(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange has been thinking about satire as a means of political expression, and how we love it – until it’s our ox that’s getting gored.
(LANGE) A New Yorker magazine cover in July, 2008, caused a lot of harrumphing. It was a cartoon depicting Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House, he in Arab dress and she in fatigues, assault weapon, and bandolier. The American flag was burning in the fireplace, with a portrait of Osama bin Laden above the mantel.
Many found it offensive. Both presidential campaigns characterized it as in poor taste. Both should have lightened up. It was satire in the best tradition of the genre.
Satire has been with us at least since Aristophanes. It relies upon humor, irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration to lampoon its object. It’s a parasite; it feeds upon things that to the satirist are disagreeable, ridiculous, or hypocritical. Whether you find it funny or not depends on whose ox, as the old-timers used to say, is being gored. It can range from goofy to bitter. Americans, who tend to be straightforward in their disagreements, have never been as keen on satire as, say, the British, who’ve always done it brilliantly.
Gilbert and Sullivan expose the absurdities of the English caste system in their operettas. Monty Python clownishly lacerates the myth of the Holy Grail; his penniless knights trot around Europe without horses. In The Life of Brian he imagines the career of a young Jewish rebel born at the same time as, and a few stables away from, Jesus. Brian gored a few oxen when it was released in 1979, and was roundly denounced. It’s still one of the funniest satires ever produced.
Beyond the Fringe was a 1960s group that still occupies space in my truck CD player. Some of their stuff was ridiculous, but other routines perfectly imitated then-Prime Minister Macmillan’s bleary diction and preachy pronouncements about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack: "You just pop into a big brown paper bag, you see?" A British coal miner who’d wanted to be a judge bemoans the fact that in mining, "when you’re too old and sick and stupid to do your job properly, well, you have to go; whereas with the judgin’, it’s just the opposite."
Those criticizing the New Yorker cartoon as being in bad taste were perhaps right, but they missed something: If satire doesn’t sting somebody, it’s not satire. The cartoon, depicting the fantasies of the blogosphere, was intended to make them seem ridiculous.
But it might have been wasted effort: rather like deploring roadside litter by writing a letter to the editor. I don’t think many litterbugs read newspapers. The folks who haunt the Internet and one national network don’t read New Yorker. Thus the cartoon will go right over the heads of thousands of Americans who, though educated at the public expense, believe implicitly the cybergossip depicting two Harvard Law graduates as dangerous radicals who privately dance on the American flag.
I pray that satire will never die.
This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.