What Can We Learn from “Spotlight” Part 1

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 Spotlight is 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.

Ripple Effect 

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. 

 

 

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Mary Helen Stefeniak: “Lessons in Revision from a Tale Told Twice”

No writer worth their salt will dispute the utter importance of the rewrite. As Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Cate Kennedy, the Australian writer, once said that the writer must write for themselves but rewrite for the reader.

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Mary Helen Stefaniak, the author of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winning novel, “The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia” in her craft talk at the Pacific University residency gave that most valuable of tools for the writer: a structural analysis of two versions of the same story, Frank O’Connor’s “Repentance” from 1935, and “First Confession” from 1951.

A rewrite done sixteen years later!

Stefaniak broke the stories down into scenes, narratives and half scenes, enumerating them so that the same event, regardless of how much it had changed, could be identified in both stories.

Here are some of the structural decisions O’Connor made in the rewrite of the story.

A Change of Perspective.

The initial version is in third person limited, meaning that the predominant pronoun is “he” but the story is still told through the protagonist’s eyes. Conversely, the second version is in first person.

Third person limited hinders the dramatic irony (when the reader knows something the character does not) that is so important to conveying the story’s good-natured amusement at the young protagonist’s antics. This is, after all, a story about a young boy who thinks he wants to “do in” his grandmother, and who, upon confessing this sin to the priest, gets off with naught but a scolding, to the chagrin of his older sister. 

The boy’s foolish candidness and earnest self-assuredness comes across more effectively in the first person.

Getting Rid of Distractions

Late in the story in an important scene in the cathedral, a character in the second version is entirely omitted.  Stefeniak reminds us: put in a scene only those things that aid its purpose! 

A short form piece, Jack Driscoll reminded us in another talk, has far more in common with poetry than the novel or even a novella. Consequently, every detail should contribute to the forward motion of the story, not act as dead weight to slow it down.

A Grabby Ending

The 1935 version of the story concludes with a short narrative paragraph that traverses decades. This paragraph is omitted in the second version, which ends instead with the narrator’s older sister reeling in disbelief that her brother hasn’t been caned by the priest for admitting that he wants to kill his grandmother.

Looking at he narrative ending of the first version, it seems unwieldy and empty, as though O’Connor didn’t quite know how to end the story and opted for a conclusion that is poetically vague and allusive enough to things introduced earlier in the story, that presumably the reader will make his or her own connections! A literary Hail Mary if you will.

Or perhaps he is relying on the desire of the reader to create associations.

You be the judge; here is the final sentence of the first version.

But one night in a Paris hotel Micky remembered it all, and it was as if tears were falling within his mind, and then it seemed as though window of door were suddenly opened and magic caught him by the hair.

Mary Helen Stefeniak’s close read of these stories led me to my first “a hah” moment regarding the measured application and balance of narrative, scene and half-scene.

If you’re interested in seeing how a master of short form fiction rewrote one of his great pieces with sixteen more years of experience and maturity, I recommend looking at these two stories.

Mark Twain’s Rules for Good Writing

I recently listened to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in my work truck. I couldn’t believe he had written it back in the 1870s. He had such a finger on the pulse of life, then and now, and his ability to craft distinctive voices for his characters and narrators was second to none. There is a reason Twain is  still considered one of the greatest of American writers.

Of course, he is probably most well known for being a great wit. In this post from the blog “Interesting Literature”, Twain skewers another famous, if less proficient, American writer.

Interesting Literature

Mark Twain’s 18 rules for writing – part of his response to the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper

Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the writer who once observed, ‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.’ (We include that pithy gem in our selection of Mark Twain’s best one-liners.) In his essay, ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses‘ (1895), Twain took the author of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans to task for his flawed writing style. Scathingly, but hilariously, he writes:

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Where I’ve Been Hiding: Pu`uhonua

It often seems that universally writers talk about two conflicting aspects of the work.

1) Writing is work. No amount of fantasizing will get you to the finish line. Te-Nahisi Coates describes writing as an act of physical courage, and the ultimate product of your labor? Passable at best.

2) The lengthy periods of writer’s block.

Out of one side of the mouth comes the old admonishment: “There is nothing to writing! All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” From the other side, the admission that lack of inspiration or confidence can take a writer’s voice for days, sometimes even years.

For three months, I have not posted anything to this blog. But fortunately this is not because of writer’s block. I have been writing. And the project that took all my efforts in the months of May and June and that kept me silent in this medium was a screenplay, the conception and execution of which, like most spates of honest work, took up far more time and energy than I had initially provided for.

A few years ago I wrote, co-produced and worked as script supervisor on a short film shot here in Honolulu entitled John E. Dirt. It was a great month. An absolute hoot.

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In order to accomplish the project, we called upon friends, acquaintances and family members. We also had the good fortune to work with industry professionals that the director, Bill Draheim, had met working on movies and in television here in Hawaii.

I plan to tell more about this ambitious vanity project in the future, but the reason I bring it up now is because one of Bill’s friend from Hawaii 50, electrician and photographer Hesham Metwally, showed up towards the end to help out. He happened to be looking for a writer.

In the final shot, Hesham lit a spliff and waved it in the dusty air of the third-story floor we had built our set on, its smoke mingling that coming from the prop cigarettes that a villainous roadie, played by J.T. Rowland, blows into the face of our suffering rock star, John E. Dirt. Bill let the spliff-waving stand. We were ready for a party.

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I didn’t hear from Hesham for two years. Then one day, while slogging through another day at my permanent-adjunct teaching position at Hawaii Tokai International College, I got a call out of the blue. It was Hesham. He wanted to discuss a project.

When we met for a coffee, Hesham right away went through the endless frustration of self-styled writers who “loved the project” and were “very excited about it” but invariably evaporated when pressed. Perhaps they were all of that most common genus of writer: the one who doesn’t actually write. But there were other reasons he encountered affable dismissal, which I will go into later.

“Everyone thinks they’re a writer until they face the blank page,” I must have told him, or something along those lines. My way of cluing him into the reality of how difficult it is to write. “So what is the story,” I asked him.

He lowered his voice conspiratorially: “Have you heard of the ‘The City of Refuge’?”

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Here a little backstory is required. I’ve lived in Hawaii for close to twenty years. I arrived in late 1997 hot on the heels of my college sweetheart, a girl I could not live without–at least for the next ten years. Her family sat squarely at the overlap of various progressive political movements: her mother was a self-proclaimed Communist, her father, a Hawaiian nationalist. I was deeply in love and still reeling from the existential shellacking my studies as a political scientist undergrad at a small liberal arts college had. My white middle class upbringing seemed paltry and shallow compared to the indigenous valley community she came from.

I have since matured a bit and have a less sanguine view of where she comes from and a more generous view of where I come from, but at the time, callow youth being what it is, I leapt into the struggle hook line and sinker.

In sum, I became involved in activism. I met many brilliant people and more than a few eccentrics. The occasional cracked pot hardly stuck out among the whistle blowers; sometimes, they are one and the same!

My twenties unfolded, mystically and haphazardly, a harrowing and psychological decade. I disappeared from my old life, sinking into a sort of stuporous political zealotry, reminders of which still flare up in my writing, my Facebook posts, and the occasional bar stool debate like malaria or a cold sore.

At the end, I was a single, unemployed father. As Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.”

In any case, the upshot was that of course I had heard of the ‘City of Refuge’, or Pu`uhonua as it is called in the Hawaiian language. This is a place, usually fairly remote from other communities, where a person can take refuge if they had had the bad luck of being accused of breaking one of the strict laws, or kapu, that regimented life in ancient Hawaii.

Hesham had heard of the place (really many places, as each island was said to have one or more of the refuges) years ago and come up with an adventure idea so obvious that on hearing it, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one had thought of it before.

A young man and woman fall in love. A jealous rival frames the young man who is then accused of breaking the kapu. His only recourse is to flee to the City of Refuge!

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Now, the idea is admittedly brilliant in its simplicity and I have high hopes for the project, but just allow me one quick quibble as a writer who has been approached with ideas before.

So after Hesham has told me the skeleton of the plot, I ask him: “Well, what happens on the way to the Pu`uhonua?

“He escapes.”

“Yeah, but what happens in his escape? That’s the movie, bro.” I tell him.

In cinema-speak, what Hesham hadn’t thought about yet was what is known as Act II. Act II It is the longest part of the movie, doubly so. It is the part when the movie fizzles or sizzles. It is the part where you actualize the brilliant concept you’ve established in Act I, also known as the introduction, and work up to the climax that wraps everything up in Act III.

For those of you who don’t write, please keep it in mind that success lies in the execution.

Act II, that’s the movie, bro.

The Best Dystopian Novels Written Before Orwell’s 1984

Amazing how many of these authors are recognized as lions in realist, Victorian, or even modernist fiction. But just as Cormac McCarthy’s foray into Dystopia by writing “The Road” shows, a great writer refuses to be pigeonholed!

Interesting Literature

10 interesting works of dystopian fiction that predate George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is perhaps the most famous dystopian novel in the world, with the adjective ‘Orwellian’ being listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and the phrases ‘Big Brother’, ‘thoughtcrime’, and ‘newspeak’ being part of the language. But Orwell’s classic novel didn’t arise in isolation, and there were a number of earlier dystopian novels written before Orwell put pen to paper (or finger to typewriter). Here is our pick of the ten best early dystopian novels worth checking out. Okay, so they’re not all novels – there are a couple of short stories in here too. But then variety is the spice of life…

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The Death of Irony, the Demise of Satire III: On Context and Shared Values

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. .

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Like desert plants, Irony and Satire thrive best under harsh conditions.

On Context  

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.

Hangman

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?

Enter satire. From at least the Medieval Ages, Satire provided a means whereby the French could challenge tyranny. But making fun of the powers-that-be and keeping your head on to your shoulders was a tricky business that required a balance of pluck and caution.

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.

As do we.

The United States and France are distant revolutionary cousins. We too love to rave about how imperative free speech is to our societal fabric. Judging by the inflammatory, often nonsensical comments from across the political spectrum, this tradition is not only believed in, but practiced with aplomb.

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.

Penny for your thoughts?
Penny for your thoughts?

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.

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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.

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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.

As Tim Parks wrote in The Limits of Satire:

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.

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Always hold the sword up when falling on it. Never attempt to see what a sword to the crotch feels like.

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?

On Complexity

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.

The Norweigian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, in a recent interview spoke of what he called a “new kind of moralism.”

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.”

The Death of Satire, the Demise of Irony II: On Reflection

“Who gave that son-of-a-bitch his greencard?”

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.

Of everyone involved, which, as it happened at the Oscars, was a lot of people, Iñárritu may have been the only one who found it funny.

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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:

  1. A little bit of time to digest it. In other words: Reflection.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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 1. Reflection

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.

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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.

But I’ll save that argument for my next post.

The Death of Irony, the Demise of Satire I

My New Years post, Top Ten Ways to Drive Traffic to your Speculative Fiction Blog, had twice the traffic of any I’ve written. It was a satirical piece that I wrote foremost for fun.

However, I also wanted to test a suspicion that had been growing. Namely, the question of whether irony and satire still have legs in the digital age.

The prevailing tone of most social media seems to be, at its best, earnest, optimistic self-regard. At its worst, it slips into self-satisfied boasting or outraged indignation. Because of the control over the presentation of the self that social media affords, people are very selective about what they disclose. The drunken braggadocio of the barfly is no longer belied by his unkempt appearance and empty pockets. Only his exploits remain. We choose to expose only what we consider our virtues (whether real or not) and decline to reveal our flaws. Our contradictions remain hidden.

Irony and satire, as vessels of wit, depend on contradiction.

The dictionary defines irony as: “the use of words to convey a meaning that is opposite of its literal meaning.” Satire, likewise, is a literary convention that uses a sarcastically sympathetic voice to expose the vices and/or weaknesses of an individual, power structure, religion, or humanity in general.

In other words, whatever is said or written literally is in reality meant to convey the opposite to the audience.

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1867 edition of Punch, a ground-breaking British magazine of popular humour, including a great deal of satire of the contemporary, social, and political scene.

I am writing about this issue for two reasons.

Firstly, I am concerned that the waning ability to appreciate irony/satire denotes a “coarsening of our culture”. It is symptomatic of a white-washing of conversation and an increasingly simplistic way of thinking that, while not necessarily created by the Internet, is encouraged by its instant-gratification nature.

Secondly, I would change tack and suggest that there are real-world vicissitudes that make Irony and Satire more difficult to convey. Perhaps they no longer are valid forms of wit in a globalized, digital, so-called borderless world!

What do Sean Penn and Charlie Hebdo have in Common?

The recent massacre at the Parisian satirical magazine office of Charlie Hebdo and Sean Penn’s comments upon announcement of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar Award for “Birdman” and the subsequent backlash might at first not seem to have much in common. However, they are both examples of satire/irony and the dangers that accompany it.

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(Before we go further, I would like to put paid any notion that I view the outrage Penn met on social media as being equal to the fatal ramifications arising from Charlie Hebdo’s satire. They are similar in type, not degree!)

In the next post, I will take a look at Penn’s gaff first and explore how and why it failed so miserably.

Krapp’s Last Email Part 3

Everything else disappeared.

Krapp squeezed his thumb and forefinger. The screen collapsed onto the single email.

He felt somehow akin to this single message, floating in the aether. Humanity may no longer be alone among the stars, but Krapp was. Here, at the end of a long uneventful life, which had been interrupted far too briefly by the tonic effervescence of his wife, Bianca, one final message awaited him. Was it a promotional, sent from that unknown country wherein time and space were one? Or an advertisement by some enterprising theoretical business man selling negative-space real estate?

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Krapp shivered. Perhaps it was a message from God himself, summoning him home in Courier Font. How many times had he taken the Lord’s name in vain in the last seventy years? What if God had a Digital Interface System, one that allowed him to hear every black oath that had ever been uttered using of His name.

Well, if that was the case then Krapp wouldn’t waste any more time. If now was his moment of truth, he would meet it with dignity, not dither and prevaricate, wasting months and years when now was his time. He had heard tales of old men and women who had become trapped on the Internet. They were carted away insensate, still attached to their devices. One rabbit hole too many. One message more.

He let the white finger linger atop the envelope. Its summary appeared.

“DO NOT DELETE this message. Our Dinosaurian resear…” That was all the box would allow.

Krapp cursed silently. That had done nothing to allay his curiosity!

That last word: was it “research” or “researchers”? And if the former did it mean research performed on the Dino-Clones or by them? It was amazing how the smallest words could make a world of difference.

Everybody knew of the Dino-Clone Corps. They were the finest peace-keepers the Federation had at its disposal. Or so President Putin maintained. Krapp himself remembered with revulsion the televised dispensation of citizenship to the first Dino-Clone solider, directly after the public implantation of an explosive near its carotid artery. The beast had been dressed in khaki fatigues. A hole had been punched through the rear seam to make room for its tail, which twitched expressively.

What a monstrosity. Just thinking about it….

A pop-up appeared on the interface’s edge, warning him that: “Increased excitement will result in defecation in approximately two minutes.”

The equipment with which he gazed upon the virtual world also peered into him. Two minutes and counting. Should he disengage so he didn’t shit his shorts accidentally or soldier on?

That was the problem with analytics and substantiation: knowing something was going to happen hastened its onset. Theologians, theoreticians and even economists had argued over this conundrum, but for Krapp probability mechanics no longer entertained him as they once had. In fact the idea of taking a good shit spurred on by adrenal impulse was much more exciting.

“What the F*ck,” he thought, and then speaking aloud. “Open. Message.”

He read the first lines: “President Vladimir Pushkin is pleading with you! Second Lady JeongSook Pushkin is begging you! We don’t know what else to do to get you to pay attention. THE BOMB HAS DROPPED!”

Not quite yet, Krapp thought glibly.

“In 2190, the Galactic Federation sent a team of DinoClonian researchers on a one-hundred year journey to Sagittarius A*.”

One hundred years ago? That was impossible. They had only been in existence for maybe twenty years. He read on.

“…we know your time is precious and we certainly don’t want to bore you with science or a lengthy explanation of Einsteinium relativity. Suffice to say that the fact that the research ship was moving towards the center of the solar system has meant that their message of warning, sent to their time, has been intercepted in ours! 100% of scientists agree with their findings. What they’ve discovered will change….”

Alright already! Krapp thought. Cut to the chase. He immediately scrolled down to the bottom of the message.

“…the END!”

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Well, that tore it. He had gone right past the important part!

Though his bladder cried out, and his ass, now numb, harbored a burgeoning payload, he had to know what the Dino-Clone research team had discovered.

He scrolled upwards until he found some words in bold letters: “…An Anti-Matter Entity has lain dormant in the nebular cradle of Sagittarius A* for eons. Their presence has awakened it and now it is growing with astounding speed, gobbling up nearby matter in its infant voracity. Scientists are not sure whether it will develop consciousness before reaching the Earth or even whether it is capable of reasoning as we humans understand it, but what we do know is we cannot wait to find out! Everything we know and cherish will be devoured in a matter of millennia!

“Will it really take the end of the world for you to chip in?

“Donate now to our humanity preservation pod, an ambitious project to digitally record the annals of human knowledge, from the works of Beethoven to Bieber, Sigmund Freud to Tony Robbins. You have our personal guarantee that somewhere in that good night, intelligent beings will intercept the preservation pod and put paid our fears of Universal obsolescence!

“A simple donation of §200 will ensure your name is added to the Virtual Ark. Humanity will be remembered. And you will too for this low, low price!”

So that was it. Everything was going to end in a few thousand years. Strangely, the first thing Krapp wondered was when people would stop having children. Would it be this generation or the next or a hundred years hence? He was glad now that he and his wife hadn’t had children. Not for the lack of trying, but he had met Bianca too late. He’d hummed and hawed as usual, and she had told him not having children was alright with her. He’d gotten her a Shin Hua proxy-dog instead. It’s astro-fur had been preternaturally smooth. That’s what the advert had called it: “preternatural fur.” Bianca used to sit with it on her lap, caressing the ridges of its face, those charming flaps of skin that hung in folds.

Still, he could have tried harder. He should have tried harder. What the hell, he thought, two hundred Bucks to get a name on the ledger. Why not?

He pressed the link and typed in—his hands always shook so much these days— Bianca Krapp.

They hadn’t been able to find her in the snow. Maybe someday they would find her in the stars.

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