The Dangers of Snark in a Post-Poe World
Tom Lehrer once observed that “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize.” Despite the urban legend, this isn’t what prompted him to retire, as he explains here, where he also makes some observations on the problems of satire in the modern world, including: “everything is so weird in politics that it’s very hard to be funny about it.”
In recent US election cycles, where even weirder things are afoot and some folks’ grip on reality is extremely tenuous at the best of times, while others of us are having the boundaries of what we consider feasible in the political arena expanded by the hour, perils abound.
For example, some on the left have apparently taken Politico’s Roger Simon’s transparently snarky article from yesterday, “Paul Ryan vs. The Stench”, at face value, and seem to buy into the idea that Hottie McStudMunster is now literally in the habit of referring to his running mate as “Stench.” You can take issue with Simon’s abilities as a satirist, and even his omission of any overt flag to indicate that he wasn’t being entirely serious, but had his words appeared in The Onion rather than Politico, the situation might have been clearer. The fact that people thought this was a plausible story is far funnier than the story itself, but less funny than the absolutely OUTRAGED reactions of some of the commenters at Simon’s Politico article.
Now, there are times when it may suit people to wilfully misinterpret snark as truth. For instance, back in 2008, when Larry Johnson at No Quarter was furiously pushing the “Whitey Tape” fiction for all it was worth, Booman wrote a post that I’ve always interpreted as snark-tinged, which included this passage:
From what I understand, it is a tape of Michelle Obama criticizing the Bush administration.
How you’d write it:
Why did Bush cut folks off medicaid?
Why did Bush let New Orleans drown?
Why did Bush do nothing about Jena?
Why did Bush put us in Iraq for no reason?
How you’d say it:
Why’d he cut folks off medicaid?
Why’d he let New Orleans drown?
Why’d he do nothing about Jena?
Why’d he put us in Iraq for no reason?
How Larry Johnson wants you to hear it:
Whitie cut folks off medicaid?
Whitie let New Orleans drown?
Whitie do nothing about Jena?
Whitie put us in Iraq for no reason?
When I read that, I laughed. But it didn’t stop PUMAs and their ilk and fellow travelers taking it as Booman confirming that the tape actually existed, and posting selective quotes in every comment stream they could find, even while other well-meaning folks on the left quoted it as an explanation that Michelle Obama had been misunderstood, in the process implying that the tape did exist. A lot of good it did them in the end, but I’m sure you’ll still find some who believe it’s only a matter of time before it finally emerges on Fox, given that we’re apparently now at such a desperate stage in the election that the much-maligned Reverend Wright is again featuring in their output.
A more recent example might be Mitt Romney’s famous complaint about why airplane passenger windows don’t open, which he later explained as “a joke.” Romney’s legendarily inappropriate and clunky sense of humor gave me pause at the time, hence the lack of a post about it. It’s possible, I suppose, that Mitt was just ass-covering after the widespread ridicule his remark excited (we had plenty of experience of this during the primaries, if you remember, where Herman Cain’s alleged sense of humor and his insistence that y’all needed to loosen up was used as cover for many an outburst of nonsense). I guess we’ll never know for sure.
You can no doubt come up with your own examples of when you’ve been at least initially taken in by a spoof. If we’re just looking for fun and a morale-boost in the face of the scary prospect of Mitt being within any margin of becoming president, there may not really be a problem with propagating viral stories like the airplane window one, though there may be more productive ways to fill the hours till the election. For all his shortcomings, I don’t think Mitt’s totally stupid, so it was less funny to me than a more plausible slip-up might have been, though I did enjoy some of the RW blogs and commenters desperately trying to explain why it was indeed scandalous that airplane windows don’t open, and that Mitt was a genius for pointing this design error out.
But it’s not hard to envisage a time when one of these manifestations of Poe’s Law may bite us severely in the ass, so I’m going to be very wary from now till November, and cross-check any unlikely-sounding “too good not to be true” stories I hear before passing them on. I may still come a cropper, but I’ll try not to make anyone else look like an ass for taking any snark I come up with as Gospel. Unless they’re a Republican, of course, in which case they can take their chances.
For a post talking about snark on a snark blog surrounded by snarky posts, this is all very un-snarky. On with the motley! But doubt and find your own light. Always.
More: On the off chance that anyone’s still in any doubt about Simon’s intentions, he’s now apparently felt driven by the weight of wingnut wrath to add this to the end of his article:
[Author’s note: Jonathan Swift did not really want Irish people to sell their children for food in 1791; George Orwell did not really want the clocks to strike thirteen in 1984; Paul Ryan, I am sure, calls Mitt Romney something more dignified than “Stench” and Microsoft did not invent PowerPoint as a means to euthanize cattle. At least I am pretty sure Microsoft didn’t.]
More more: I’m way behind with my reading because I’ve been busy, so I hadn’t realized that not only were a lot more folks taken in by Simon’s skit than I’d imagined, but there’s now a kerfuffle on Memeorandum about it. Oh well.