It’s a cool summer evening, and we are sitting in the drawing room in front of a fire. I’m reading The New Yorker. My husband is reading The (other) Spectator. He chuckles softly and I look up. He describes a cartoon. Two pigs are watching Wimbledon on television. One pig tells the other: ‘I like the grunting, but I find the tennis rather dull.’ I must have told the pig joke a dozen times by now, but it still makes me laugh. Which is unusual, because I rarely find the cartoons in The Spectator funny.
My husband’s complaint is more serious. He’s been married to me for 22 years now and says he still can’t understand a cartoon in The New Yorker. Ah, humour. The little cultural and linguistic divide that is the Grand Canyon of all understanding. Nothing is more boring than trying to explain what’s funny to someone who doesn’t get it. My favourite New Yorker writer E. B. White put it like this: ‘Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies.’
Frankly, I’m amazed that we’ve muddled along all these years without getting the jokes. Even when The Spectator arrives, we go our separate ways. I read Taki and Jeremy Clarke (a wonderful writer) before turning to the lamentations of Theodore Dal-rymple and his views of the vulgar, coarse-grained and utterly stupid British lumpen-proletariat (it’s hell, but somebody has to read it). My husband reads Charles Moore and the book reviews. He thinks my devotion to Dalrymple reflects deep masochistic needs he’d rather ignore.
As for The New Yorker, my husband no longer even gazes at the cover. And it’s the cover of The New Yorker that I’m getting round to: yes, that cover, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, dressed as a dishdasha Muslim terrorist, having a little fist kiss with Michelle, who’s decked out in combat boots, an assault rifle and a bandolier of bullets (see below). An American flag burns gently in the fireplace, a portrait of Osama bin Laden gazes into the room. Days before my July 21 issue arrived, I knew the Obama cover by heart. It had appeared in every English newspaper and every online news site. My first look made me pretty mad.
As a faithful communicant of the church of The New Yorker, I instantly
fired off an email of complaint to David Remnick, the editor, along the
lines of ‘Lordy, next you’ll be selling the poster of this cover in
your online shop, with discounts for Rush Limbaugh if he orders in
bulk’. Within seconds, I received one of those ‘out of office’ replies, an arch little message assuring me that New Yorker readers are so sophisticated they can discern that the cartoon was meant as satire.
In case I lacked discernment, the note explained that the cover had taken the ‘distortions, lies and misconceptions about the Obamas’ and, by ‘exaggerating and mocking some things’, shown ‘what satire is all about’. Thanks. The reply didn’t begin ‘Dear Pious Nitwit’, but it left me feeling like the P. G. Wodehouse character who, ‘if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled’.
The Fox Newsers and Karl Rovers who want to portray Obama as a closet Muslim don’t need help from The New Yorker. And whatever your politics, a flag in the ashes and bin Laden over the mantelpiece appearing on the newsstand the same week that nine American soldiers died in Afghanistan doesn’t tickle the funny bone. All the same, I didn’t join the angry hoards and cancel my subscription. No, I didn’t.
The truth is, I don’t want this cartoon to become a WASP-ish version of the Danish cartoon saga. Did I find the cover ‘offensive’ and ‘racist’? During my southern childhood, I heard a lot of racist jokes. If you didn’t laugh, you were considered suspect. But the time comes when you find all tasteless jokes rather dull. When what you really enjoy is the subtlety and nuance of grunting.