"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled . . . ''
— Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal, 1729
Satire is tricky. It makes its point by exaggerating wildly with a straight face. In inflating a thing beyond all common sense or propriety, it seeks to render inconsistencies and hypocrisies glaringly apparent. Satire seeks truth in the ridiculous. For illustration, see any given episode of The Colbert Report.
What makes satire difficult is that sometimes, people don't realize they are being had. Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal, for instance, had some convinced he wanted to eat babies; they didn't realize he was actually attacking people's blithe unconcern with the plight of the poor. For that matter, when All In the Family came along 2 ½ centuries later, some folks saw Archie as the soul of reason.
I have experience in this. Some years back, I satirized a study that said many Americans feel news media routinely get the facts wrong. In a column ''defending'' media accuracy, I made misstatements so grandiose — Bob Hope was host of the Tonight Show; Quincy Jones was his bandleader — I thought no one could miss my point.
Silly me. I got hundreds of e-mails ''correcting'' my supposed errors.'
So I feel the New Yorker's pain. The magazine is under fire for a cover illustration depicting Barack Obama in the Oval Office wearing a turban, bumping fists with his wife, Michelle, who wears an Afro, fatigues and has an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. Osama bin Laden watches from a portrait on the wall. An American flag burns in the fireplace.
A touch of ridiculousness
The Obama and McCain campaigns have pronounced the cover offensive. There have been calls for a boycott.
Me, I like the cover. It strikes me as an incisive comment on the fear mongering that has attended Obama's run for the presidency. Still, I understand why it is incendiary: some of us will take it seriously.
To be effective, satire needs a situation it can inflate into ridiculousness. But the hysteria surrounding Obama has nowhere to go; it is already ridiculous. In just the last few days, we've had Jesse Jackson threatening to castrate him and John McLaughlin calling him an "Oreo.''
Add to that the whispers about Obama's supposed Muslim heritage (not that there's anything wrong with that), the ''terrorist'' implications of bumping fists, and Michelle Obama's purported use of the term ''whitey'' (a word no black person has uttered since The Jeffersons went off the air in 1985), and it's clear that ''ridiculous'' has become our default status. What once were punchlines now are headlines.
So, as absurd, as over the top, as utterly outlandish as the New Yorker image strikes the more sophisticated among us, there is a large fringe out there for whom it will represent nothing more or less than the sum of their fears.
Indeed, as I sat down to write these words, there beeped into my mailbox an e-mail with this subject line: ''WOW, The New Yorker got it exactly right, for once.'' Said without a trace of irony.
But increasingly, that's who we are in this country: ignorant, irony-impaired and petrified. So maybe we should just cancel the campaign and ask that the last intelligent person turn off the lights when he or she leaves. And bring the last book with you. Nobody here will need it.
Somewhere between the stained blue dress and the vice president shooting a guy in the face, between swift boat lies and ''war on terra'' alibis, the absurd became the ordinary, facts became optional and satire became superfluous.
We are beyond satire, my friends. These days, there's nothing more ridiculous than the truth.