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.

Posted by YAFB on 09/26/12 at 12:34 PM • Permalink

Categories: PoliticsElection '12Our Stupid MediaPoliblogsPolisnarkTo Poe Or Not To Poe?Skull Hampers

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Romney’s campaign has been a very tough act to separate fact from fiction on—I think of the man-tan and the birth certificate joke as issues where I gaped for a bit before writing about them going “For real?  Does this look for real?” And then snark gives in. (And if I’m snark-wrong, I can always snark-apologize.  But yeah—I balk at the tidbits that look too tasty.)

Also, to semi-excuse those who bought in on “stench”, I do kind of think the satire underscores a bit of “running mate’s remorse” that Ryan might actually “for real” be experiencing by this point.  It’s, um, truthy.

Well, as a blog we tend toward the snark, so I think we’re maybe a little more sensitive to the giveaways in an article like Simon’s (it helped a little if you’d clicked on to page 2 and his riff on PowerPoint, which I found quite funny since I’ve worked on a few business consultants’ books in my time), but that doesn’t explain why the likes of Gawker fell for it!

Thing is, if there’s ever any doubt but something’s too good not to write about, there’s ways of framing a post “as if,” or just plain reporting without passing a definitive judgment on veracity. Which is a bit of a cop-out, I guess.

I still think the funniest part of it all is that everybody’s so Poed out after the months of GOP primaries, let alone the Rich Bastard/Granny Starver 2012 campaign that it all seemed passably true, though.

And tomorrow, Mitt will no doubt do something and we’ll all be “Nah, we’re not falling for it this time,” and get scooped.

Maybe that’s what he wants.

RE: the Booman - Larry Johnson, I think Booman fessed up later that he deliberately set that as a trap for Johnson because he (Booman) knew Johnson was full of shit about the Whitey Tape and knew Johnson would leap on any wisp of a confirmation like a hobo on a ham sandwich. Mission accomplished, Booman…

Heh. That’s a neat sidelight, Betty. Smart guy, Booman.

Here’s a twofer. Althouse is currently guest-blogging at Instapundit. Her initial typically densely contrarian take:

PAUL RYAN HAS A COOL SENSE OF HUMOR, riffing on somebody else’s remark that his future political career will require that he “wash the stench of Romney off of him.” He’s saying things on the campaign bus like “If Stench calls, take a message” and “Tell Stench I’m having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan and will text him later.” But he has political antagonists, and if they get humor they’ll pretend not to. It’s a shame. I like quirky humor!

Then after some more burble and a lapse of time, possibly a box of chardonnay or two:

ADDED: I misread that. Ryan didn’t make those jokes. The report that he said that was itself a joke. I like those jokes! Oddly, the point of the writer at the first link — Tobin Harshaw — is that Ryan’s antagonists are so eager to attack him that they don’t recognize that fake quotes are fake. But they aren’t that fake. They could be real humor. Obviously, there’s trouble processing humor. Isn’t Harshaw missing the humor of that kittens-on-Mars letter writer?

It continues:

AND: I like the way Drudge is putting it: “MEDIA ‘SATIRE’ HIT PIECE ON PAUL RYAN BACKFIRES…/O’Donnell, Krugman ‘fooled’…” Drudge is, I think, insinuating that Politico’s Roger Simon intended to be misunderstood, for the Ryan quotes to be believed, and then to reveal that it was satire after the damage was done.

I think Reynolds may be asking for his keys back before long ...

Maybe that’s what he wants.

Oh, holy hell, you’re right!  Here I allowed myself to become lulled into complacency by skewed polls and double-feint media rigging, and now Mitt stands poised to spring his trap upon us!  Quickly, summon the Obots, we need their superior 11th dimensional chess analysis skills immediately!

Also, too, what amused me most about this entirely silly situation was the nonchalant way which Roger Simon threw an insult to the wingnuts and a masterful humblebrag into his disclaimer update.

“What, you thought this was serious?  Well, a lot of people didn’t ‘get’ Swift and Orwell at the time, either.”

Oh ho ho, Roger.  Just because wingnuts are dumb and Gawker is ravenous for linkbait doesn’t mean you don’t still suck.

It’s tough to determine what’s the real deal, and what’s satire.  I didn’t feel comfortable posting this here, because of the indeterminate nature of the story (since revealed to be satire).

Catblogging is so much easier.

Comment by Big Bad Bald Bastard on 09/26/12 at 05:01 PM

Reading more about this kerfuffle, I’m glad I went out drinking the last couple of nights, so I was blissfully unaware of the controversy.

Beer, how I love thee.

BBBB, I think there are a few who participated who now wish they’d done the same as you. And now they’re making up for lost time.

OTOH, the “Stench” nickname is taking a grip in some quarters, so there is that.

I think “Stench” fits so well, but my mind keep applying the name to Ryan, not Rmoney.

Toss an ‘s’ in there (unless your mind already did it for you).  Stupid screeen glare….

Alright.  The hell with it.  I’m going outside.

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