It's called "The Politics of Fear." Does this have to be tiresomely explained?
The New Yorker/Obama cover fracas unpleasantly reminds me of MANY incidents with my students having to do with satire. They don't get it, they hate it, and when presented with it, they get all sweaty, agitated and disagreeable. They don't understand why on earth somebody would say one thing and mean something else.
One time one of my brightest, most curious students asked me to define a word I'd just used, "incongruous." Rapidly free-associating, I used the example of the closing scene of the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian. I described "Brian" and his two buddies pinned to their respective crosses, cheerily singing the ridiculous ditty "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." "That's incongruity," I said, and, fondly remembering the movie, god forbid (so to speak), I chuckled.
Cue the dark, foreboding music.
No sooner did I get back to my office than I had a bitter, vitriolic email from another of my students, an ardently observant Protestant fundamentalist, vociferously objecting to my example and saying I had violated his religious rights. He threatened to take the matter to my supervisor, which I readily urged him to do. I had to take pains -- which I did voluntarily -- to assure him that I did not mean any offense to his religious passions; in fact, I explained, it was MY religious tradition too, and, as my colleagues and I agreed, many of our Christian students are the best we get -- conscientious, ethical, responsible. I appreciate their innocence.
But like David Remnick at the New Yorker, I hated being in the position of explaining (again) why my example was not meant as religious attack, but as a very precise example of "incongruity." It was satire. And as a preacher's daughter who grew up in a world where a sense of humor was my mark that I'd transcended zealotry, I was deeply disheartened.
Has the national intelligence plunged so precipitiously that the whole idea of satire now escapes us? Is this the best we can do after all these decades, these 232 years of struggling with issues of freedom of speech and tolerance, that we are still so unresolved, so unevolved, so easily triggered to truculence, and still so fearmongering? And I wonder, are all our years of cuts to education budgets beginning to show in a kind of contagious intellectual Alzheimer's?
And what's wrong with the Obama camp? These are Ivy League whizzes with street smarts: They've given us a tantalizing whiff of politics that allow for intellectual complexity. So why this tiresome, cliched automatic response? I'm disappointed.