Monday, July 14, 2008


It's called "The Politics of Fear." Does this have to be tiresomely explained?

The New Yorker/Obama cover fracas unpleasantly reminds me of MANY incidents with my students having to do with satire. They don't get it, they hate it, and when presented with it, they get all sweaty, agitated and disagreeable. They don't understand why on earth somebody would say one thing and mean something else.

One time one of my brightest, most curious students asked me to define a word I'd just used, "incongruous." Rapidly free-associating, I used the example of the closing scene of the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian. I described "Brian" and his two buddies pinned to their respective crosses, cheerily singing the ridiculous ditty "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." "That's incongruity," I said, and, fondly remembering the movie, god forbid (so to speak), I chuckled.

Cue the dark, foreboding music.

No sooner did I get back to my office than I had a bitter, vitriolic email from another of my students, an ardently observant Protestant fundamentalist, vociferously objecting to my example and saying I had violated his religious rights. He threatened to take the matter to my supervisor, which I readily urged him to do. I had to take pains -- which I did voluntarily -- to assure him that I did not mean any offense to his religious passions; in fact, I explained, it was MY religious tradition too, and, as my colleagues and I agreed, many of our Christian students are the best we get -- conscientious, ethical, responsible. I appreciate their innocence.

But like David Remnick at the New Yorker, I hated being in the position of explaining (again) why my example was not meant as religious attack, but as a very precise example of "incongruity." It was satire. And as a preacher's daughter who grew up in a world where a sense of humor was my mark that I'd transcended zealotry, I was deeply disheartened.

Has the national intelligence plunged so precipitiously that the whole idea of satire now escapes us? Is this the best we can do after all these decades, these 232 years of struggling with issues of freedom of speech and tolerance, that we are still so unresolved, so unevolved, so easily triggered to truculence, and still so fearmongering? And I wonder, are all our years of cuts to education budgets beginning to show in a kind of contagious intellectual Alzheimer's?

And what's wrong with the Obama camp? These are Ivy League whizzes with street smarts: They've given us a tantalizing whiff of politics that allow for intellectual complexity. So why this tiresome, cliched automatic response? I'm disappointed.


Gillian Swart said...

I don't get it either. Nobody understands satire anymore. I, too, was utterly amazed at the response from the Obama camp. Your post reminded me of when Bill O'Reilly interviewed Stephen Colbert and was grilling him about why he "changed" the pronunciation of his name ... Colbert just looked at him like he was an idiot. There's too little humor left in this world!

Malloy said...

The only reason that this Mr. & Mrs. Obama satire DOES have impact — and may very likely spread — is because like all good satire, or good humor for that matter, there’s more than a germ of truth in it. Otherwise, the satire would utterly roll off the Obamoids’ backs, having no impact.

Macy Swain said...

And, Malloy, the guilty laughter that ensues in the face of that germ is impertinent and smacks of blasphemy spiced with a bit of sabotage. Delicious. It's complicated, eh? Thanks for your comment.

Gillian Swart said...

Good point, Malloy ... except I think it has rolled over their backs. I didn't find it particularly funny or even sensible, but I think the Obama camp would have been better served to have just shrugged it off. As I believe Sen. Obama did on Larry King (from what I read, anyway).

Macy Swain said...

Thanks, Gillian, for your responses. My view: Here's to humor, and lots of it. To draw on my childhood vocabulary, I think humor is our salvation. And sometimes, there's great wisdom in "the shrug."