Tag Archives: satire

The Death Of Satire

A few days ago, I posted about the increasing prominence of what I can only call bat-shit crazy political beliefs–beliefs that evidently function to justify the adherents’ fear and hatred of various “others.”

The growth of what we might call the fantasy phenomenon has a number of consequences; for one thing, it makes it difficult–okay, impossible–to “reach out” and try to find common ground. What do those of us who live in what we fondly hope is the real world have in common with people who actually believe that an elitist “cabal” rules the world, and that its members keep children in basement hideaways so that they can periodically drink their blood? Because they also believe that drinking young blood keeps them young…

I’m not making that up; it’s a staple of the QAnon fantasy.

A troubling but far less consequential result of “the crazy” is its effect on satire. It would seem that our current political reality has killed satire. And that matters for far more than entertainment, because satire can be a particularly effective form of political criticism.

Satire is defined as the” use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”  Exaggeration is particularly important to the creation of a satirical observation; it is by exaggerating an argument or behavior that the humorist identifies and amplifies what is ridiculous (or at least silly) about it.

So what do you do when reality overpowers your ability to exaggerate a position in order to demonstrate its essential nuttiness–when what people say or believe is already so outsized and insane that there’s nowhere else to go?

I think we are there. I was struck by a recent post to Daily Kos that featured a quiz: Is it satire or is it real?

Here’s the quiz:

1)  Eighty-five Percent of White Evangelicals Support Boastful, Lying, Thrice-married Serial Adulterer, Say He’s “Good Christian.”

2)  Republicans Who Oppose Using Tax Money to Aid Needy Americans Lament That Money Sent to Ukraine Could be Used to Aid Needy Americans.

3)  Congressman Who Claims He Didn’t Witness Systemic Sexual Abuse of College Athletes Named to Oversight Committee

4)  Mass Shooting Victims Offered Thoughts and Prayers by Thoughtless, Godless Politicians.

5)  Majority of Republicans Deem Colleges, Universities Harmful to Society, Prefer People Remain Ignorant.

6)  Republicans Who Warn of “Government Coming Between You and Your Doctor” Mandate Medically Unnecessary, Invasive, Trans-Vaginal Ultrasounds, Feel No Disconnect

7)  Congresswoman Who Angrily Disrupted State of the Union Bemoans Lack of Civility in Restaurant.

8)  Book Banners and History Deniers Decry “Cancel Culture.”

9)  Conservative Commentator Sexualizes M&Ms, Gives “Melts In Your Mouth, Not in Your Hands” Disturbing New Connotation

10)  Supporters View Man who Lost Money Owning Casino as Great Businessman

11) Reporters Routinely Hide Blockbuster News Until Book Published, Still Regard Themselves as Journalists

12) News Media Insists Upon Calling Most Radically Activist SCOTUS Justices in History “Conservative.”

13) Republicans who Tout Deregulation of Rail Safety, Environmental Protection Criticize Safety Regulators, EPA, For Not Doing Enough

14) Republicans in Uproar Over Mister Potato Head Call Other People “Snowflakes”

15) Tennessee Legislator Promotes Lynching as Capital Punishment Method, Remains Utterly Lacking in Awareness of Term “Utterly Lacking in Awareness.”

16) Georgia Congresswoman Proposes Red State/Blue State “Divorce,” Forgetting Her State Elected Democratic President And Two Democratic Senators.

Those of you who follow this blog, or political life in general, undoubtedly answered correctly that all of these examples are real world specimens snatched from today’s degraded political landscape. (Granted, the framing betrays some bias, but the identified behaviors are accurate.)

How can you possibly exaggerate today’s walking, talking buffoonery?

The purpose of satire has always been to make a point–to demonstrate the inanity or wrong-headedness of a particular behavior or belief, and (hopefully) to shame those who are engaging in that behavior or endorsing that belief. What we are discovering in our bizarro new political world is that the people who take these positions and/or trumpet these beliefs are either dishonest–playing to the MAGA crowd–or clueless true believers, and in either case, that they are utterly shameless.

Whatever the true beliefs of today’s performative political figures, the real question doesn’t focus on them. The conundrum is the question that several commenters to this blog routinely pose: what is wrong with the people who vote for these buffoons?

The real problem isn’t the embarrassing idiots who dominate the news cycles. It’s the large number of our fellow-Americans who are evidently impossible to embarrass.



Don’t Look Up

A recent headline from Common Dreams announced that “Don’t Look Up” is now the most-viewed film on Netflix worldwide.

I don’t watch a lot of television, and as I’ve aged, I seem to have lost the patience necessary to sit through most movies, but my children all raved about “Don’t Look Up,” and then my FaceBook feed was filled with people recommending it in glowing terms, so I made an exception.

What was it that Arte Johnson used to say on “Laugh-In”? Veeery Interesting! (young people, Google it.)

The new feature film “Don’t Look Up,” a dark comedy satirizing the complacency and mendacity of elites in the face of an existential threat to human civilization, is now the most popular movie on Netflix worldwide, according to data compiled by FlixPatrol.

The basic story revolves around the discovery of a large comet by academics at a midwest university. They realize that it will soon hit earth, wiping out most of life on the planet. Rather than deal with that reality, and launch an effort to destroy the comet (which turns out to contain very valuable minerals), the government partners with big business in an effort to recover those minerals, and as that effort fails, enlists celebrities and others in a campaign to tell people “don’t look up.”

So they don’t.

Most reports about the film describe it as a commentary on mankind’s reluctance to take climate change seriously, but the social criticism goes far beyond that. The numerous major stars who play roles in this very negative portrayal of today’s American society have produced a story firmly focused on the worst aspects of contemporary culture–the media’s love affair with celebrity and sex, our obsession with credentials rather than competence (the unwillingness of government officials to believe the scientists until their results have been confirmed by professors at “elite” universities was a nice touch)–and so many other distortions amplified by the current media environment.

Meryl Streep, as a female version of Trump, personified the utterly ignorant, poll-driven, self-engrossed politicians that currently litter our political landscape. And Mark Rylance, playing a mega-rich Silicon Valley tech guru, is a cringe-inducing reminder of the real-world, self-aggrandizing tech billionaires who prioritize the elevation of their personal  fame and profit over any concern for society or humanity.

Critical evaluations of the film have been sharply divided. Roger Ebert hated it; Neil DeGrasse Tyson dubbed it a documentary.

I will admit to being somewhere in-between. I found the satire in many places far too broad, evidence of a determination to “hit them [the audience] over the head.” Artistically, Ebert has a point– the film would have benefitted greatly from some judicious cutting. That said, Tyson is also right–in so many unfortunate ways, it is a documentary.

it’s hard to disagree with a commenter to one site who observed that the movie wasn’t limited to a critique of our disinclination to address climate change–“I totally disagree. This flick was a satire about our culture and was right on the money!”

As another commented  “I mean, when hundreds of thousands of people die from a virus and people still claim it’s a hoax… the notion of people not believing scientists and astronomers seems pretty plausible (regardless of the validity of the scenario).. We live in a strange world right now.” No kidding.

Maybe we need to be hit over the head…Repeatedly.

At the very least, the fact that so many people have watched a movie that is a searing if somewhat over-the-top criticism of today’s culture–and the fact that so many of them (even among the critics) strongly agreed with the message–is probably a good sign.


The Death of Satire?

A regular reader of this blog made an astute observation a few months ago; in response to a discussion of seemingly ridiculous behavior by some political figure or other, he noted that “Their reality has lapped our satire.”

No kidding.

I was scrolling through my Facebook page, and came across a quote attributed to Congressman Trent Franks, questioning the Pope’s grasp of the bible, and insisting that a proper reading of that text did not require helping the poor. In a sane age, I would have immediately concluded that the quote was fake, but then I remembered an incident I personally witnessed a few years ago, at a debate about same-sex marriage sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Two of us on the panel spoke in opposition to the (then pending) constitutional ban. Curt Smith from the Indiana Family Institute and someone whose name I don’t recall spoke in support. During the question and answer period, Rabbi Dennis Sasso quoted a passage from the bible as a reason to oppose the ban; Smith responded by telling the Rabbi that he’d misinterpreted the bible, and offering to send him some materials that “explain that passage properly.”

In my ethnic group, that’s called “chutzpah.” I’ve never forgotten it. So I suspended disbelief and googled the Trent Franks quote, which did turn out to be inaccurate. (Franks had suggested that the Pope should stay out of “politics.”)

The moral of this story is that it is getting increasingly difficult to tell whether a story is satirical or true. When state legislatures pass laws “protecting” pastors from performing same-sex marriages, or laws forbidding food stamp recipients from buying seafood; when Sarah Palin says things like “Paul Revere warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our guns,” when pretty much everything that comes out of the mouths of people like Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert, Ben Carson and so many others sounds like a headline from the Onion, is it any wonder that we approach reports about even the most outrageous statements with a suspension of disbelief?

Actually, disbelief over accurate quotations threatens to become my permanent attitude….




A Totally Honest Political Ad

This is just too accurate not to share…..

And because it is so spot-on, it may explain this, at least partially:

The non-profit, non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University’s School of Public Affairs reported only 14.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the first 25 state primaries, down from 18.3 percent in the 2010 midterm elections.

That’s about 18.2 million ballots from a pool of some 122.8 million eligible voters.

I wonder which came first, the dysfunctional political system or the apathetic electorate?


Justice, Justice….

“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”

Yesterday, I read two unrelated items that brought that Talmudic injunction rather forcefully to mind. The first was a line in an excellent review in the Atlantic of two books about Sholem Aleichem, sometimes called the “Jewish Mark Twain.” (Aleichem was the creator of Tevye, the inspiration for the central character in Fiddler on the Roof.) The sentence that struck me was this: Jewish humor arises in the gap between reality and dreams, reality and justice.”

The other item was a story from the Huffington Post. The headline says it all: For the First Time Ever, a Prosecutor Will Go to Jail for Wrongfully Convicting an Innocent Man.

The prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, possessed evidence that would have cleared the defendant, including a statement from the crime’s only eyewitness that the defendant wasn’t the perpetrator. Anderson sat on that evidence and obtained a conviction of the accused, who remained in prison for the next 25 years.  Meanwhile, Anderson’s career flourished, and he eventually became a judge.

As unjust as this situation was, as shocking to the conscience, what makes it newsworthy is the fact that Anderson actually was punished. As the story notes–and as most lawyers can attest– this is not an isolated case of malfeasance. Although most prosecutors and judges are ethical practitioners who take their obligations to the rule of law seriously, there are far too many who do not, and they are rarely, if ever, sanctioned. A recent study found prosecutorial misconduct in nearly a quarter of all capital cases in Arizona. Only two of those prosecutors have been reprimanded or punished in any way.

Evidence of gross misconduct leading to injustice isn’t limited to the legal system. It is increasingly impossible to ignore the corruption of our social and governing institutions. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen it everywhere–from rampant corporate misbehavior to major league sports doping to revelations of priestly child molestation to corrupt lobbyists to propagandists masquerading as journalists to Congressmen who cut food stamps for hungry children while fiercely protecting tax loopholes and corporate welfare for their patrons.

In this dismal ethical environment, justice isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

An unjust, unfair world invites–demands–political satire, and satire, at least, is thriving. You need only watch Jon Stewart for an example of Jewish humor that “arises in the gap between justice and reality.” It’s a big gap. The Sholem Aleichem reviewer suggests that the purpose of Jewish humor is to “give yourself some distance from your hopeless situation.” If that’s accurate, most humor these days is Jewish humor.

Gallows humor.

I enjoy a good laugh, but I’d prefer a more just world.