When I first saw the cover — yes, that cover — of the New Yorker, I expected the swift and nauseatingly self-righteous condemnation it received from the TV personalities and politically correct pundits. That’s par for the course in the knee-jerk, brain-dead, humor-free Oughts. But what caught me off guard, even in this Age of Cynicism, was that Barack Obama joined their ranks: his official campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, labeled the lampoon “tasteless and offensive.”
Artist Barry Blitt’s brilliant illustration — which sought to satirize the naysayers who portray Obama as a flag-burning, unpatriotic Muslim and his wife as a black-power radical — cut to the core of today’s political paradox. The cover received so much attention, it has even led to meta-parodies, the most amusing of which was offered by the New Yorker’s sister publication Vanity Fair, which depicted a wobbly, walker-wielding John McCain and his wife in the same setting and artistic style. Still, the Illinois senator’s heated, visceral attack of the parody led me to ask: how can Obama, such a brilliant student of American law, politics, and culture, not get the joke — or at least not recognize that the joke was on his enemies?
But then I realized I had failed to account for what can be called the Harvard Factor. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee had, after all, been elected to the staff of the Harvard Law Review in the late 1980s and assumed the presidency of that august publication in 1990. By that time, the strictures of political correctness had seeped into all levels of American higher education and had utterly destroyed the sense of humor of so many college and university students. At the very least, this atmosphere stifled them from admitting (to anyone but their friends) that they even got a joke involving matters of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or any other hot-button issue at the center of the nation’s culture wars. And, as was predictable, the intellectual rot that began to infect the academy in the mid 1980s spread to the “real world” within a single generation. All of this displaced outrage, by Obama and many of his supporters, suddenly made sense.
The Harvard factor
Interestingly, it was Harvard Law School, regarded by many as the apex of legal education (and located in the heart of liberal Cambridge) that early grappled with the appropriateness of punishing students for engaging in satire and parody. With the eyes of the higher-education elite watching, the fabled law school established, in the early ’90s, that a written parody poking fun at a female member of the academic community is no different than punishable “sexual harassment.”