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An Immodest Proposal: Must we now pull the death shroud over the face of satire?

Here's a big NO from an occasional practitioner

Should news content mocking current events in satirical fashion, such as the Feb. 9, 2024 print edition's syndicated editorial cartoon and column about the "Taylor Swift conspiracy," carry what amounts to a content warning? Alas, it's probably now a fair question, but the answer is no, argues Ron Judd.
By Ron Judd Executive Editor

Content warning: The following treatise may contain satire, including things INTENTIONALLY OVERSTATED for the purpose of creating a mood of humor/irony sufficient to bring down the guard of a reader and sneak in a relevant point. Or maybe not? Who can tell?

Today’s big Q: In the post-truth era, is satire dead?

The question has buzzed around various writers groups, and other circles of niggling ne’er-do-wells, for a number of years, largely lining up with the rise of neo-fascism and scourge of bright red ball caps.

The thought used to be rolled out only on those rare occasions when someone did something publicly so astonishingly daft that it was deemed impossible to satirize, or describe with overstatement obvious to anyone bestowed with the common sense God gave a goat.

These were one-off events that literally defied mocking, because the entire point of satirizing a mockable subject is taking it one or more steps further, into the realm of the ridiculous.

Except now that is all too often the daily news cycle; the exception devolving to norm. On many days and many stories, there is no next step. We’re standing on the last rung, helplessly staring into the abyss of mass gullibility.

Witness, if you must, the recent spate of online reportage about the numbers of otherwise medium- functioning Americans who supposedly believe that vocal superstar-turned-cultural-icon Taylor Swift is part of some nefarious plot to hand over the United States of America to the United Nations, the Trilateral Commission, or something far worse, such as Oprah (you see what we did there.)

It would be tempting to cast this Stupor Bowl moment aside as another blip on the nonsense scale. But that chart is busted.

Which is unfortunate, because satire, deftly applied, is a powerful tool — one that’s been in the quiver of shrewd social commentators from before our nation’s founding. The best of these sly malcontents have injected into the public discourse morsels of social comment that could not be nearly as easily tossed off casually at some cocktail soiree if trotted out with a SERIOUS label.

The classic example, of course, is Jonathan Swift’s classic treatise, “A Modest Proposal” of 1729, which lays out a perfectly defensible plan for “… preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick” … by selling the kiddies by the pound — for food. A win-win!

Like most good satire, this was a master stroke of irony, propagating a clearly absurd idea to make an important point about the way the landed gentry treated the Irish: They “devoured” Irish peasants with cruelty; might as well make it official!

Bloody well executed, and faithful to the notion that truly good satire makes a reader not only chuckle, but sometimes wince.

Surely back in the day, not a lot of Swift’s readers brought out the good silver and finest china to serve up a meal of roasted little Billy and Mildred. Today? Don’t bet your next paycheck.

Satire has been carried to grand heights by a range of American writers and, in the modern era, by social commentator comedians such as the departed Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and George Carlin; more recently: Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Today the craft limps along in print via a relative few writers with national reach.

Holding up one end of that banner is Alexandra Petri, a humorist at The Washington Post, whose columns occasionally appear here in the acknowledged global leader in creative intellectual thought, Cascadia Daily News. (There we go again!)

It is she who is to blame for this entire discussion.

Last Friday, we ran in CDN’s print edition Petri’s latest — a sendup of the above-mentioned Swift “controversy,” filled with classic bits of intentional hyperbole, noting that various Swift song lyrics conveyed hidden meaning. (Example: “No body, no crime: Swift admits she knows what really happened to Amelia Earhart.”) It was accompanied by another sweet piece of satire: A cartoon sendup of the same subject by the Pulitzer-endorsed Jack Ohman.

One reader had issues. CDN’s decision to publish the column without what qualifies as a content warning constituted a “violation of journalistic integrity,” he suggested, explaining: While it was “fairly clear” the column was satire, many of Petri’s lines were “either literal talking points or close enough for people to take them seriously” thus contributing to the “disinformation” that fuels modern conspiracy theories.

I mulled this for a moment, wondering if the writer had not, in some meta-genius way, submitted a treatise of satire to protest a treatise of satire. Unfortunately, no.

But it was an honest question, deserving an honest answer, which was also: No.

This opinion page doesn’t feel a burning need to label obvious satire as obvious satire. It would be a white-flag of intellectual discourse and an admission, frankly, that we must settle for the lowest common denominator of discourse. Once you give in to: “What if someone doesn’t get it or reacts badly?” you’ve already lost the game of provocative content selection.

As I told the reader:

“The fact that some facets of public discourse have descended to the same level of absurdity as the intentionally absurd is indeed lamentable, but it’s not going to be corrected by simplistic labeling.”

Think about it: If we were hoping to fuel the flames of conspiracy by sending coded messages to the slathering hordes of conspiracy wingnuts, isn’t a disclaimer saying “this is satire. Please adjust your tinfoil toque!” exactly what said hordes would expect it to say? It may only confirm their initial delusion.

The Post, in its own treatment of Petri’s popular work, affixes a tagline noting that she offers “a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.” I’ll think about that, I guess. And I’m open to other readers’ thoughts. But for now, we’ll take our chances, with the clear intention of letting Petri be Petri, living to mock another day.

You can take that to the bank. If you still believe in those.


Ron Judd's column appears weekly; ronjudd@cascadiadaily.com; @roncjudd.

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