Most folks can tell an Onion-like piece when they see it, although we keep saying satire is dead, but we don’t really mean it, right? Deep down we figure there is still room to send up this already exaggerated, crazed world.
Perhaps the greatest mark of its effectiveness is when people worry that it might be describing an actual state of affairs. Good satire must be believable, but only to some degree. It’s what hooks you in.
The other essential half, however, is that doubts must be left in the reader’s mind. A satirist doesn’t claim to record our present reality—that would be mere duplicity. Instead, he or she stretches that reality for effect, overemphasizing this, underemphasizing that, producing at once a perceivable distortion and a critique. The better examples create a double effect in the audience—“Insane! But…could this be true? Or could it actually come to pass?”
Jonathan Swift’s justly famous piece on harvesting Irish babies for food produces just such a double effect. He was satirizing, not English state policy towards Ireland, but—presciently—the style and matter-of-fact tone that marks public policy discourse. A crazy proposal, we think—but could some policy wonk really frame something like it, in this self-same way? A Modest Proposal was published 234 years before Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and we have our answer.
It is that uncomfortable sense of possibility that gives satire its edge.
Now, I knew Jonathan Swift—he was a friend of mine—and I’m no Jonathan Swift. But I like to write in various genres, and occasionally try my hand at satire when I’m in the mood.
My last blogpost was satire. Yup, it really was. All made up. Please don’t feel insulted, dear readers. I know you knew that.
But not everyone did, or so it seems. I’m going to get a little cagey here, because there’s no point stirring a still-bubbling pot into a froth, but let’s just say that not everyone mentioned in the piece was pleased to appear in it. Phone calls were made; emails flew. After being spoken to in the blunt and unambiguous manner that those near power tend to assume, I made a slight modification to the post here at Dawg’s, rather than deep-sixing the whole thing as demanded. Meanwhile, my cross-post to rabble.ca—which I had cleared with my editor beforehand in an email exchange entitled “This is probably too much for Rabble”—disappeared.
I’ve been in this game a long time, and recognize how these things are played, and how power works, especially force majeure. So I’m not resentful about the piece being pulled. An editorial decision was made, I have a good idea how and why it was made, and I accept its internal logic. A temporary suspension by rabble.ca was harder to take, because I hadn’t done anything wrong. But everything has since been patched and repaired.
All I can think at the moment, though, is—someone should really write a satire about this.
But not I.