Miércoles 20 de Septiembre de 2006, Ip nº 171

My satirical self
Por Wyatt Mason

Lately, my father has been angry. Seventy-nine, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, a lifelong dues-paying member of three labor unions and now a collector of Social Security, my father, temperamentally a gentle person, is often filled with rage. The news does this to him, not so much the stories of tsunamis or hurricanes or any instances of environmental malice that lawyers call “acts of God.” No, acts of God fill my godless, liberal father with melancholy, if not sorrow, over the inequity of the world, whereas it is the iniquity of the world, what you might call “acts of man,” that are, these days, driving him to distraction. My father’s solution to such furies, dependable as the daily newspaper, to the anger that sets upon him when he learns of the latest folly in the corridors of power, is to turn to the op-ed pages. For our purposes here, it hardly matters who is writing, though, naturally, he has his favorites. What matters to him is that every day, in those well-reasoned column inches, he finds a mirror for his rage.

Whereas, over the same period, his son has managed not to be angry, not in the least. Thirty-seven, a veteran of nothing, a subscription-paying reader of two magazines, a person whose Social Security pay-in, so far, is a sad little sum, I am, just as often as my father is furious, filled with mirth. Yes, I am aware of the disasters of the world, and they affect me no less deeply than they do him. What’s more, my father and I are of one mind about the inveterate folly, craven hypocrisy, unchecked greed, rampant abuse of office, ugly abuse of trust, vile abuse of language and galloping display of ignorance that has become a daily standard. And yes, I should admit that when I happen to think about such matters — when, say, my father phones me to chew over some morsel of maddening news — I find myself overtaken by a most unpleasant feeling. I imagine it is not unlike what must be suffered by a man who returns home after a long day’s work to find, in his absence, that his lovely house has been looted. And whereas my father, standing, as it were, at the front door of that plundered house, has come to find temporary shelter nearby, in reason — the arguments marshaled by those whose views he shares — I have found no relief in such reading, which lately I have forgone.

In its stead, though, I have found a way not to be angry at all.

I have taken shelter in the ridiculous.

Imagine, for example, another warm morning in August 2005. The national atmosphere that summer was humid with talk of intelligent design, the evangelical putsch — in Pennsylvania, in Kansas, in America — to see pseudoscience imparted to our keen young scholars in place of the theory of evolution. My father, I knew, would be calling on such a day (and did) to rail thereupon. “Did you read Paul Krugman?” my father asked.

“Of course,” I replied, “I did not read Paul Krugman.”

What did I read? A newspaper I keep bookmarked on my computer browser and which, among many destinations, I visit every morning.Here, in part, is what it read:

Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New “Intelligent Falling” Theory

Aug. 17, 2005 | Issue 41.33

Kansas City, KS — As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center for Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.

“Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,” said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture and physics from Oral Roberts University."

Should N.S.A. satellite footage surface of me reading the above report — which appeared in The Onion: America’s Finest News Source — you would witness me nodding with pleasure, shaking with delight and laughing aloud (or, more accurately, snorting un-self-consciously).

(...)

That comedic turn, that comedic tone — a smart blend of parody and hyperbole and mockery — provided, that day, a remedy for my rage: it got channeled smoothly into ridicule. And that channel — a broadband of joco-serious rebuke — has been eating up the major part of my personal market share. As much as caffeine has become a matutinal necessity, a means of brokering, yet again, an uneasy truce with daylight, the kind of laughter — a well-aimed dart — induced by the larky bulletin above has become a no less necessary stimulant. How I hunger for that knowing tone! Like our little friend the lab rat at his lever — all a-jitter from another marching-powder marathon — I have acquired a taste for an addictive brand of fun.

Which means, of course, that I’m in luck: for that tone has been resonating through every echelon of American culture, a shift affecting and informing every storytelling medium, whether factual or fictional. The Onion, of course, is only where my day gets cooking. Other browser bookmarks send me to half a dozen sites where I hope to extract similarly intemperate snorts. The best of these, for sure, I forward along to friends — fellow traffickers in yuks — who, young and old, unfailingly send me links found during their own morning frolics. These I follow no less intrepidly than Theseus did Ariadne’s thread, leading me, once again, out of my labyrinth of rage to that happier place: YouTube. There, with a dependability that would make a demographer pump his fist and an advertiser lose his shirt, I watch segments from “The Daily Show” and its spinoff, “The Colbert Report” (programs that, funnily enough, poached The Onion’s top writers). In such shows, then, I find that tone — so knowing, so over it, so smart, so asinine. And given the choice, these days, between a smartass and, well, a dumb ass, even the Academy Awards, that most treacle-toned of evenings, picked this year’s host from that clever category.

And picking the smartass, it seems, is what we’ve been doing, across the televised board. We’ve been tuning in to “The Simpsons” (in its 18th season, the longest-running sitcom in television history), which pokes tirelessly away at the idea of the American family, not to say America. We’ve been turning on “South Park” (in its 10th season, the longest-running sitcom in cable-television history), with its bile-tongued children probing every asininity (and which made a successful trip to the big screen in “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut”). We’ve been ordering in “Chappelle’s Show” (the top-selling DVD of a television series in, well. . .DVD history), with its now-embittered impresario, who, erewhile, was acid-tongued as he chewed up (and out) another cracker, whistling all the way. We’ve been showing up at “The Office,” in branches on either side of the Atlantic, each of which, with regionally adjusted inflections, paws away at its constricting white collar (not to say its creator’s later “Extras” — another kind of office, a celebrity waiting room with sexier furniture). Like the soulless producer in the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink,” our Hollywood executives have been courting the equivalent of That Barton Fink Feeling: that ubiquitous tone — so “young,” so “hip,” so “edgy.” Like the lava lamp of yore, it has been tucked into the hot corner of every room, whether “Da Ali G Show,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Boondocks,” “American Dad!,” “King of the Hill,” “The Thick of It” or, on the big screen, the no less knowing “Dawns” — and Shaun — “of the Dead,” “American Dreamz” and “Thank You for Smoking.”

(...)

All of these varied entertainments — human emanations on the Web, on television, at the movies and between hardcovers (whatever their differences in ambition, conception and achievement) — are attuned to the ridiculous in modern life. They are all, in other words, satirical: they revel in, and trade on, knowingness. And if we seem to be enjoying a sort of golden age of the satirical, that invites the question How successfully does satire serve our culture? That there is so much might seem proof of its expediency. After all, what could be wrong with a mode of expression that orients a critical, comical eye to flaws in the contemporary weave? And yet, you might wonder, as well, whether a culture can have too much of that knowing tone and, if so, just what that “too much” might mean.

(...)

Indeed, this elegant, not to say defiant, means of addressing “affronts” to truth has proved a liberating mode of expression for authors across the ages, from Chaucer to Cervantes to Voltaire. Most comprehensible of all, perhaps, is the attraction that so insubordinate a brand of comedy, a very free kind of speech, held for writers in a country formed through insubordination — our own. Prerevolutionary America was rife with satirical pamphleteers, and even Benjamin Franklin, in his “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One,” lampooned the misadministration of the colonies.

(...)

Satire, then, signals both the sickness and health of a society in equal measure: it showcases the vigor of the satirist and the debility of the satiree. As such, we might conclude, in America, that its abundance suggests a normal balance of destructive yin and creative yang, a human need to view the most vexing frailties of a culture through the liberating prism of lampoon.

An episode of “South Park” from last year, “Best Friends Forever,” was shown on the eve of Terri Schiavo’s final day, inspired by the grim battle among family members. Their private tragedy, we know well, became a series of loggerheaded squabbles in which efforts to reach consensus on what we mean by “human life” rapidly devolved. The creators of “South Park” addressed this rhetorical erosion with no small insight and freakish speed. (Like all their episodes, this one was produced in less than a week.) Kenny, the accident-prone child, is killed by an ice cream truck while playing his Sony PSP — the portable game console that, last year, was the grail of children everywhere. At the reading of Kenny’s will, Cartman, the obese, morally repugnant child who, on another episode, ate the parents of a kid he disliked, is left the PSP. Alas for Cartman, Kenny, dead for almost 24 hours, is belatedly revived. Now on a feeding tube and, as his doctor explains, in “a persistive vegetative state. . .like a tomato,” Kenny is, by law, alive. Kenny’s possessions, therefore, revert to him. As Cartman goes to the Colorado Supreme Court to seek the removal of Kenny’s feeding tube (so he can get the PSP), Kenny’s more altruistic friends, Kyle and Stan, court the media: “We’ll make everyone in the country know that they’re killing Kenny.”

The national uproar that ensued on this cartoon was, in temper, not a great deal more cartoonish than the one that was playing out that evening in Schiavo’s real America. The episode, however distorted by crudity, mirrored the polarizing rage of our citizenry, recalling nothing so much as Ambrose Bierce’s satirical definition of conversation. The genius of “South Park,” scatologically over the top though it tends to be, is how it nonetheless manages, with glee, to go after everyone, artfully sketching our society’s inability to make sense of itself, to itself.

(...)

The appeal of such a mode of discourse to any vice-blighted age is understandable: it provides another means to editorial ends. And yet, more than merely editorializing, it also demonstrates a capacity for better behavior in human beings — our creativity, our subtlety, our panache. That so many people are responding to satire in the public square, and, indeed, that so much satire is thriving at a center usually held by more anodyne entertainments, suggests our hunger for the better — the better articulated, the better said, the better thought, the better done.

At the outset, I said I had taken shelter in the ridiculous. Upon reflection, the ridiculous may not be the most well shielded of retreats. Can you take shelter in the ridiculous if everywhere becomes ridiculous? For the tools of satire, the sharp knives of sarcasm and the pointy shivs of irony and the toy hammer of lampoon are being wielded with widespread enthusiasm, and not merely by cunning builders of satirical speeches and stories. Rather, they are being lent to us all, to enable every possible construction.

(...)

It makes me wonder what happens when the language of argument and the language of ridicule become the same, when the address of a potentate is voiced no more soberly than the goofings of some rube. Perhaps that leveling of language merely passes, the rhetorical registers recalibrated by nothing so much as an unfolding of the days.

(...)

To read the complete article click here. (NYT´s registration required)


  17/09/2006. The New York Times.


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