Two kinds of satire

/ 17 July 2008

I was driving around a little later than usual this morning (Alex received an award from the principal at a breakfast today — congrats Alex!), and listening to the MPR Midmorning talk show where they were discussing the New Yorker cover. One of the really interesting points made was that there are at least two kinds of satire. One where you take a characteristic of the person/situation and exaggerate it until it’s grotesque and thus funny, and one where you take on the persona of your opponent and act in such a outre way that the opponent becomes clearly ridiculous and thus funny.

The person making this point (I'm sorry I can't remember which of the two it was), noted that it's the first kind of satire with which we're most familiar, as it is the form used by 90% of editorial cartooning, etc., while it's the second form that was used in the New Yorker cover. This second kind is also the form of satire that Stephen Colbert indulges in. As I rarely enjoy the Colbert Report (although I will acknowledge it can be funny), this distinction made a lot of sense to me. And it also helps me to understand why I don't really enjoy the New Yorker cover, either, because that second kind of satire is aimed at making your opponent ridiculous in a way that emphasizes the superiority of the person building the satire, rather than exaggerating a characteristic of the person you're satirizing.

In the specific case of the New Yorker cover, a large amount of the outrage it's generated probably comes from people thinking it's operating in the first mode (that is, taking something true about the candidate and exaggerating it until it's funny), rather than the second mode. And given that there ARE a lot of people who believe certain things about Sen. Obama that are not true of him, I think there's appropriate reason to question this.

Finally, I'll note that no one on the radio cast made any mention of the fact that the satire is making fun of the claim that Sen. Obama is a Muslim. Well, sure, it's worth making fun of the ridiculousness of that claim since he's so clearly a Christian. But I must also point out that the very fact that some people think it would be a negative slam on Sen. Obama to view him as a Muslim reinforces anti-Muslim prejudice in this country. And no one seems to be talking much about that in this current kerfuffle.