's drained humor's salutary bite from our politics.
Or perhaps it's that Blitt and Remnick are up against another, more subtle problem. The New Yorker is one of the last great American publications in which the long tradition of politically and socially conscious cartooning persists with any vigor. One U.S. newspaper after another has used cost-cutting as an excuse to drop its political cartoonists. Nowadays, few newspapers even bother to run political cartoons on a regular basis.
As a result, when it comes to political comment and satire, we're becoming a nation of visual illiterates.
Moreover, for all their practiced outrage, neither political camp really objects to this sort of controversy. Every news cycle dominated by what are essentially ephemera -- like the New Yorker cover -- is another 24 hours in which Obama and McCain have been spared questions about real issues.
Insults are so much easier to deal with than issues.
Last week was a perfect case in point. According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, nearly a quarter (23%) of all the print and broadcast coverage devoted to the presidential campaign during that seven-day period went to just two stories -- Jesse Jackson's sotto voce affront to Obama (13%) and McCain economic advisor Phil Gramm's insensitive remark about the recession being all in people's heads (10%).
Maybe we're not so much a humorless or overly sensitive people as we are a trivial one.