Monday, May 01, 2006

Of Swift, Stephen, Sobule, and Satire

In the English language (and yes, I am a professional) the only two words used incorrectly more than satire are irony and presently (kisses to Keith Olbermann, who uses the latter correctly almost nightly).

Satire is generally taken to mean "political comedy" in our current climate. But rhetorically, that's not what it is/does. Saturday Night Live, for example, isn't satire, though Ali G sometimes is. (Getting the rednecks to sing "Throw the Jew Down the Well," for example.) For proper satire, the informing emotion isn't humor, it's anger. In fact, the listener should be made a bit uncomfortable by it in order for it to work.

Satire also requires a credulous persona, like the wide-eyed philanthropist of "A Modest Proposal," or the ambitious teen in Jill Sobule's song "Supermodel." I use Sobule to teach Swift, because I find that my students are often foxed by the idea concept of the persona, a character speaking in the first person who does not represent the author him- or herself, but is instead a voice, a character through which the author can make a larger point.

For Swift, the tragedy at hand was the overwhelming poverty of the Irish Catholic population in 1729. In a certain sense, it wasn't his problem: he was a Protestant clergyman, unmarried, and he certainly had enough to eat. No one made them have all those children (though of course birth control in the eighteenth century was a pretty dodgy proposition). But he saw them on the streets, recognized their humanity, and it moved him. He created a character, common enough among the pamphleteers of his day, of a concerned philanthropist posing a solution to an intractable problem. His solution, to harvest the children of the Irish poor at the age of one year, is thought out with all the care of a farmer calculating the best use of his herd, considering the benefits to the poor themselves, to those who would consume the produce, to the general economy (people would go out more to restaurants, because they'd be doing the most interesting things with the meat, he suggests). When it was originally published, it was not immediately recognized as satire, something remarkably common about this rhetorical mode.

Odd, since Swift bares his fangs a few times:
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed, and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.

I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold as to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food, at a year old in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes as they have since gone through by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of entailing the like or greater miseries upon their breed for ever.


When I teach Swift, I use, for comparative purposes, Jill Sobule's song "Supermodel," which has a similar construction: anger at a social issue (in this case the damage done to young women by obsession with appearances and the resultant eating disorders), the creation of a credulous and credible persona (a young woman who believes that by controlling her intake she can become said supermodel), and the resultant commentary, which is, in a sense, external to the song itself and dependent on an understanding of the broader cultural factors that inspired it.

I don't care what my teachers say
I'm gonna be a supermodel.
And Everyone is gonna dress like me,
wait and see

When I'm a supermodel
and my hair will shine like the sea.
Everyone will wanna look just like me

Cause I'm young and I'm hip, and so beautiful,
I'm gonna be a supermodel


I wish that I was like Tori Spelling,
with a car like hers and dad like hers.
And I show them how how it was done.
That be fun, that be fun.


I'm young and I'm hip and so beautiful,
I'm gonna be a supermodel

I didn't eat yesterday,
I'm not gonna eat today,
I'm not gonna eat tomorrow,
Cuz I'm gonna be a supermodel.

And then there's Colbert.

The blogosphere is buzzing with reports of his performance at the annual White House Correspondent's Dinner, which I caught by accident from my hotel room in Wisconsin. The video is at Crooks & Liars, however.

Colbert skewered the administration and the press corps and guess what? They didn't like it. Boo-fucking-Hoo. These are the same twits who laughed at Bush looking under the podium for WMDs. They also seemed amused by the double-Bush routine, and loved the joke about how the double had debated Kerry. These are the kind of people who greenlight Scary Movie sequels.

Rhetorically, Colbert's schtick is pure satire. He's "Bush's Man" and proud of it. Here's how you can tell:

So, Mr. President, pay no attention to the people that say the glass is half full. 32% means the glass -- it's important to set up your jokes properly, sir. Sir pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half empty, because 32% means it's 2/3 empty. There's still some liquid in that glass is my point, but I wouldn't drink it. The last third is usually backwash.

Folks, my point is that I don't believe this is a low point in this presidency. I believe it is just a lull, before a comeback.

I mean, it's like the movie "Rocky." The president is Rocky and Apollo Creed is everything else in the world. It's the 10th round. He's bloodied, his corner man, Mick, who in this case would be the Vice President, and he's yelling cut me, dick, cut me, and every time he falls she say stay down! Does he stay down? No. Like Rocky he gets back up and in the end he -- actually loses in the first movie. Ok. It doesn't matter.

The point is the heart-warming story of a man who was repeatedly punched in the face. So don't pay attention to the approval ratings that say 68% of Americans disapprove of the job this man is doing. I ask you this, does that not also logically mean that 68% approve of the job he's not doing? Think about it. I haven't.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

And, like Swift, it's likely that there are a lot of folks who were missing the point of The Colbert Report. Conservative law-and-banality blogger Ann Althouse hangs her hipness hat on her viewing of Colbert. Michael Smerconish and Caitlin Flanagan appear on The Report, apparently without irony. Maybe they'll get it now.

And next time you're tempted to call Bill Maher "satirical," whack yourself in the head with a copy of Gulliver's Travels and reconsider.


Anonymous said...

What makes me cringe presently [heh] is 'nauseous' meant to be 'nauseating'.


Vicki said...

Nice post. It's always good to have a detailed refresher on what satire is and is not. People tend to use literary terms too freely (par for the course in this age). You presented it in an easy to understand way, and I especially appreciate how you teach your students using the Jill Sobule song. Makes perfect sense to drive the point home.

You rock.

Charlotte Smith said...

Aw, I wish I could have been in one of your classes! It sounds like it would have been great!

pseudonymous in nc said...

A useful distinction here, I think, is between Horatian satire (insider, sociable) and Juvenalian satire (outsider, scathing). The WH hos like very light Horatian satire, with cocktail weenies to follow; Colbert dished up a big ol' pot of Juvenal for them.

Swift's satire is, to my mind, a hard one to use as an exemplar of the mode, just because it turns back on itself all the time. But his line from The Battel of the Books is a good one: "Satyr is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generall discover every body's Face but their Own."

OHDeaconess said...

Thank you so much Mary! I am giving this to my highschool son and sending it to his ap English class--credited to you, of course! I wish I had you as a professor! Where do you teach?

Aspasia M. said...

I love the comparison to Swift.

What's up with these people & their "surprise" about Colbert? I thought Colbert's act was very similar to his show. He does satire & his major target is the media & their scribe-like ways.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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