When you have to explain a joke, it's not funny.
That's the core problem in the dust-up over a New York Post editorial cartoon, a peculiar and confusing creation that strikes many eyes as linking President Obama to a raging chimpanzee.
Cartoonist Sean Delonas depicts a dead chimp on a sidewalk with a couple of bullet holes in its chest while police officers standing nearby with a smoking gun say "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."
The drawing is a timely reference to Travis the chimp, an ape-gone-wild that was shot to death by Stamford, Conn., police earlier in the week after it mauled a friend of its owner. Still, the cartoon leaves one muttering, "Huh?" Was the chimp supposed to be Obama? The Democratic Congress? Does the Post view firearms as an appropriate way to settle the economic debate?
No and no, says the Delonas and the newspaper, although it is hard to tell what the cartoon is about. Even animal lovers have taken offense -- at its depiction of cruelty to apes.
We've seen controversial scenarios like this before: A publication infuriates a prominent minority group. Protest leaders demand apologies. They also may demand that someone be fired. If the publication's owner also is a broadcaster, licenses are threatened, as the Rev. Al Sharpton threatened the newspaper's owner, Rupert Murdoch, while leading pickets outside the Post.
The scenario continues: Defenders of the publication cry foul. They cite "free speech" rights and accuse grievance leaders like Sharpton of enflaming racial tensions for personal gain. "You've got a black president," one reader wrote to a blogger, "What more do black people want?"
We saw a similar harangue-and-flagellate scenario happen last year with the New Yorker's cartoon controversy. Its cover depicted Obama in Islamic dress and his wife Michelle Obama as a 1960s style Black Panther militant. Now that the two have moved into the White House, is it safe to laugh? Don't ask.
The Post's editorial board tried to weather this storm. They lasted two days before posting an apology on the newspaper's Web site while pickets marched outside their offices and politicians called for investigations, or at least for better taste in political artwork.
The Post's apology sounded half-hearted, as if it were forced from a schoolyard bully by a bigger bully. The cartoon, explained the Post, "was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period."
They apologized to "those who were offended by the image," but not to "some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past" and "see the incident as an opportunity for payback."
Surely they were not talking about me. I like the Post. Whether I agree with their editorials or not, I have long been entertained by their elevation of page-one headline writing to a high art.
Among their greatest hits: "AXIS OF WEASEL" (2003), "MARLA: 'BEST SEX I EVER HAD'" (1990), "KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE!" (Meteor misses earth, 1998), and the all-time champ in my record book, "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" (1982). Ah, the memories.
The same day that the Post cartoon appeared, a Black History Month speech by Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, sparked another controversy with the way that he called for the very thing that his speech stirred up: More talk about race.
Holder called our country "a nation of cowards" on matters of race, with most Americans avoiding candid talk about racial issues. I have long argued the same point, although I am too cowardly to use the word "cowards."
Reaction to Holder's speech illustrated his point. Radio star Rush Limbaugh and other prominent conservatives denounced Holder's notion that Americans outside the workplace tend to live racially self-segregated lives. Then his critics, I would wager, returned home to mostly self-segregated neighborhoods.
We Americans do need to talk more about race. But what form should that conversation take without turning into a blamestorm? As President Bill Clinton's national attempt at a racial dialogue found a decade ago, holding talks for the sake of talk tends to bring out the open-minded folks who need such dialogues the least.
It is our five-alarm eruptions like the Post's cartoon or Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" episode that draws the truly angry minds into the arena, even if only to shout at one-another. Only then do we see just how widely and deeply race continues to divide us Americans, even in the age of Obama.