EP&M Online Essay
Politics and Satire
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics, Hunter College, CUNY
As Yogi Berra said, it's deja vu all over again. The
Democratic Party endures yet another shellacking from the American
electorate, and John Kerry joins that august group of elitist liberal
losers that includes Stevenson, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and
Gore. The party of teachers' unions, trial lawyers, and
transvestites has gotten one good bitch-slapping. Let's hope it
finally dissolves, like the Whigs.
How did poets react to the election? Pretty predictably, I must
say. Here in New York there was generalized weeping and gnashing of
teeth at the few poetry venues I visited in November. St. Mark's
in the Bowery was funereal in its ambience, with that sob-pierced
silence one expects in a Bergman film. The day I was there, a doe-eyed
hippie chick with a big Kerry-Edwards button sat curled up in the
corner like a fetus, moaning audibly. The Y at 92nd Street
resembled a convention of morticians, with both readers and audience
caught up in an unspeakable and earth-shattering grief. At a
poetry slam in lower Manhattan, people were seriously discussing plans
to emigrate to Canada or New Zealand, while those who performed read
rants about incipient fascism.
In places like this it was dangerous even to mention the name Bush—it
evoked paroxysms of foul language and hair-raising malediction. I
have never seen such raw hatred as I saw this last month, not even
during the anti-Nixon agitation of the 1970s. I didn't dare
reveal my own political sympathies (which are paleoconservative rather
than neoconservative) in such a hyperventilating atmosphere.
Well, you know poets—-like bel canto
divas, they tend to overreact. In the long run, nothing
political is ever really important to narcissists, so we can safely
expect the poetry world to slip back into its usual self-absorption
once the memory of this election fades. It would be a nice
dividend, however, if a few of the loudest whiners actually did leave
for New Zealand.
What I don't expect, on the other hand, is any worthwhile satiric
poetry to emerge from all this vehemence. You would think that so
much rage among professional wordsmiths would translate into at least a
few good lampoons, flytings, squibs, or parodies. Nada, niente, rien. Why not?
Curiously enough, the reason is linked with precisely why left-liberals
keep losing elections. It's their insufferable earnestness,
self-importance, and lack of real humor. The left can only make
jokes about things which they have previously certified as funny, and
which they and their friends have agreed to laugh at. There isn't
any danger or edge to their humor, which comes across like the canned
laughter in a TV sitcom. The only proper and approved targets for
left-liberal satire are politically correct ones. They can make
fun of religion, patriotism, the family, hunters and gun-owners,
non-professional people, middle America, traditional habits and
mores—-in short, all the stuff that they and their secularist peers
have decided it's OK to ridicule. The result (other than a solid
drubbing at the polls every November) is a warped, self-conscious,
defensive kind of humor that lacks any vitality. You can't write
good satire when you suffer from that sort of inhibition.
Just go to a Manhattan comedy club any weekend, and listen to the schtik. Who's at the mike?
Thirtysomething poseurs attempting to be sarcastic and hip before an
audience of yuppies who also pride themselves on being sarcastic and
hip. It's as incestuous as the royal couch of Thebes. All
the alleged humor is anti-Bush, anti-Republican, anti-religion,
anti-homophobic, anti-conservative... well, you get the picture.
And it is exactly this predictability that robs it of any real
edge. One gets the impression that the jokes and the laughter are
both being choreographed to fit in with a preconceived political
agenda. As with a New York
Times editorial, one yawns before it even starts,
Really effective satire is not of that kidney. Satire—-like
warfare—-is both savage and unpredictable. It can't be planned
out in detail like a blueprinted construction, and it doesn't follow
any damned rules. It has to arise from the sheer joy of smiting,
and it can have no regulations that might limit its vehemence.
But left-liberals, who by their very nature are rule-setters burdened
with an overly scrupulous sense of propriety, can't allow themselves
the transgressive over-the-top insouciance that makes for a great
attack. It's just not in them. They are boring little
people who are always going on about fairness and balance and
non-propagandistic language and the need for consensus. Do you really
think anybody with that kind of effete mindset can be a satirist?
Satire is the province of killers, not UN diplomats.
So don't expect any satire from this election. Conservatives—-who
have won big time—-don't need to write it. And left-liberals just
don't have the cojones for it.
Joseph S. Salemi
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