Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Send In the Clowns

Placard from the Sane or Not?
offshoot of the Sanity/Fear Rally.

I keep reading "serious" writers penning mainly humorless thumbsuckers complaining about the performance (The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear) by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert scheduled for this weekend. Most such complaints seem to boil down to the following sentiment: "If I could put together such a thing, it would include a Will Rogers and would be way more awesome than these Colbert/Stewart events. "

To which I have two responses: 1) No, it wouldn't. and 2) "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

As showbiz, I guess the Rally will be entertaining in bits amid the filler. But I don't expect it to be a truly political event so I won't judge it that way. It would necessarily disappoint.

In September the Financial Times invited several satirists to write on the theme "Has political satire gone too far?" The only piece that stuck with me was by Jonathan Coe, whose novel What a Carve Up! (released in America as The Winshaw Legacy: or What a Carve Up! ) is a spectacular work of literary satire. He wrote, in part:
As the years go by, in any case, I become less and less convinced that satire is good for democracy. When I wrote What a Carve Up! in the early 1990s as a response to the Thatcher years, Yes Minister was a huge source of inspiration. It still impresses me that a show could be so thoroughly cynical and yet so full of warm, loveable characters: an amazing trick to pull off.

However, far from tearing down the established order, most satire (except in a few very great, very extreme cases – Swift’s A Modest Proposal being the obvious example), does the exact opposite. It creates a welcoming space in which like-minded people can gather together and share in comfortable hilarity. The anger, the feelings of injustice they might have been suffering beforehand are gathered together, compressed and transformed into bursts of laughter, and after discharging them they feel content and satisfied. An impulse that might have translated into action is, therefore, rendered neutral and harmless. I remember a recent edition of Radio 4’s News Quiz where the comedian Jeremy Hardy brought this up: after cracking a series of (brilliant) jokes about failed bankers collecting enormous bonuses, he suddenly said, “Why are we laughing about this? We should be taking to the streets.” He was right.
True, I think. But I recall that for many months the Bush administration was not taken seriously to task for anything by the mass media -- except on the Daily Show and Colbert. There were marches and other "action," and they didn't do much, in part because the media lowballed them. I'm sure the largest anti-war events before the Iraq war were larger than the biggest tea party rallies, and yet they got far less purchase. There was little questioning in mainstream media of the grounds for the Iraq war until years after the deed was done.

In such a routinized media culture sometimes it's either satire or nothing. I'll choose quality satire.

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