The use of irony can be a sublime pleasure but, like red chillies or a Porsche 911, you have to know how to use it, otherwise it can do you serious harm. Last week, in case you missed it, the New Yorker ran a front cover depicting Barack Obama and his wife in Islamist terrorist garb, standing in an Oval Office in which the flag of the United States bums in the fireplace. Obama's people were not happy, and called the cartoon "tasteless and offensive", while the editor of the magazine, David Remnick, backed up the cartoonist, Barry Blitt, insisting that the cover was a composite parody of all the groundless smears that have been thrown at the senator from Illinois since he started running for president.
Arguably it is just that; irresponsibility, not malign intent, is the charge levelled at this most establishment of liberal American magazines. But in fact neither charge can be dismissed so lightly.
I'm sure that, at the relevant editorial conference, BLitt's cartoon was considered a masterpiece of journalistic art. the very thing to ram in the faces of the reading public the New Yorker's ability to rise above the trivial and obvious, and pack a heavy satirical, yet intellectual, punch. But the decision was arrogant and disingenuous, wilfully neglecting demographics beyond the magazine's own readership.
Let us divide members of the American public, as they pass a rack of magazines and glance at that cover, into six strata. At the bottom is Group F: people who don't recognise Sen and Mrs Obama from their caricatures, because they have no idea who they are. Next is the slightly superior Group E: people who can't read, but have seen Obama on television, know he's running for president, and conclude that this famous journal thinks he's a traitor. Members of Group D can read, but don't know that the New Yorker has been poisonously critical of George W Bush, and avowedly would support any Democratic candidate against John McCain; they think the cartoon is a reference to Obama's stated willingness to engage in dialogue with the enemies of the United States, and so draw the same conclusion as Group E. Group C is composed of educated folk who know more or less where their native publications lie in terms of political loyalty, though they rarely bother to read any of them. They look at that drawing, puzzle a while, and then more or less get the intended line. Let's say these four groups constitute 90 per cent of people who saw that cover. How would you guess the proportions, and then merge them with those who bother to vote?
Group A is very rarified; these people know the movers and shakers, might have met David Remnick at some charity do, and possibly heard about the offending artwork before it hit the streets. But then there's Group B, in which, though British, I include myself; those who read the magazine every week, and have noticed that, while bending over backwards to appear impartial (within the Democratic contest, of course), it favoured Hillary Clinton until it was obvious that she'd blown it.
And this was clear, not just in the articles, but in the cover cartoons. One showed Clinton and Obama as a couple startled from steep, both grabbing for the bedside phone: but the phone was on Clinton's side of the bed, and she was in the foreground, Obama trying to reach
over her. Another, in a beautifully elegant piece, had them done up as the iconic New Yorker dandy with high collar and monocle, mirrored as on a playing card. But Clinton was the one who was the right way up as you opened the magazine; for Obama to be the right way up the magazine would have had to be written in Arabic (or Hebrew).
As I say, the New Yorker is liberal but establishment. Maybe it favoured Clinton because, given the choice, its board and shareholders would rather see a woman, experienced as she is as the senior senator and former First Lady, in the White House than a halfblack arriviste, and were blind to the fact that he's brighter and has more chance of winning And maybe they now think that McCain, though likely to win, is unlikely, at his age, to get a second term. So let Obama lose and damn himself, and Democrats say: "If only we'd had Hillary..." Roll on, 2012.
Man, Kenny returns next week