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.”
The campus came to a near-standstill in 1992 — just one year after Obama had graduated — over a piece in the Harvard Law Review’s annual April Fool’s Day issue, the Harvard Law Revue. In this parody, meant for circulation only among Law Review members, the editors mocked the scholarship of then–recently deceased New England School of Law professor Mary Joe Frug, who had been tragically stabbed to death near her Cambridge residence. At the time of her gruesome death, Frug was working on a comprehensive treatment of feminist legal philosophy, in which she insisted that the contemporary legal system “constructs” women’s sex and gender roles, and that rules permit not only the “sexualization” of the female body, but also its “terrorization.” Her arguments, it could be (and was) reasonably argued, bordered on the bizarre, and her prose was laced with expletives. The majority of the Harvard Law Review’s editors nonetheless favored publishing the unfinished draft of her work as a tribute to Frug. A vocal minority opposed the decision, arguing that the draft was sloppy and that Frug herself would not have considered it ready for publication. Still others argued that Frug’s theories and prose were ludicrous and did not belong in the prestigious academic journal.
For many of these reasons, a group of anonymous Harvard Law Review members parodied the sprawling manifesto in the annual Law Revue. To say the parody was scathing is an understatement: the writers made tasteless references to Frug’s violent death and cruelly attributed the satirical work to “Mary Doe, Rigor-Mortis Professor of Law.” Holistically, however, the piece read as a stinging rebuke of the real Law Review’s decision to publish Frug’s unfinished draft, and more generally, an unabashed lampoon of radical-feminist scholarship — all well within the bounds of traditional parody.
As the parodic piece (leaked from what was supposed to be a small group of readers) made its rounds throughout the campus, it provoked a firestorm, particularly among faculty members and female students. The president of the Law Review wrote an open letter apologizing to the offended parties. The editors originally responsible for publishing Frug’s actual manifesto also apologized for not protesting the parody before it was printed and circulated at the annual April Fool’s Day dinner of the Law Review staff. Finally, the authors apologized as well.