I got a call from a young friend the other day complaining of writer’s block. It wasn’t that he couldn’t think of anything to write, exactly; he couldn’t think of anything to satirize.
“You’re crazy,” I said. “What’s not to satirize?”
Brief silence. “I can see you don’t know a thing about satire.“ He sighed. “Satire requires an audience who would appreciate it. Look, you don’t tell jokes to yourself, right? You tell them to others. If no one gets them, they’re not jokes.”
“They’re not jokes -- trust me. Satire’s a little more complicated. You want them to laugh, but when they’re done you want them to see what or who you’re picking on and agree with you. You want them to take action. If it’s political satire, you want them to overthrow the government. Satire’s serious business. You need to know what’s right, to laugh at what’s wrong. But that’s the problem. People don’t know.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell that to the cast of Saturday Night Live. Or Jon Stewart. You’re burned out, man. Let the field lie fallow. You’ll get your touch back.”
“It’s not a case of lost touch. Suppose you wanted to lampoon this stuff that passes for money, the fiat outpourings of the central banks. Among the commentariat money is an issue, at least since the crisis of 2008. At least on the internet. But it’s not an issue with the middle class. They still don’t get it. They’ve been savaged by the bankers and politicians but they still don’t understand how it happens. They have no freaking idea of what role gold has traditionally played in keeping these guys off their backs and out of their wallets. They hear bright people say it’s barbarous, that to support it is like calling for the return of the biplane, and that serious discussion centers around whether Bernanke should impose another QE. And if a few of them do get curious about gold as money, crowned experts like Bernanke slam the door in their faces. He tells them that in the 1930s, the smart countries dumped gold before the others did. Or that all those infamous panics of the 19th century were gold’s fault, that it forced bankers to redeem their notes for something of value. So what if they issued more notes than they had gold on deposit? That was acceptable practice and always has been. If only people would simply believe that paper issued under a monopoly arrangement with the government was something valuable, everything would be fine. The fact that we’ve had perpetual inflation and war since paper was crowned king is a fact lacking visibility. To the general population.”
“No, you’ve lost your touch. The material for a spoof of fiat money is there in abundance.”
“You could spoof it only for a select few. The rest would be bored. Okay, let’s try this: Suppose you wanted to satirize the War on Terror. A ripe topic, right?”
“So what do you do? You might say we’re winning the war and show the number of terrorists we have locked up in prison. Yea for our side! We’re number one! But wait -- these guys don’t look like terrorists. They’re not al-Zawahiri or al-Umari or al-Salada or something -- they’re al-Johnson or al-Jones or al-Richardson.”
“No, it isn’t. No one on main street would laugh. Half these prisoners are drug users. They may not know it but they fund terrorism. Their partners are the real ‘als’ planning the next attack.”
“That’s what people believe. If you’re in jail, you’re a bad guy. Bad guys support terrorists. So you can’t satirize the War on Terror.”
“You just did!”
“Then why didn’t you laugh?”
“Your readers will, once you polish it.”
“They won’t. My readers are the ‘als’ in prison.”
“Then dig deeper. Hit the War on Drugs.”
“How? By writing about soccer moms signing out kiddie aspirin at their local pharmacy, all the while chattering about their latest trip to the shore?”
“That’s a start.”
“Or a hospital scene depicting a shriveled old guy strapped to his mattress, his face a rictus of pain, while a canned video plays on his overhead TV detailing the evils of marijuana?”
“That’s good. Dark, but good.”
“Of course there’s the old standby, cops armed with controlled substances to plant on troublemakers they want to send up.”
“It might be if a cop’s kid gets hold of the stuff and is collared by some dick in another city.”
“You’re on a roll, man. You need to hang up and get this stuff down.”
“You still don’t understand. You know that puzzle about a tree falling in a forest with no one there -- would it make a sound? I would be like that tree. It’s not that there’s no one around. They’re here but they’re lobotomized. Regular people no longer think critically about the government. Today’s normal is yesterday’s outrage, with the outrage removed. Satire would play on that outrage, but it’s not there. They’ve made peace with it in a psychotic sort of way. They live in Huxley’s world without knowing it. They love their servitude and call it freedom. They still have their ball games and fishing trips, their malls and sitcoms. Water still runs downhill, the sun rises and sets. They can even speak freely, because their words are powerless. In this blissful metamorphosis Julian Assange is the problem, not the corrupt governments. You satirize that, they won’t laugh. Satire’s not just humor, it’s an instrument of change. Its fuel is outrage.”
“You’ve overlooked the elephant in the living room, my friend. People have been screaming about the banks and Wall Street for at least four years. They may not understand gold, but anti-Fed sentiment is all over the place!”
“Someone’s already tested the water on your elephant, buddy. In this case a Brazilian elephant. You say such animals don’t exist? I say they’re invisible -- to the middle class. They’re invisible to the middle class because they believe in the rightness of central banking. Which, as I said earlier, is why they’re going broke.
“No satire I could ever write could top this. It seems the staff of Brazil’s central bank is on strike. They’re demanding a 23 percent pay increase. Why? Because of inflation. They want the pay increase to cover the inflation they’ve created since 2008.”
“You’re making that up.”
“The Brazilian bank violated the first law of institutional counterfeiting: It didn’t take care of its own. But who noticed? No one. Who cares? No one. Stand at the entrance to your local grocery store on a Saturday morning and ask the SUVs and mini-vans coming in if they’ve even heard of the strike . . or the central bank . . . or if they know what a central bank is. Or if they have heard of a central bank, ask them if they think it’s an inflation fighter. They’ll probably say yes. ‘Thank God we have a central bank in the U.S., keeping a lid on inflation. Unlike those boobs in Brazil.’ And if you stand there too long the store manager will order you off the premises, because he noticed you’re not selling girl scout cookies.”
“Look, you can’t expect political satire to ignite a revolution among everyday grocery shoppers. If you were to conduct a survey you’d scare half of them and leave the rest thinking you’re a kook. There’s an audience for your satire. Not everyone’s been cleansed of outrage. You need to find those people.”
“Yeah. I believe they’re called ‘the choir.’ By definition you can’t change them.”
“That’s right -- and for the rest you need to be a teacher. Satire isn’t a good teaching tool. You build outrage with sound arguments. Satire coaxes that outrage to the surface in the form of humor. But you have to build it first.”
“But they’re lobotomized.”
“A better word would be ‘propagandized.’ It’s treatable.”
Then quietly, “Yeah,” followed by another silence so long I started to wonder if the connection broke. Finally, to my surprise: “Yeah. Yeah, that might work. Talk to you later.”
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