John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Satire is Not For Sissies

Posted on July 15, 2008


            The dictionary definition of satire is the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.

            It sounds easy, but it is not. 

            Satire is real funny when the other guy is the one being satirized.  It is not so funny when you are the victim.

            The latest cover of the New Yorker magazine is a case in point.

            Barack Obama and his campaign are not amused.  And they weren’t even the targets!  His critics were the targets.

            But instead of laughing it off, Obama raised hell, drawing the attention of thousands, perhaps millions -- more who will never read the actual article, but will view  the offending cover.

Satire has a long history of making people, especially people in power, uncomfortable.

In 1729, Jonathan Swift published A Modest Proposal For Preventing The Children Of Poor People In Ireland Being A Burden To Their Parents Or Country, And For Making Them Beneficial To The Public, a satire in which the narrator recommends that Ireland's poor escape their poverty by selling their children as food to the rich: ”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food...”   Although Swift meant it as a joke, his “Modest Proposal” still causes controversy to this day.

In 1599, the Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift and the Bishop of London George Abbot, issued a decree banning verse satire. The decree ordered the burning of certain volumes of satire by John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Joseph Hall, and others; it also required histories and plays to be specially approved by a member of the Queen's Privy Council, and it prohibited the future printing of satire in verse.


The ban didn’t last long, and as The Enlightenment came, so did satre. François Rabelais , John Dryden and Alexander Pope joined Swift with biting satire of institutions and individuals.


Wikipedia puts it this way, “Because satire often combines anger and humour it can be profoundly disturbing - because it is essentially ironic or sarcastic, it is often misunderstood. In an interview with Wikinews, Sean Mills, President of The Onion, said angry letters about their news parody always carried the same message. "It’s whatever affects that person," said Mills. "So it’s like, 'I love it when you make a joke about murder or rape, but if you talk about cancer, well my brother has cancer and that’s not funny to me.' Or someone else can say, 'Cancer’s hilarious, but don’t talk about rape because my cousin got raped.' I'm using extreme examples, but whatever it is, if it affects somebody personally, they tend to be more sensitive about it."


Social progress can be measured by how it handles satire.  For example, we learned from the Muslim world that they really have no sense of humor at all when, in 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons that depicted Muhammad.  The cartoons caused global protests by offended Muslims and violent attacks killed 138 people around the world.  Satire is not so funny to those who practice Islam, or so it seems.


The left loves satire, when it is directed at the right.  They love making fun ofreligious institutions, greedy capitalists, Republicans, anybody associated with George Bush.


But they don’t love it so much when it makes any mention of them.  The really funny thing about this latest flap is that the New Yorker cover actually makes fun of  Obama’s critics.   Perhaps their concern is -- like Archie Bunker in the Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” -- the American people will believe the cover, just as they found themselves identifying less with Meathead and more with the old guy in the foul mood.


But that is the hard part about satire.  You can’t quite be sure if your audience will get it.  But good for the New Yorker for trying.  Satire is part of Western society.  Obama should embrace it, not condemn it.

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