Satire and Irony as Political Tools
I've already written on humor for this series; shouldn't this topic have already been covered? Well, no. As Wikipedia tells us (citing Robert Corum writing about French satire), satire need not be actually funny. Animal Farm certainly isn't very funny. Satire is humor-adjacent, in that it presents a metaphoric view of a state of affairs, so you get the "it's so true!" by the aptness of the metaphor, and the incongruity by how this parallelism plays against the obvious difference between the metaphoric image and its target.
However, a pointed satire, to be politically effective, should probably be fairly unambiguous. There are theories that The Wizard of Oz was meant to be political allegory, but if that's true, it was too obscure to constitute a political weapon. More likely, any allegory was merely a part of the art involved, a good thing for a children's book to have to give the parental readers and the author himself another level to chew on.
Irony, too, need not be actually funny; just ask (via medium, I guess) Socrates or Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. I've written several past blog posts on irony and don't want to repeat all that here. The essence of my view is that irony is not just disavowal of any stance, and thus inherently anti-political, but that it allows one to play with ideas without wholly committing to them, to present them for public consideration as hypothesis or just a fun thing to think about.
The satirical elements in my #thatasshole campaign should be obvious: What's with this focus in that Confucius quote on the accuracy of names? We get repeated insistence about the importance of using the term "Radical Islamic Terrorism"; you're coddling and clueless if you don't call it what it is! Or we have journalists being excoriated for not using the word "lie" even if they point out the inaccuracies of someone's statement right there in the story.
And at the same time, for example, we have to agonize about whether we're using the current term for indigenous peoples of America... but you can't use "America" because they were around before the U.S., but if you leave off America you haven't distinguished them from natives of other continents... really, we should just be referring to individual nations, in the language of those nations, but using that language would be cultural appropriation, so we should just be silent, but being silent ignores the contributions of these people so we can't be silent... Jesus Christ!
People are always telling us how to talk, and if we're not using the right language, then we're somehow out of touch, ignorant, perpetuating the mistakes of the status quo, etc.
So how do I feel about this? Well, I can't just dismiss it all, because I see that there are legitimate political rationales behind some of these attempts to steer our speech. These must be evaluated individually, and while hysteria is never a good tool in support of a political goal, I think that attributions of hysteria are mostly straw men; individuals voicing concerns about these issues certainly don't see themselves as hysterical, and it only requires that they give some detailed arguments to prove that they are not, right at that moment, in the grip of some brain fever that is causing them to froth at the mouth and run around with a pitchfork.
So my #thatasshole campaign is playful and ambivalent. I would be alternately tickled and queasy if it actually blew up and became a widespread meme.
Taking the High Road vs. Fighting Shit with Shit
We've already discussed this on our politics episodes #156–157, and you'll hear echoes of that in our forthcoming episode with Russ Roberts: my co-host Wes is confident about the power of persuasion, which amounts to an argument in favor of keeping discourse civil. I emphasize instead that the mass character of political persuasion makes actual discourse virtually impossible. Wes was emphasizing the power that you or I has as an individual to talk with, say, a recalcitrant relative about politics and to bring some mutual light. I absolutely agree, but see that as just a drop in the bucket when it comes to convincing a mass audience of something. Given that I'm writing this, I obviously have some belief in one-to-many communication, but my primarily goal in publishing this (as opposed to my goal in writing it, which is largely selfish) is not so much to persuade you to think like me as to persuade you to think about these issues yourself, to "think like me" in the sense of being thoughtful in whatever way makes most sense to you (and to make comments on this post to help me correct my own blindnesses). While I will freely admit that there are plenty of thoughtful folks who disagree with me politically, I think we can all agree that if most people were much more thoughtful, then we wouldn't have anything like our current political climate.
But they aren't, and more importantly now, our leaders aren't. No one likes pandering, and it's great that there's a mass movement now demanding that politicians no longer just talk in sound bites, but that they "tell it like it is." It is still going to be the case that most political speeches are not going to take the form of detailed intellectual debates, because most people don't have the patience for that, and it's too easy to pull a comment out of context and then spread that around as standing in for the person's whole meaning. Though the Internet in some ways intensifies this "sound bite" effect (Twitterization!), it also provides the ability to easily get more context. Could we have a situation now like when Al Gore got basically sunk over his misquoted "I invented the Internet" comment? The context is not that hard to explain; just read the first sentence of this Wikipedia page on the issue. No doubt, with siloed news media, Fox and Breitbart or whoever could still take something like this and run with it, hammering the misquote to drown out the truth, but note that that's not what's going on with our current president. Now, people just watch the video of him saying something narcissistic or mean-spirited, and if you want context, just watch more of it, and he'll say more narcissistic and mean-spirited things.
So this demand by the populace for less pandering bullshit has ironically led to a leader who produces much more pandering bullshit, but that doesn't mean that the demand itself isn't a step in the right direction. What has often been envisioned of late (the bit that comes to mind is the latter part of the Penn Jillette video I've previously blogged about) is an actual debate on issues between leaders, with, you know, fully spelled-out reasons instead of timed, applause-seeking sound bites. If such a thing actually happened, then it wouldn't matter so much if the fans of the participants just gibbered unintelligibly at each other, because the intellectual narrative would be clear for any articulate people to comment on and further enhance, much like the exchange of views within an academic discipline. We would have a community of discourse, and Wes's optimism about persuasion would hold, though one could still bemoan the persistence of certain paradigms or other ills of the particular intellectual culture.
But we live in a much more chaotic culture than that, for good or ill, and whatever rational arguments you make, you're going to be utterly drowned out by a bunch of nonsense. So first, this notion that stooping to the incivility of "#thatasshole" will "let them win" doesn't make sense. An act of political speech is not a move in a one-on-one conflict where my individual speech act can win or lose anything. A good argument will not "win"; it will just be largely ignored. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't put out reasoned arguments to those who will listen, but we need not only engage in those kinds of speech acts.
I have no special knowledge of foreign policy, economics, or political strategy. Maybe we'll have an episode requiring us to read craploads of Chomsky or whomever and I'll feel the need to spread that gospel. But right now, like most people, I rely on experts, which means the political scientists, economists, and members of the media that actually study this stuff for a living. Noting disagreement between experts shows what's controversial, and I try to read eye-witness accounts and listen to political speeches myself so that I'm not merely taking someone else's word for it. Still, as with science (this theme goes all the way back to our episode 1), the division of labor requires that we put some degree of trust in those that know what they're talking about, which here means deciding whether longstanding respected news organizations like The New York Times and Washington Post are telling the truth—are making an honest effort to emphasize the facts that provide a more accurate picture of what's going on—or if we should instead trust the alternatives that our president approves of, whose characters you are no doubt already familiar with.
So I see little point in urging my fellow Americans to be careful and not fall for conspiracies about lasers causing the hurricanes. Who that might believe that shit would actually read something I wrote? I have lots of things I think I can be of help in getting people to understand (thus the podcast), but not in this area.
Yet being silent about politics while horrible things are going on feels pretty awful too, so I'm playing with sloganeering: short, catchy phrases that can be repeated, that eschew nuance and go for sensational reaction. "#thatasshole" certainly qualifies, and yet is so obviously over the top that it has the potential to elicit contemplation of the absurdity of political communication. Even if most people don't get the allegory, it still serves to rally the leftie side, call out the righties for ignoring that asshole's temperamental unfitness for office (again, a totally separable issue from how you feel about any given policy issue; you can very much want to "drain the swamp" while recognizing that this con man has no intention or ability to do so), and point out how bad our political discourse has gotten.
But doesn't it undermine any commentary on the crudity of political discourse to actually be crude yourself? Not for America, a nation that is BEST in irony, BEST in satire, MOST SMART about realistically acknowledging the futility of an endeavor while still trying to muddle through, and WINNING at acknowledging the absurd in ways that Camus would approve of. GLAD!!