Squawk of the Town

There has apparently been a collapse of comic literacy in the United States of America, as the magazine-reading class in this city has deteriorated to the point at which it can no longer absorb a political cartoon. Barry Blitt’s assault on the bias and profiling leveled at Mr. and Mrs. Barack Obama, “The Politics of Fear,” on the cover of the July 21, 2008, issue of The New Yorker embodies the kind of wit that was once standard issue in great cartooning from John Tenniel to Herblock.

Mocking the racial preconceptions that the yahoos have tacked onto the Chicago politician Barack Obama—whose first name isn’t much stranger to the American palate than Adlai’s or Lyndon’s once were—was Blitt’s really good idea. Our own front-page caricaturist for two decades, Barry Blitt has regularly been brilliant for The New Yorker: His “You Broke It You Own It” Iraq cover and his Bush-and-Cheney “Odd Couple” covers have become classics.

But apparently the cold discipline required to see the joke in the image of the new middle-class Mr. and Mrs. Ward Cleaver cast as Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge Cleaver was too much for American consumers made lazy and flabby by cable and Web. That both the Obama and McCain campaigns jumped in should be no shock—they’re mass retailers, and opportunistic ones, with product to sell. But the squalls and squawks coming from yammering New Yorkers is one more shocking sign that the ability to read a nuanced joke has somehow collapsed. All the gains won by R. Crumb and The Simpsons, squandered!

Have the culture wars so beaten us that New York has, at last, become Dubuque East? Apparently, when it comes to looking at a cartoon, readers have had their sensibility cortex bashed into a yam consistency by a self-righteous bully bunch that is assaulting a great American cartoonist as though he were … a Danish cartoonist.