Not long ago, the New Yorker magazine published a cover cartoon depicting Vice President Dick Cheney as a jack-o'-lantern. The joke worked. Some do see Cheney as spooky and maybe even diabolical. But the recent cover showing Barack Obama dressed like Osama bin Laden and his wife, Michelle, decked out like a gun-toting Black Panther failed miserably.

It failed because the magazine, it turns out, wasn't vilifying the Obamas at all. They were vilifying those who vilify the Obamas.

Welcome to the world of intellectual irony — the coin of the realm in the world of America's literati. The magazine was banking on everyone seeing the tongue-in-cheek gag.

The magazine misfired.

Irony — where you say one thing and mean just the opposite — is the high-minded cousin of sarcasm. When you look at a photo of Lyle Lovett and say, "There is one handsome man," everyone hears the snarky tone. Irony is the same thing, only cleaned up to appear respectable. And in the kingdoms of upper education and highbrow literature, irony oozes from everything. It's an easy stance — the stance of the bright but aloof observer, not someone who has put heart and soul on the line.

Irony is easy. Earnestness is hard.

As for the New Yorker, it also once published a cover cartoon, this one of a map of the United States where New York City dwarfs the rest of the nation. The magazine was poking fun at the Big Apple — how New York City sees itself as the center of the world with all the provincial self-centeredness and lack of interest in anything beyond its city limits sign that's found in a small town.

Now that provincialism has reared up to nip the New Yorker itself.

True, the faux pas will sell a lot of copies of the Obama issue. In that regard, the New Yorker will learn that — like the tabloid newspapers — outrageousness does sell, and it can laugh all the way to the bank. But the truth remains. The New Yorker, with its tendency to be clever and superior, got a tad too cute for its own good, and the cover icon, Mr. Tilly, is now Mr. Silly.

In the end, intellectual sophistication can be a worthy pursuit, as long as you don't let it make you stupid.

Note the sarcasm.