Thursday, July 17, 2008

Obama cartoon stirs controversy in post-irony U.S.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe irony really is dead.

At least I heard it was dead. “Death of irony” speculation was all the rage after Sept. 11, 2001. It was bigger than the death of Elvis. Mind you, I never grasped the link between the 9/11 attacks and irony. Still, there were people on TV who assured me there indeed was a link. You know, just like there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

But irony’s passing didn’t really hit me until Monday, when I heard the collective gasp of the nation’s political bloggers and cable TV pundits going into shock. Soon afterward, they all got their chance to beat up The New Yorker magazine for its current issue, which features a cover illustration of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and would-be first lady Michelle Obama.
The cartoon depicts Sen. Obama wearing traditional Arab garb and doing the now infamous “fist bump” with his wife, who is dressed as a 1960s-style “black militant,” complete with military fatigues, AK-47, bandoleer and afro.

To make the matter even more scandalous, Mr. and Mrs. Obama are shown in the Oval Office, which, for added effect, is decorated with a portrait of Public Enemy No. 1 Osama bin Laden hanging above a fireplace in which burns an American flag.

There is a word that perfectly describes The New Yorker’s cartoon. That word is “irony.”

Instead, Obama’s campaign went with “tasteless” and “offensive.” The campaign of Sen. Obama’s Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, apparently at a loss for its own adjectives, released a statement basically saying, “Ditto.” Surely, this is the start of what will be the cleanest, most civil presidential campaign since George Washington ran against nobody.

The reaction all across the Internet and CNN was much the same, not that any of the outraged parties actually believed The New Yorker was guilty of racism, stereotyping or just plain old libel. They all recognized the cartoon for what it was — irony. They were just afraid all the unwashed masses out in Middle America wouldn’t get the joke. Because, as you know, irony is dead. Gone and forgotten.
This saddens me. Irony was my third-favorite literary device, after sarcasm and double entendres and just ahead of puns.

I mean, really, how can anyone without an advanced literature degree from Harvard or Columbia be expected to recognize irony now? It takes years of graduate studies to know that The New Yorker’s illustration really meant the opposite of what it depicted — that it was, in fact, satirizing the many conspiracy theories that have grown like kudzu around the Obama campaign.

If Jonathan Swift were to write his 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal” today, who knows what would happen? Why, the Irish might actually eat their own children, just as Swift suggested. But at least that would add a little protein to the typical Irish diet, which consists solely of potatoes and whiskey.

Obama is not a radical Islamic terrorist just waiting to seize control of the U.S. government. He is exactly what he says he is — an agent of change. Except he means “C.H.A.N.G.E,” which stands for Cannibals, Homosexuals and Atheists for Nuking Grandmothers Everywhere.

Irony is not something we Americans do well. Consider Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic,” with lyrics like “It’s like rain on your wedding day” and “It’s the good advice that you just didn't take,” none of which are ironic because irony expresses the opposite of its literal meaning. Irony would be something like getting divorced on your wedding day, while rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic, just unfortunate. Unless you like rain.

Of course, a song about irony that contains no irony might, in fact, be ironic. And, in any case, Morissette is a Canadian. Isn’t it ironic?

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