Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Satire II: The Political Sphere of Satire; The Fine Line

Okay, deep breath. Politics will be mentioned today but I want to be very clear that I'm only talking politics insofar as its relationship with satire.

We've established that satire is generally presented as a ludicrous solution to a real social problem. The difficulty lies in the fact that different people consider different things ludicrous. The basis for the satire must be popularly ridiculous--otherwise the arguments presented hit too close to home and there's the potential for really BIG, OFFENDED reactions. This occurs mainly in the realm of politics.

The history of satire and politics is a long one. We've already talked Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal and that was way back in the 1700s day. Time to bring the satire issue more up to date:

The most popular recent satirical 'event' occured over The New Yorker's controversial cover showing then-presidential-hopeful Obama fist bumping his wife Michelle while wearing a turban, toting guns, and burning the American flag in the Oval Office, by cartoonist Barry Blitt. If this doesn't ring a bell, take a peek at About.com's sum-up-tion here.

This is the best illustration that I can think of to show that there is a super-fine line between a satirical argument and an offensive argument. The reason that the cartoon (and it was a cartoon, people) drew so much fire was that the definition of ridiculous wasn't as clear. Obama had drawn real anti-American accusations, and real distrust as far as religious views were concerned.

The idea was that the cartoon would show people how ill-founded those fears were. The goal was to say "Look! See how ridiculous this idea is? Of course a presidential hopeful, any presidential hopeful would never, never do this." (In fact, here's Blitt's reaction, which includes his intent.) And I think a lot of people understood that. But there were just as many who did not. After all, I remember a woman going off about how Obama was like Hitler because he'd written an autobiography. There was no satire for her. So on one side you've got a group whose worst fears are now given representation.

And, on the other side, you've got the group who is supposedly being defended by the satirical representation. Unfortunately, they didn't get that memo. Obama's people issued statements saying how offended they were. It was viewed as insulting rather than ridiculous.

How to hit on just the right satirical note? Tricky, yes? Mostly, it's about considering your audience. Sometimes it's uber-hard to read your audience or anticipate what will be thought ridiculous. Part of the issue with the New Yorker audience is that it's soooo huge--someone was gonna sound off on it. I think history will be far more gentle with the New Yorker cover than its contemporary audience. After all, everyone was offended with Swift's A Modest Proposal when it came out too. When you talk about real issues, you get real responses, whether the intent is serious or not.

Which brings us to Wodehouse, WWII, concentration camps, and radio broadcasts on Friday.  In the meantime, what satirical presentations have offended? Can you think of any subject that is not okay to make fun of? Or is everything fair game if handled right? Any ideas on how to talk about politics in a humorous way without alienating?

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