The Nature of Satire

by Tom Ingram

I apologize for the one week’s hiatus. June got off to a wacky start with me. I have a big untouched backlog of HL posts and I didn’t have anything written to put up in the meantime. Here’s something meatier as an apology.–TMI

I never “got” George Carlin. He’s supposed to be one of the greatest stand-up comics of all time, but something about his routines is deeply off-putting to me. It seems that nobody ever laughs at Carlin the same way they laugh at, say, Richard Pryor or Eddie Izzard. The latter two are actually funny, and audiences seem to connect deeply with them through the comedy. In contrast, Carlin draws two kinds of laughs with his “humour”: the nervous kind, drawn out by his overbearing stage persona, a weak chuckle with no joy in it; and the bitter scoffing laughter of people who agree with him, who are laughing more out of a sense of obligation than anything, though they’d never admit to it. What passes for funny in his stand-up is really little more than cruel name-calling that’s supposed to signal world-weary cynicism but instead comes across as vulgar and childish.

Anyway, it seems unlikely to me that there are very many serious Christians or American conservatives among his fans. Likewise, although Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart occasionally throw a bone in a rightwards direction, this is mostly so their fans can claim to be nonpartisans who recognize flaws equally all across the political spectrum. And don’t even get me started about R. Limbaugh, G. Beck, A. Coulter, et al. Under the “comedy is revolutionary” principle, they could not possibly be funny to anyone who doesn’t agree with them. If any liberals are in their audiences, it’s simply for the pleasure of righteous indignation at these objectively repulsive people.

This presents a problem if the purpose of satire and political humour in general is to spur political change–how is it supposed to do that, if the only people who watch, listen, or read already agree with it?

There’s no use in telling people things they already believe, and people are often upset to be told things they don’t.

–Paul Graham, “How to Do Philosophy

Another important point about satire is the fact that, by Poe’s Law, sometimes people don’t realize they’re being satirized. Swift is quite famous for this–many contemporary readers of A Modest Proposal thought he was sincere, and some particularly illiterate and philistinic modern critics have revived this view, suggesting that Swift was schizophrenic. This may seem trivial, but if readers don’t understand a piece of writing, they can’t learn anything from it or change as a result.

But it’s even worse than that. In Swift’s case, a misunderstanding reader will simply ignore him, sparing perhaps a moment for indignation. However, many satirists, especially modern ones, have personae that are in some ways more extreme, but in many respects more realistic than Swift. When your satire is an extreme form of a position that a real person might agree with, then its Poe failure mode is to work in favour of the position it’s supposed to be mocking. The obvious example is Baron-Cohen in Borat and Bruno. While his intentions were admirable, it’s safe to say that on net he promoted prejudice a lot more than he fought it.

There comes a time in every bookish teenager’s life when they become disillusioned with the world; they want to be Jon Swift and write satire and show everybody just how foolish it all is. If they’re lucky, they grow out of it. If they’re not, they become Trey Parker or Matt Stone or someone. It’s a terrible outlook to have on the world. Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s manifesto of cynicism, is not the work of someone tirelessly pushing for political change. Losing faith in humanity is not wisdom, and slipping into despair is neither intelligent nor useful. It is a failure, a thinly-veiled ass-covering. From Mencken to Parker, this is the tone taken by miserable people trying desperately to find something good to say about themselves. The self-loathing in their work runs deep, and perhaps the best thing they believed they had going for them was seeing through the world. Sure, we might all be in the gutter, but at least I’m not playing along with the mud.

Anyone who despises himself will still respect himself as a despiser.

–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Chapter IV, Aphorism 78

Swift wrote in Ireland in the early 18th century. While the conditions he describes are not pleasant, it’s instructive to note that this was not even close to the worst time in Ireland’s history. The Irish have a reputation as one of the most unlucky ethnic groups on the face of the planet. You could flip to a random page in any history book and probably come up with a mention of somebody murdering them en masse.

The point is that Ireland was not a nice place before Swift was born. It was not a nice place during his youth. It was not a nice place before or immediately after the publication of A Modest Proposal. A hundred years after Swift’s death, it became a vastly less nice place, spurring a mass exodus that was the ultimate cause of innumerable mediocre cop shows. Around the same time there was a mass exodus of Scots, too, but they tended to settle in very well in Canada and the US, while the Irish weren’t treated much better here than they were at home. To this very day, Ireland is not a nice place to live–there was a brief period of economic prosperity in the latter half of the 20th century, but that is definitively over.

Swift is hailed as a master of the satirical form, but the crucial rubric for determining satire’s worth is what it accomplishes. For example, Orwell, though his influence is of questionable value and has been greatly exaggerated, undoubtedly changed the political landscape of his time. By that standard, Swift is an egregious failure. Though undoubtedly funny, his work was a drop in the bucket that amounted to nothing, and his home country has if anything deteriorated since 1729.

What is satire good for, then? Well, rallying the base, for one thing. Colbert and Stewart are among the few things that the left can agree on. And while Glenn Beck might be one of the worst human beings to curse the face of the Earth with his presence, you have to admit that he fills an extremely useful position for the US Republican party.

So long as we don’t puff ourselves up about its usefulness, cruel satire can be entertaining in small doses. I sense deep despair in Mencken, but I actually quite like his work in many respects.

I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing by trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow…oppressed.

–David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Plurum: Television and US Fiction”

Lastly, there is a certain kind of satire that I am not aware of a label for. While it does mock, wink, and nudge, it’s also deeply sincere and takes itself seriously on its terms. Rather than simply knocking down, it picks up the pieces and puts them together into something better. My best example of this is Terry Pratchett’s long-running Discworld series, a satire on the fantasy genre, among other things. At his worst moments, Pratchett is merely funny. However, I’ll freely admit that Men at Arms, Small Gods, Good Omens, and Night Watch changed my life. While Pratchett never accepts an injustice, he never slips into despair, either. His main characters’ response is inevitably to fight harder.

However, on the whole, satire is not a useful method of political expression. The audience it most needs to reach is out of its grasp. If they do see it, they’ll probably feel alienated, if they even understand it at all. If they don’t understand it, a satire can have the opposite of the intended effect. Assuming that its intended audience sees it, understands it, and is not alienated by it (which is no small assumption), it still usually has no effect on the real world. It’s really best for making people who already agree with you agree with you more. Put it all together and the nature of satire is more akin to something else that bookish teenagers are notorious for.