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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