Steve Allen once said “satire is tragedy plus time.” But what’s happened is the rate of irreverence has accelerated along with everything else. And that’s been particularly enhanced by the World Wide Web. So not only is satire nipping at the heels of reality, but occasionally overtakes it, as when Brian Lamb began discussing the semantics of “scumbag” on C-Span.
In the 1990s, scandal served as America’s Glasnost, which is Russian for “truth.” At the time of Glasnost, Joel Schechter wrote in The Congress of Clowns and Other Russian Circus Acts:
“In Leningrad a highly regarded humorist has moved from satire to non-topical, more universal fiction in his recent writing, because newspaper reporters are now providing the public with the news of dissent only satire could convey previously.”
Peter Jennings once asked Cokie Roberts on ABC news:
“Cokie, what do you think the spin will be tomorrow?”
Now, I don’t want to seem old fashioned, but I remember a time when reporting the news was reporting what happened, rather than asking journalists to predict what the propaganda would be the next day. And it’s not just the news people that do this, it’s the people in the news, as when Bernard Lewinsky, Monica Lewinsky’s father, said in defense of his daughter:
“She’s a very smart, beautiful, intelligent girl who is going to go places, and unfortunately she’s taking her licks.”
The line between satire and reality has become so blurred, that even as an editor I became confused. While publishing the Realist, I never labeled anything satire or reality because I never wanted to deprive my readers the pleasure of discerning for themselves whether something was true or a satirical extension of the truth.
Weapon was a publication in Portland Oregon that was posted on 500 telephone poles throughout the city. It was very radical. The founder wrote a piece for me on slavery and the private prison system. It was very satirical, but mixed with truth:
“…These lower production costs trickle down to the consumer. Cheaper labor means lower prices at the supermarket and more affordable cars. Given the reliable increase in the crime rate, we could staff more and more industry with cost-effective prison labor. America could return to a slave economy, in which criminals are bought and sold, providing a life of luxury and idle pleasure for the victims and the obedient law-abiding people. In fact, slavery was never was outlawed in the United States. The thirteenth article of the Constitution states ‘neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for punishment of a crime, shall exist within the United States.'”
I thought, what a brilliant piece of satire, but then checked and that is the thirteenth article!
What passes today for political satire is really name-calling and easy-reference humor. Sex and diet jokes about Bill Clinton, or agist and temper jokes about Bob Dole, but never anything about real issues.
Political satire applies to the laws that are passed in order for people to maintain power and popularity. Bill Clinton is so charming you forget underneath he’s the guy who went to the execution of a mentally-retarded prisoner on his way to his inauguration, and then was against medical marijuana. He felt our pain, he just didn’t want to relieve it.
So when you see someone on late-night talk shows attacking Robert Downey, what they are doing is making the victim the target of satire. But instead of doing an easy-reference attack on Downey, they could be attacking the laws that make addiction a crime.
Paul Krassner’s latest book is Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture, available at http://www.paulkrassner.com.