Excerpted from Town and Country Bumpkin March 11, 2017
By Oliver D. Berger @oldberger
After another stunning sweep in the Republican primary, front runner Donald Trump has gone on the offensive. In a ploy to bely Mitt Romney’s recent aspersion of his business acumen, Mr. Trump has decided to organize a fete, at which select invitees will have the opportunity to experience his multivariate business enterprises.
“Mitt [Romney] says all my businesses go belly-up?” Trump argued at the post primary press conference. “Well, how about this Mitt: we’re going to have six reporters from the best press in America (no failing New York Times!) onboard my plane at Trump Airlines !”
As the assistant editor of a local ersatz farmers almanac in a deeply Red State, I was fortunate enough to be randomly selected.
Here is my firsthand account of the events that transpired during Donald Trump’s aerial victory lap.
“I got it for a nothing, nothing,” Trump boasted as he stooped to enter the chest-high passenger door of the Soviet-era Tupelov Tu-154. “Best. Deal. Ever. Go ahead, go ahead. Me first, me first. Stand anywhere you like. (Seats are for me.) Now, we’ve got Trump Steak. Brett, you got those old Trump steaks out of deep freeze?”
Brett Boot, Trump’s head of operations, answered in the affirmative, indicating that he had also brought some Trump Wine for the celebration.
“Heheheh, how you like that folks?” Trump asked. “Steak. And. Wine. Does it get better than that? Am I right? Let me tell you something, you’re never going to taste a better Steak. Who needs ketchup? After me.”
While we were choking down the steak and chumming the wine–more vinegar than vin blanc–the provost of Trump University, Historian Eloise Brand, delivered a stirring encomium for Mr. Trump.
In 1884 when the Queen of England looked down on the German settlers of the Cincinnati River Delta and said: “Let Them Eat Steak,” one of the tired, the weary, the bemused, refused to accept the insult in Teutonic silence.
“Remembers the Alamo!” Grandpa Drumpf declaimed, knowing in his Master Race heart that Steaks and Freedom would one day bestir the hearts of Americans Made Great Again.
Professor Brand at that point ceased speaking. With a blank eyes and lips twisted in a rigor of discomfort, a terrific ripping sound came from the seat of her pantsuit.
As we would later find out, Trump had kept his steaks on dry ice for the two decades since this particular enterprise went bankrupt. Soon every passenger, myself included, was queueing up for the sole toilet.
To make matters worse, the plane began to roll. The pilot, who had received his piloting license from Trump University, addressed us over the intercom: “Because I’m panicking and shitting my pants, I’m going to try something I saw in a movie.”
As I hung from my seatbelt, I saw Donald Trump wresting the sole golden parachute from Brett Boot’s trembling hands.
“Listen Brett,” Trump said as he strapped the chute on. “You let these sonfabitches on this plane know that if they try to sue: Donald Trump doesn’t settle! I always wiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn….”
And then our erstwhile host was gone, plummeting towards the earth.
*This article has been updated:
It has been reported that Donald Trump survived the incident, and has gone on to win the presidency.
The writing was on the wall: it was time to call in the big guns.
Olaf Erickson, of Lund, Sweden, remembers that he was watching the National Hurling Championship when he received the call:
“It was Mitch [McConnell]. He’d just pulled the plug on the American programmers and was looking abroad. Somehow he got wind of my team.”
Erickson, the world’s leading expert on simulacrum design, wasn’t surprised to hear that Robo-Rubio had broken down during the debate.
“Trumps nonsequiturs, his logical fallacies and boorish manner would distress the protocols of even the most sophisticated robots,” Erickson explained. “Only my design team can write the proper algorithms to weather the hot air of a gasbag like Donald Trump.”
Anit Chowdhury, of Lahore, Pakistan, the team’s lead algorithm designer chimed in: “Robo-Rubio required a whole new level of sophistication. Gone are the days of the the ‘aw shucks’ congeniality protocols, for example, of the Ronald Reagan model, which, quite frankly, a chimpanzee could have written.”
Lead behavioralist, Yuri Gregorovich, or Kiev, explained that he had inculcated 110 communicative gestures of a male Silverback gorilla into the Robo-Rubio’s motherboard to help the android interpret Trump’s bizarre body language.
Gregorovich was pleased that after extensive coaching Robo-Rubio now behaved: “…like an anal retentive prick with severe Aspergers. You’ll also notice that when Robo-Rubio gets caught in a feedback loop, he repeatedly accuses Donald Trump of repeating himself until he can reboot.”
Though Robo-Rubio’s performance has improved thanks to the hard work of these H1-B visa holders, there is worry at Republican Establishment Enterprises that it may be too late.
“We turned up his vitriol and basically obliterated his common sense protocols,” Gregorovich said. “But the average Republican voter still perceives Robo-Rubio as aloof and over-educated.”
“Mitch wanted me to turn his rhetoric down to Third Grade level,” Erikson said. “But we couldn’t get any lower. Mitch worries that Robo-Rubio is still more articulate than Trump, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
The truth is a hard pill to swallow:
Despite Robo-Rubio’s upgrades, after Super Tuesday’s disaster the Republican Establishment android may be destined for the scrap pile.
This post is SATIRE.
Thanks to Bill Draheim for providing the photography. You can find more of his visual art at billdraheim.com
from The American Journal of Pseudoscience, January, 2016
In an effort to bolster a flagging presidential campaign, Dr. Ben Carson chose an unusual tack: in front of a crowd of supporters, he attempted to demonstrate his skill with cutting-edge neuroscientific technology.
His subject? None other than the good doctor himself.
“Everyone says that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to lead America,” Carson announced in his typical dead-pan manner. “But you should have to be a brain surgeon!”
There was desultory laughter. The crowd seemingly unable to discern whether he was joking or not.
The presidential hopeful then attached a pair of diodes to his temples and flipped a switch on a strange looking new-fangled device.
“This device, the Oscillatrix will demonstrate that I, Dr. Ben Carson, am the smartest of the Republican candidates!”
Carson’s desperate gambit did not go as planned, however. Instead, the state-of-the-art Swiss-built contraption unveiled a startling revelation: the doctor was missing his frontal lobe!
When asked what might have become of it, Carson replied: “I don’t know. My past is a mystery to me.”
Dr. Cole Blankenpate, founder of the Neuroscientology Consortium, and a man Carson describes as: “almost as smart as me” conjectured that the missing gray-matter could be attributed to a condition known as cerebral marasmus.
“Basically the brain just starts to waste away,” Dr. Blankenpate said when reached by phone. “The consequences can be terrible.”
Following Palin’s endorsement last Tuesday night, Republicn front-runner Donald Trump hosted the former Alaskan governor at a prominent downtown Des Moines country club.
As discussion of geopolitics and international trade ground to a halt, the new “besties” rekindled conversation around their shared interest in prescription medication.
After polishing off a third gin and tonic, Palin began laying out her evening dose on a napkin.
“Enough about OVOMIT,” Trump blusterously ejaculated, “What’s that you’ve got there?”
“You mean these little jobbies?” Palin vocalized breezily. “Well, this little guy is Vicadose: for chronic fatigue. Here’s Benzathoradin: for hyperactivity. And this beauty is Thoradine: for migraines. Denzathoradrine for belly aches. Sinusodrine for chronic sinus failure.”
Not one to remain in ignorance, Trump pointed his gimlet finger at an unmarked green pill: “What’s that?”
Trump conceded no knowledge of this new medication, his usually bullish face showing uncharacteristic wonder.
He then admitted that Toupeezadrine was a favorite of his to help offset syntactical errors while stumping. “Without that stuff, I’m just like a duck out of water,” he lamely acknowledged.
A minute later, Trump pounded his chest, attempting to back peddle from his admission of weakness.
Palin, in an effort to mollify the presumptive Commander-in-Chief, assured him that her Friday pill, Amnesiadrine, would help her forget the events of the week.
Bedazzled by her solicitude, Trump initiated a hearty belly laugh that rang through the garish halls of the prominent Iowa establishment.
After his paroxysm of unfettered joy had abated, Trump leaned toward Palin: “This has got to remain between you and I, Sarah,” he whispered conspiratorially. “ But I’ve got a third-generation Cuban doctor in Florida who can get you some Coughinzodrex. That shit’ll shake the hump off a camels back!”
Upon further probing, the Northern Lights luminary and the midwestern magnate discovered to their astonishment that they patronized the same Floridian cash-and-carry, strip-mall, brick-and-mortar pseudo-pharmacy.
A reverent moment of silence mooned between the two as they reveled in mutual admiration.
Taking advantage of the intimacy of the moment, Trump got down to brass tacks and asked her the million dollar question: “Why’d you choose me, honey?”
“It was simple Donald—may I call you Donald?” The former gubernatorial whirlwind replied sedulously, “One day I was sitting on my porch looking out across the water at that erect ramrod tower of yours with those bold, gold letters T-R-U-M-P running up the side like victorious soldiers and I thought, ‘He’s the one for me!’”
Trump protested that he had no tower in Nome, nor on the opposite Russian shore.
“A girl can dream can’t she?” Palin replied, winkingly. “Especially when she’s in a caffeine-vicadose-cocktail coma.”
In previous installments of this post, I asked the question whether or not an mainstream media exposé would have as profound effect on cracking systemic racism within the nation’s law enforcement system as the revelation of child molestation did on the Catholic Church.
The question assumes that there hasn’t already been such an expose.
But, of course, there has.
The now omnipresent Atlantic writer, Te-nahasi Coates, has made his name doing just that. And not just systemic racism within law enforcement, but in American society in general.
An increasingly prominent figure in the leftist intellectual sphere, Coates has written on everything from the African superhero, Black Panther, to the effect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous report has had on national policy and mass incarceration.
Not surprisingly, he has also commented on the spate of recent shootings of black citizens by white police officers.
Apropos of media coverage in particular, a recent article written by professor of sociology, Tressie McMillan Cottom, entitled Fascism concludes that mainstream media for a number of reasons cannot or will not label events as examples of racism.
And the media – at least the mainstream media – by and large follows suit.
I’ve asked some of those same people on my media-heavy social media before if their outlets have style guides about when they will or will not use “racism” or “racist” in reporting.
The gist seems to be that the media relies on the “objective” rationality of its reporters to make that call….
As one reporter told me, they rely on other people – their subjects – to call something racist. Given the research that shows that people also rarely call anything racist, even when acknowledging racism, we end up in a divine feedback loop: people see racism but no racists and media will only report on what people say is racist.
One of the things we can take away from her analysis is that mainstream media is not willfully opting out in the task of labeling racism, but rather that it lacks the tools to do so because the people reporting the event are too white and/or too privileged.
One of the classic conundrums of racism is that its power rests on the fact that, like ghosts, evidence of its existence depends largely on whether you believe in it or not.
Black people, in experiencing racism, by and large, believe in it.
Many white people, by not experiencing racism don’t believe in it, except in the most egregious cases: church burnings, targeted shootings, or as an abstraction that is not perpetrated by directly and/or not really relevant to our daily lives.
There have been experiments done which attempt to simulate the phenomenon of racism to give white people a little taste of what it feels like, notably the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment of Jane Elliott.
But participants in such experiments often fail to analogize their own discomfort at being discriminated against—albeit within a controlled environment—with the plight of people who experience discrimination based upon physical characteristics every day.
Instead, they just get mad.
Racism: Just Nebulous Enough
In contrast with the culture of secret complicity and suppression of facts implemented by the Catholic Church hierarchy as protection against imputation, the enduring legacy of racism in the US can only partly be attributed to the suppression of information, though it is undoubtedly a tactic as evidenced by lengthy withholding of an incriminating video by Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago administration.
Rather, as stated above, much of its power lies in the disagreement over whether or not it really exists, and to what degree.
When the revelations of Church impropriety and molestation came out, we were all shocked.
Protecting our children from predators is something we can all get behind, regardless of race.
But identifying racism is something else entirely, largely because racism is such an abstraction.
Is it an action or a system? Can people of color be racist, or only white people? (This last is a classic question that hinges on the difference between prejudice and racism, articulated within academia, and consequently outside the ken of millions of people who haven’t gone to University.) This is why social science is so important in delineating, historicizing, and contextualizing racism.
I read a lot of that sort of scholarship in college, and although with age I’ve gotten more conservative, it provided me a good bedrock upon which to couch my beliefs.
But there are a whole lot of people out there haven’t had access to that sort of education or simply don’t want to be bothered with educating themselves. Not when it implodes their worldview. And certainly not when it treads on their privilege.
In my last post, I ended with the statement that United States Law Enforcement is racist. This is a grievous charge, but not, unfortunately, an outrageous one.
In the movie, Marty Baron, the incoming editor of the Boston Globe (played by Liev Shrieber) insists that the Spotlight team continues its investigation until it has unearthed a system of abuse as opposed to simply rooting out one or two “bad apples”.
The question I have is not whether African Americans are targeted disproportionately by law enforcement. This is a question that can be approached from many different angles and suffers from partisan political outlook. For example, while whites are more likely to be killed by police, we also make up 71% of the population, whereas blacks make up 12%. Depending on how much one chooses to omit the whole story, the story changes. Nor is it the reasons why Law Enforcement might target African Americans unduly.
Given the history of slavery in the US, I would suggest that the answers to these particular questions are not nearly as elusive as the question of why the Catholic Church has fostered and protected pedophiles among its ranks.
The main question for me is how can the targeting of blacks be quantified to the degree that people will no longer be able to dismiss these cases as anomalous, but rather as symptomatic of a flawed system, in the same way that the system of sexual assault on minors has been exposed within the Catholic Church.
At the end of Spotlight, the phones begin to ring off the hooks as victims dial in their stories. The proverbial flood washing away a culture of silence.
But what if a similar thing were to happen, if black people were to call in and confide that they had experienced police abuse of power? Would there be the same sort of fallout?
The question at the heart of the matter is why is racism more acceptable than child molestation to our culture.
The Catholic Church has recovered and will continue to bring spiritual succor to untold millions. But it will never be the same. It has been tarnished. It is no longer irreproachable. Because in this day and age, the sexual abuse of minors is considered deviant behavior, and punishable by law.
But it wasn’t always that way. And it isn’t always that way.
A History of Violence
Children have been used and abused throughout history. In countries to this day, girls are still married off to husbands older than they and raped as a matter of course, as part of their marital contract.
In our liberal society, the rights of women and children have increased dramatically. Even hitting your child in public, once a regular part of child rearing, is now punishable by the system. Child abuse is no longer something that can be done in public without serious ramifications. Other adults may intervene or even report a parent to the authorities.
Perhaps we take the designation “minor” as a fait accompli . However children’s rights in the West only began to appear in the mid-19th century, initially as laws to protect children in the workplace. This would have been the height of industrialism, of course, when little hands were important for certain tasks.
What I am driving at is that the enormity of the violation done against these Catholic children is premised on the social division of children from adults. Likewise, their protection against it is contingent on this social division.
It is possible, given that the Catholic Church’s long title is the Holy Roman Catholic Church and given that the Roman Empire is well-documented as one in which authority and profligacy went hand in hand, that sexual abuse of minors inside the Church predates the designation of children as a discreet social entity.
In other words: in certain systems historically, children were abused as a matter-of-course. Particularly if they were poor.
In A Tale of Two Cities in Book the Second, Dickens writes of the Parisian upper classes, of their disdain for everyone, including their own children. One Marquis upon leaving an opera hurtles through the streets in his coach, heedless of the “scarecrows” as Dickens calls them. This deplorable man, made inhuman by his absolute privilege, thinks nothing of it when his coach runs over a baby, killing it.
It is a marvel of liberal humanism that we have accomplished so much for our little people in the last hundred years, making abuse of children, which once was commonplace, an abhorrent abomination of character and behavior.
But can the same paradigm shift be effected to combat institutionalized racism?
I will try to tackle this question in my next post. Wish me luck!
Despite rumors to the contrary, Spotlight is not a great movie. I’m not going to go into the reasons, in my opinion, why the film isn’t as good as they say; I’ll leave that for professional film critics. But I think that Spotlightis an important movie, as mainstream Hollywood pictures go.
Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s exposé of child sexual abuse and its coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston.
It is a Hollywood movie, so it is no doubt full of embellishment. Nevertheless, if the skeleton upon which the movie hangs its premise is sound, then it is a damning condemnation of one of the world’s most established and powerful religious institutions. The reporters and the paper should be praised for their courage and investigative diligence.
As is often the case, when a boat springs a leak other leaks are sure to follow.
In the movie, the initial investigation of the Spotlight team centers on only one priest. After a meeting with the founder of a child abuse survivors’ support group, this number leaps to 13.
Real life psychotherapist, Richard Sipe who has long studied celibacy in the Church, features in the movie as a voice-over-the-phone that provides harrowing details about the high incidence of molestation. In his estimate, the number of priests who have engaged in illicit sexual acts with minors could be as high as 6% of all clergy members. That would mean 90 priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.
After extensive investigation by the team, this number is borne out. In the post-script following the movie, the audience is informed that ultimately 249 priests in the Archdiocese were eventually indicted!
From one priest to 249. The numbers are not good.
Change in global organizations such as the Catholic Church happen at a glacial pace. The Spotlight report erupted not long after the turn of the millenium, around the events of 9/11. For some of us this doesn’t seem like so long ago, but in reality an entire generation has already come of age. All that time, the Catholic Church has been reeling from a loss of credibility.
The 2013 election of Pope Francis by the papal conclave, an egalitarian who champions for the voiceless, could be interpreted as a significant change in an organization famous for its secrecy.
Let’s hope to see more of such changes.
The Importance of Media
If there is one thing the movie Spotlight shows, it is how important fearless and unimpeded journalism is to a functional democracy.
Without the relative freedom of the press the United States enjoys, Nixon would not have been impeached, American engagement in Vietnam would not have ended so soon, and Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts may have simply sailed unobstructued into the anti-harbor of Trump’s Islamaphobic tirades.
In 2001 there was still enough attention being paid to the mainstream press that the Spotlight story did serve as a vehicle for change.
However, as the Internet sluices more and more attention onto its fractured and infinite superhighway, generalized sources of information are losing traction. We increasingly receive different news from disparate sources, often curated to our political stance.
In other words:
“News” has become less a challenge of our beliefs as a bulwark for our preconceived notions.
Related to this is the question of just how much longform investigative journalism will continue to play a role in social change.
This is not only an academic question.
Recent events have shown that there is another entity, as powerful and entrenched in our American fabric as the Catholic Church, that requires the gimlet eye of a fearless and impartial press: The nation’s Law Enforcement system.
Here then is the big question: what tactics employed by the Spotlight team to expose systemic pedophilia in the Catholic Church can be used to determine systemic racism in our nation’s police forces, if any….
I will explore further this question in part II of this blog post.
In previous installments of this post, I made the claim that Irony and Satire don’t translate well on Social Media for a number of reasons. To recap:
Communication on Social Media is often polarized: earnest optimism and self-regard on one end, outraged aggression on the other. Irony, which demands a degree of murkiness, curdles in such extremes.
The surfeit of information available on the Internet keeps people from taking the time to parse content for Irony. This is just one of many consequences as meaningful reflection becomes more and more difficult.
The instantaneous feedback mechanisms of most Social Media (ex. the “like” button on Facebook) encourages knee-jerk reaction. I used the recent uproar over Sean Penn’s Oscar comments as a case in point.
Finally, I suggested that there were other factors besides lack of reflection that prevent Irony and Satire from coming across, namely:
a) When it is conveyed in a context vacuum.
b) When the parties involved do not share values/common culture. .
As vehicles of criticism, Irony and Satire should not be taken for granted.
Like desert plants, they have thrived best under harsh conditions: the pressure of state censorship, violence, and outright suppression. Totalitarian regimes, whether the monarchies of old Europe, modern plutocracies such as Russia and China, or nominal theocracies such as Iran and the so-called Islamic State have traditionally been the most fertile breeding grounds.
Within such environments, satire, caricature, farce and irony chomp and stamp at the edge of power, always under threat that the authorities—who, by their very nature, find nothing funny, ever— will finally decide that enough is enough.
Satire holds a special place in the “Enlightened” West, those European countries that underwent societal, political, economic and religious transformation during the Age of Reason. France in particular boasts a long and complicated relationship with it.
France’s history, like most other country’s, is rife with political and religious oppression. It also claims the dubious distinction of having undergone one of the bloodiest revolutions in modern memory. From the ashes of the French Revolution arose a new form of tyranny: the petite bourgeousie, the forebear of the modern Capitalist oligarch.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, what could the average French citizen do beside gross, bitch, whore and drink?
But the recent assassinations of Charlie Hebdo staff in their Parisian offices have brought fresh attention to the modern dangers of Satire, and the razor’s edge one walks when criticizing parties that will broach now criticism.
The four million citizens who held vigil for the Charlie Hebdo victims is proof in numbers of how seriously the French take their tradition of satire and its relative, free speech. Each person came out that night for their own reasons, but one wouldn’t be too far off in assuming that many were there in defense of the Satirical magazine’s right to say and depict what it would, regardless of how offensive the content may have been.
Here then, is our context consideration: the French value fundamentally their tradition of unfettered Satire.
In fact, saying what you think with little forethought has become so pervasive that one could argue Free Speech, as a foundational principle fought for and won, has lost a degree of efficacy—a dilution that reflects supply-and-demand economics: scarcity drives demand; glut destroys value.
And here the circle completes itself: if we can say whatever we want, why hide it with irony? Especially when the internet is so Fast and Furious.
Earlier, I promised to make a connection between Sean Penn’s comments at the Oscars and the Charlie Hebdo murders.
The most obvious connection is the that they both examples of free speech and its potential consequences in an “Enlightened” society.
A fair assessment. But what if we were (and here let us extend our metaphors of Reflection) to use a different mirror.
From another perspective, they could also be considered examples of the ambiguity of power dynamics in a globalized, connected world: who has power, who doesn’t; who thinks they do, who feels powerless.
To expound: In the name of free speech and satire/irony, both Penn and Charlie Hebdo insulted a large group of people that one could argue was already marginalized in their respective societies: Latinos in the United States, Muslims in France.
Further, the targeted group [disclaimer: as I’ve stated before, Penn was really targeting our anti-immigration policies, but an un-ironic reading—and that is what is at stake here—would have seen him as attacking immigrants from Latin America], either did not “get” the joke, or didn’t give enough of a shit to try.
Let’s return for a minute to Sean Penn at the Oscars. Here was an example of reality trumping ideology. We all know now that what Sean Penn was really lampooning was the US’ immigration policy. He has come out and said exactly that since. His defenders mention his track record as Liberal Poster Child, the implication being that someone so Left-leaning would never say something blatantly racist, especially in public.
But I would argue that the liberal/conservative continuum is one that resonates mostly within white communities. Sean Penn might consider himself “down with the cause(s)” so-to-speak, but to millions of people, he’s just another old, white man, with a lot of money. So when he said what he did, there was a large contingent of young people and people of color (or both) who either didn’t know who he was or didn’t care.
Depending on where you stood (and what you understood), he was either a liberal in a town full of liberals or another old white guy who had just said something insensitive and racist. In short: a context cluster-fuck.
On Shared Values
I wrote earlier that in order to correctly interpret irony, a shared experience or set of values needs to be in place.
In the France of Louis XIV, bawdy public houses groaned beneath the weight of the drunken, dispossessed poor, griping and grousing about those powder-headed sons-a-bitches. Anonymous poets would leave versified excoriations, little jabs at the people in power, which would then circulate literally by hand and mouth. Everyone knew who and what these little poems were making fun of and everyone, except for their target, thought them funny. During this uncomfortable epoch, everyone lived in more or less the same cesspool.
Now that is no longer the case. In the digital age, fragmentization is the new norm. There is no longer a fixed anchor, nor a true North, nor a fundament upon which universal premises totter. With the pervasion of English as a new lingua franca, one can communicate ideas instantaneously across the globe, where they are, at best, literally received.
It is, in short, this mixing of cultures and immediate globalization of so many publications through the Internet that makes satire more problematic as the Swiftian appeal to the values we share becomes more elusive.
Sean Penn, bless his large liberal heart, fell for one brief moment on the sword of American fragmentization.
The diminishment of shared values and its ramifications can also be seen in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, but here, its consequences proved fatal.
The zealot assassins couldn’t have cared less about the French national tradition of satire. All they saw was their prophet being ridiculed by the West. This time, they were just crazy enough to act on it.
When all the horror and indignation over these assassinations has washed away, one truth will remain, like a bone on a beach: in the 21st century, as in centuries past, one can still be killed for what one writes.
Let us end this section by returning again to Tim Park’s cogent article.
Now that the whole world is my neighbor, my immediate Internet neighbor, do I make any concessions at all [to their belief system], or do I uphold the ancient tradition of satire at all costs? And again, is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, my twenty-first-century that is? Do I have the moral authority to decide this?
This post has meandered quite a bit. On reflection, perhaps it is because the interplay of irony, satire, and free speech in the fragmented global world is complex.
Were the satirists at Charlie Hebdo racist or just equal opportunity assholes? Were they challenging a global religious system (i.e. Islam) plagued by male supremacy and intolerance, or were they kicking a dog when it’s already down: the five million of more French Muslims inordinately represented in the Parisian slum-burbs. This is very important, because for Satire and Irony to do its job, power must be located above those who use it on their behalf.
Is Sean Penn a racist? Maybe. But I’ve heard it argued that all white people, by virtue of living in the United States, are racist in that we benefit from systemic racism. And if that’s the case, then it just becomes what degree of racist Sean Penn is. Blatant or cryptic?
In truth, I like Sean Penn. He directed a great movie. He’s played some great roles and produced worthwhile projects. And he’s charitable.
I also like him because he doesn’t really give a shit about public opinion, as evidenced by his refusal to apologize for the Oscar gaff. The old adage: “Actions speak louder than words” may no longer be entirely in an age when a considerable portion of our economy—meaning that growth fueled by angel investors and venture capital—is based not on what is really there, but on presentation and future promise. But Sean Penn is Old School: he believes it, as evidenced by the many charitable enterprises he is engaged in.
There is a new kind of moralism evolving, where the obligation is to the language—there are some words you can no longer say and some opinions you no longer can express. This is a kind of make-believe. It makes everybody comfortable, they feel good about themselves, because they mean well—while at the same time there is a whole generation of immigrants locked out from education, work, and privileges and there is anger growing in the part of the population that doesn’t have its voices heard, or whose opinions are considered evil and kept out.
I would suggest that as Social Media becomes more pervasive and we become more isolated in our digital spheres and cubicles, a real danger of confusing speech with action exists.
Wasn’t that the nature of the tea-cup sized whirlwind upon Sean Penn’s joke? Words trumping words, without context or reflection?
I can just imagine, upon reflection, how he must feel about the whole thing: “If I were to do it all over again, I’d do it just the same, only differently next time.”
Thus spoke Sean Penn right before the announcement at the Oscars for Best Picture. The award had of course been given to Alejandro Iñárritu, who is Mexican.
Predictably, this wisecrack set off the obligatory twitter-storm. Penn was summarily raked over the coals for his insensitivity, bigotry, privilege, etc. The first wave of righteous indignation had rippled out. With its return came opposing voices, most telling the others to lighten up. It had all been a joke.
Penn’s comments were not so much a joke as a textbook example of irony. In the now established tradition of using the Oscar’s to push politics, Penn was pointing out (ironically) that if the United States’ draconian immigration policy is left unchecked, we will be robbed of the immense talent of individuals like Iñárritu.
Yet to derive such an interpretation of Penn’s joke requires:
A little bit of time to digest it. In other words: Reflection.
An understanding of the greater social context. In other words, What was Sean Penn really poking fun at? The US political climate is rife with division over how our immigration policy should be. Penn was just putting his two-cents in.
A baseline commonality between all parties involved. This shared experience can be cultural, linguistic, professional, or regional. (Writers, for example, recognize irony in each other’s work regardless of what culture they come from. Irony or satire does not translate well.)
Thrown out in front of one of the most watched events on Network Television, with an audience at once heterogeneous and short on attention span, Sean Penn’s joke fell flat on its ass.
Honest reflection—meaning careful and disinterested consideration of an issue—is very often absent on Social Media. Often the most vociferous voice prevails, and a nuanced view of an issue is drowned out.
Not that in the past humanity has always been swayed by the most articulate argument or balanced perspective! If this were the case, our track record regarding warfare and conflict would be significantly less. But there does seem to be something about Social Media in particular that fosters a shoot-first ask-questions later mentality.
For one thing, if you are secreted in your cubby on the other side of the ocean, you don’t risk reprisal. It is the ultimate flip-the-bird as you zip away from the traffic light now turned green.
But another aspect that is peculiar to the Internet causes people to respond instantaneously. That is the matter of information surfeit.
In the glutted aether of the cloud, on the banks of the information streams of Facebook and Google+, the din of those seeking one’s attention is deafening. It is as if a thousand people were walking by, shouting in your face as they pass. How could one possibly engage in meaningful conversation under such circumstances? By the time you’ve gathered your thoughts, formulated your response, they are gone replaced by another. So what do we often do? Shout back, because, quite frankly, we don’t have the time.
They say brevity is the soul of wit, and that the simple things are best. This is often true. But what is also true is that systems, whether ecological, political, historical, or societal are complex.
One can attack Sean Penn in 140 characters, but one cannot make a compelling argument using the same character count, any more than one could compress a cinematic masterpiece down to a 7-second loop.
People often complain about the word wrangling of academics and intellectuals, those individuals who ask questions where clearly none should exist (I am being ironic here), or who cloud an otherwise clear-as-day discussion with murky perspectives.
This is often a legitimate concern.
Just as often, however, ragging on intellectuals, as a particularly American exercise, is simply an excuse for laziness. We don’t want to be inconvenienced with murky perspectives, we don’t want to have everything be “problematic” and “doubtful”. Because once you start venturing onto those slippery terms, the ice beneath your feet becomes thin. So, we use the Internet selectively, searching for the outlooks that reinforce what we already believe!
And herein lies one of the problems: The Internet is so translucent that darkness cannot escape. Irony and satire, which exist in the shadows or, at the very least, are shadows of the people and institutions they parody, dim when there is no longer anything that can’t be said.
But of course, this isn’t true. There are things that can’t be said.