10 January 2014

On (Failed) Satire and Shitty Frat Boy Humor

I have a satire problem. Not a problem with satire, mind you. My Twitter avatar has a poster from Dr. Strangelove in the background, in German, no less. Clearly I appreciate good satire. It’s actually the opposite problem: I see satire whether it is there or not.

Part of that is simply due to the fact that I want to see satire. I really do believe that it is one of the most effective tools against the powerful. So much of power is the belief among the powerless in power’s legitimacy. Satire undermines that legitimacy, and lays bare the exercise of authority and force.

Contrast, for example, Dr. Strangelove with its contemporary, Fail-Safe. As frightening as the scenario is, as brilliant as Henry Fonda is as the President, as compelling a case for nuclear disarmament as it made, Fail-Safe still legitimates the President, the military leadership, and intellectuals as the ones to decide on the policy issues. That legitimates the decision itself even when those leaders reach the opposite conclusion. “Gentlemen, Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” undermined any claim the Washington establishment had that its decision was the right one.

What passes for satire gets dicey, though, because the subject of the satire and its object are potentially different. When the subject of a joke is the oppressed, the challenge is to identify whether the object is the oppressor or the oppressed. In the former case, satire retains its power for the weak, as in Mel Brooks’ treatment of racism in Blazing Saddles. In the latter case, the joke is not a satirical tool against the powerful but rather a way of perpetuating domination. Identifying whether a joke is satirical or oppressive is a true challenge, important as it is difficult.

Last night, for example, Rhonda Ragsdale retweeted:
First, a bit of advice: if @profragsdale is calling something out, she’s probably right; save yourself the trouble, take her word for it, and learn something.