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The Satire and the Damage Done
From Tim Robbins to Tina Fey, Bob Roberts & Sarah Palin Win

by Gary Gordon, Oct. 22, 2008

     While arguing about whether or not Jesus Christ was a real or mythical figure, I pulled a Barlow knife from my pocket, opened it with a snap and pressed the blade against the palm of my hand. “What do you think will happen if I cut myself?” I asked, trying to illustrate the difference between what we know and what we don’t, what is real and what isn’t, what we believe and what is beyond doubt.
     John Ford has another way to do this. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, a newspaper editor kills a story after learning it contradicts a legend embraced by the town for decades. He declares, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
     We’ve had to endure numerous legends during the last few decades. My favorites include the notion that we would’ve “won” the Vietnam war if it wasn’t for the liberal media, liberal politicians, and the “bums”, as Nixon called the anti-war demonstrators; the notion that Reagan destroyed the Soviet Union (single-handedly?) and returned some kind of wonderful, rosy, lost values to us during his wonderful presidency; and two of the underlying favorites: we’re always the good guys, and unbridled, unregulated capitalism works.
     I’m old enough to remember that there were actually people who were shocked to discover the Nixon behind closed doors was not the Nixon who appeared in public, despite the years of evidence that suggested his lies about the war and his war against his enemies and accompanying abuses of power was inevitable.
     I was on one of Mike Malloy’s radio shows as a guest the night Clinton gave his “apology” speech when a young man of fourteen called in to say he was devastated to learn that the president had lied. I had no patience for that kind of whimpering, telling him when I was his age my president, LBJ, had lied us into war, drafted tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people were dying as a result.
     What does it take to convince people that power is powerful and that few people can withstand its temptations and actually do good for the many? It amazes me that we can read history and discover over and over again, in country after country, in culture after culture, in century after century, that small groups of men have plotted and succeeded in killing leaders in order to seize power but in our country many people believe those conspiracies just don’t exist. Are we really that exceptional?
     In college I had arguments one morning over breakfast with fellow students who thought my citing of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln was not only farfetched but inaccurate. “You can’t support your conspiracy theory about JFK by making up a conspiracy about Lincoln,” one of them insisted.
     What’re you gonna do?
     Woody Allen once said you can’t fight Nazis with letters to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, but one way some of us choose to fight is with satire. Satire at its best is the weapon of provocation to be used against power. It is, in the vernacular, a method of speaking truth to power. I decided recently that it may be more important to speak power to lies, but that requires the acquisition of power, something we haven’t achieved despite some deluded notions that white (I am one) liberal (I am not one) Jews (I am one) run everything.
     Of course, not all satire comes from the oppressed, or from what is nominally known as the Left. There are clowns like P.J. O’Rourke who jumped onto the “white middle class sons and daughters of privilege are victims too” bandwagon (part of the Bakke anti-affirmative action backlash that came with funding and membership in various right-wing think tanks, starting before the Reagan era, but receiving a boost from him and since—maybe it goes back to Nixon’s Southern Strategy.) I mean, when Laura Ingraham, one of the seven-figure propagandists of the right writes a book called “Power To The People” you know there’s a huge graveyard of civil rights leaders and activists including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton and those four young girls in Birmingham twisting in agony in their graves.
     See, here’s the reality part: just because liberals are generally ineffectual doesn’t mean that poor people aren’t poor, that real wages haven’t increased since the mid ‘70s, and that unregulated capitalism works. It just means that fighting the thugs behind those slogans is difficult and even the best satire doesn’t always work.
     So we come to “Bob Roberts”, Tim Robbins excellent satiric movie about a right-wing folksinger candidate for Senate. The movie is devastating in its numerous insights about the manipulation of rhetoric and symbols, its appreciation and representation of deceit and subterfuge, and what turns out to be its prescience. In one sequence, the weekly late night hip, satiric show—a not too fictional version of Saturday Night Live—decides to invite this rightwing candidate on to sing one of his songs. The cast and some of the production crew are angry at this surrender to ratings over their own perception of their political principles, but they are briefly mollified that Roberts won’t sing one of his inflammatory political songs. Of course, it’s a live show, so as Roberts changes plans and goes into a political song, one of the crew starts pulling cables from sockets, shutting off the broadcast.
     That the rightwing would use an SNL-type show to further its efforts was satiric prescience. The prescience ends, though, with the reality. The reality is that no one last Saturday night tried to stop the real rightwing candidate Sarah Palin’s appearance on the real SNL. Of course, SNL is a pale membrane of what it once was. When it was created it was somewhat subversive, populated with actors and writers whose craft and notions were formed during combative, subversive times. Now, members of the cast (as many who read this publication) not only know little of those war-drenched, police-state times, when many of us were “outlaws in the eyes of America”, they resent old farts my age from doing the “back then” trip. So be it.
     Of course, Lorne Michaels now is not the same Lorne Michaels that had the wisdom to bring together Belushi, Chase, Ackroyd, Curtin, Radner, Murray, Franken et al, stating a few years ago on an anniversary special that he had been wrong to think drug use was okay. Yes, Belushi died of an O.D., but he didn’t kill anyone in Vietnam or order anyone to kill—it’s as if the word Fuck is obscene but napalm isn’t. Michaels was wrong to think he was wrong.
     “It’s all good,” is a phrase I’ve heard all too often, used similarly to the phrase “whatever” in response to both important and trivial information. It’s the easy way out, not having to think critically or evaluate or judge or differentiate between what is important and demands action and what really is trivial. Not only does it allow one to avoid thinking, it allows one to avoid formulating and expressing thoughts coherently. Welcome to IM.
     So what does it matter that Sarah Palin appeared on a nominally hip, satiric TV show that once, in some respects, stood for something? Could it have really helped her candidacy? Didn’t it reveal how lame she really is?
     Lame? Or dangerous?
     Lame is to think it just means she’s really just an okay person, kinda like the rest of us, able to take a joke, able to take kidding, and that by itself sends no particular message and has no particular consequences. I mean, if you wanted to have a beer with Bush, don’t you wanna shoot the shit (if not the Caribou) with her? Or to put it more crudely, isn’t she just a VPCILF?
     The satirist’s hope is that truth will be revealed. Supposing SNL wanted to reveal truth instead of just attain high ratings (a huge supposition in this day and age, but possible, given Tina Fey’s humor), the truth they revealed is they are suckers, imagining that the inclusion of Palin in skits she was allowed to re-write got the best of her instead of them. (This is where liberals get it wrong, thinking “what harm could it do?” and rightwingers get it right, knowing that co-optation and softening resistance are essential to lulling the opposition.) Andy Griffith exposes his fraud on TV in “A Face In The Crowd”, but despite all pressure to the contrary, let’s not confuse fictional drama with reality. Joe McCarthy really did expose his venality on TV, but that was a congressional hearing, not a nominally hip, satiric TV show. The satirist should never invest in the myth of the power of the satirist without knowing the difference between the needle and the damage done, just as someone should never slice their palm to prove that they will bleed. Some things we know for certain. The satirist who doesn’t control the weapon of choice loses.