In a world of post-truth politics, the end of satire is only just the beginning, writes Liam McLoughlin.
In the 1950s, Jewish-American editor and publisher Harry Golden noticed Southern whites were happy to stand with African-Americans at the same bank tellers’ windows and supermarket counters, but were much less keen to sit down with them. When the Supreme Court forced the education system to integrate, the sharp satirist suggested the Golden Vertical Negro Plan, which would keep everyone happy by removing all seats from public schools. Not long after, one library’s response to a federal court’s integration order was to remove all the chairs.
It’s this story which led American journalist Calvin Trillin to coin the Harry Golden Rule of political satire, which is that “in present day America it’s very difficult, when commenting on events of the day, to invent something so bizarre that it might not actually come to pass while your piece is still on the presses.”
The blurring of satire and reality is nothing new. American cartoonist Jules Feiffer said as early as 1959, “Satire doesn’t stand a chance against reality anymore”. Since then, every second Friday someone observes, for the first time, that reality is so ridiculous and extreme that it has killed off satire. The most famous of these pronouncements was made by singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer when decades ago he said “When Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, satire died”.
The one-time resurrection of Jesus Christ looks pretty ordinary compared to the weekly resurrections of political satire.
Although it’s long been hard to distinguish satire from reality, in the age of Tony Abbott and Donald Trump, straight news does seem more satirical than ever.
The Abbott Government gave us such news headline gems as Abbott: Repealing Carbon Tax ‘Best Thing I Did As Minister For Women, Coal Is Good For Humanity, Prime Minister Tony Abbott Says At $3.9b Queensland Mine Opening, and No More National Parks As Tony Abbott Pledges To Support Loggers As The ‘Ultimate Conservationists’.
When an Australian satirist called Evan Williams can compile a list of the 40 Most Onion-like Australian Politics Headlines Of 2015 and turn it into a book titled Australian Leader Eats Raw Onion Whole: Headlines From The Government That Broke Satire , you know your government has become a parody of itself.
More recently, Treasurer Scott Morrison compared being teased on social media with systematic discrimination against LGBTQI communities, resulting in this headline in the Guardian Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite: Scott Morrison Says He Faces Bigotry Too. Morrison’s political memoir, My Struggle: Tears Of An Oppressor, will be available in all good heterosexual book stores just in time for Mardi Gras.
In the United States, Donald Trump is smashing any remaining barriers between satire and reality: Donald Trump: Ban All Muslims Entering US, Donald Trump: Mexico Going To Pay For Wall, Trump Won’t Rule Out Special ID For Muslim Americans Noting Their Religion, and Donald Trump Wants To Know If There Are Any Muslim Athletes. It would be brilliant parody if it wasn’t such God awful truth.
In April, the Boston Globe ran a ‘satirical’ front page about a Trump presidency with the headline Deportations To Begin, but it could also be described as pre-emptive reporting. In recent days, Trump felt a similar kind of pain to Scott Morrison when he compared his sacrifices in building things to those of Captain Humayun Khan, who died protecting his unit in Iraq, and his parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan.
If buffoonish extremism is the most lethal weapon against satire, the likes of Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, and Donald Trump do pose a clear and present danger. Satire often exaggerates reality into something more bizarre and dystopian. When your society is hurtling towards that dystopia at record speed, it’s pretty hard to keep up.
Poe’s Law is useful here. It states “Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.” Distinguishing between parodies and proponents of extremism is tough when the sentiments of both seem equally insane. This formulation emerged from an Internet forum about creation and evolution in which creationist parody postings would often be taken literally.
In times of widespread political extremism, when satire and reality converge, you can excuse the public for taking satire seriously.
In 2012, China’s The People’s Daily circulated an article in The Onion naming Kim Jong-Un as the “Sexiest Man Alive”. The good folks at the satirical news site updated their article with this: “For more coverage on The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive 2012, Kim Jong-Un, please visit our friends at the People’s Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion, Inc. Exemplary reportage, comrades.”
Another Onion piece called Frustrated Obama Sends Nation Rambling 75,000 Word Email was reported as truth by Fox News and one titled Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex upset many in the blogosphere and fooled Republican congressman John Fleming.
The site Literally Unbelievable shows the epidemic proportions of the reality/satire confusion.
I’ve seen this first hand, writing political satire for Situation Theatre over the last year or so. In December 2015, just after Greg Hunt approved the Abbot Point Coal Terminal expansion near the Great Barrier Reef, I wrote something called Turnbull Agrees To Frack Uluru. Responses included “You’ve got to be kidding”, “You can’t make this stuff up”, and the demand for an international petition against this devastating blow to an Australian landmark.
In January this year, when Stan Grant’s speech on racism and the Australian dream went viral, I wrote a satirical piece called Tony Abbott Tells Stan Grant: “Go Back To Where You Came From”. The dominant response, at least in the comments section, was to take the headline at face value, express genuine outrage, and retort that Abbott should go back to where he came from.
When Greg Hunt is actually named “best minister in the world”, who can blame them?
Yet in many ways satire does actually offer a greater truth than what’s offered by the news.
This video from 8-Bit Philosophy points out that the spectacle of Donald Trump illuminates a disturbing fact about modern politics.
Halfway through the clip, the voiceover says:
“Entertainment was supposed to be a distraction from the serious truth of our political lives, but now politics has become a parody of itself and reflects a greater truth. As Debord famously said “In a topsy-turvy world, the true is a moment of the false.” Despite the fact that Trump may constantly lie about facts, there is an element of greater truth in his lies. The truth is that in our image driven society, we don’t want the truth, we choose to consume a projected image of what we desire to be true.
We would rather vote for someone that embodies a reality that we want to believe, than a person that actually reflects the reality of politics.”
As politics becomes pure spectacular entertainment and reality itself becomes satirical, it falls to entertainers and satirists to reveal the truth. In this light it should come as no surprise to read this news headline: Yet Another Study Shows US Satire Programs Do A Better Job Informing Viewers Than Actual News Outlets.
Nor should it be unexpected that in the wake of the Don Dale Four Corners exposé, satirical headlines like PM Pledges Limited Response To Injustice “Whenever Four Corners Demands It”, Turnbull Opposes Royal Commission Into Nationwide Abuse “Because I Haven’t Seen It On TV”, and Perpetrators of Institutional Violence Shocked By Evidence Of Institutional Violence, might just give you a truer picture of events than commercial news.
Despite the best efforts of Tony Abbott and Donald Trump, satire isn’t dead.
In fact, with the resurgence of right-wing extremism and the triumph of politics as entertainment, now more than ever we need satirists to subvert the spectacle.