Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Undeclared Wars

I'm beginning to fear that we're living in a literally illiterate society. How else do you explain the bizarre uproar over the newest issue of the New Yorker? For those who don't know, it's a cartoon picture of Barack Obama dressed like an imam fist-bumping Michelle in a terrorist get-up. The American flag is behind them, tossed in to a fireplace located underneath a portrait of Osama Bin Laden. This entire sordid scene is located in the Oval Office. The Obama campaign came out immediately and attacked the cover. McCain's campaign fell all over itself to join in the assault. "It's offensive!" they cried. So now it's time for me to mount my soapbox and make an announcement. Of course it's offensive. That's kind of the point. That's what satire is. The prime example of satire in western culture is Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, or, in its almost never used full title: A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. In it, Swift proposes that the best way for the vast number of poor people in Ireland to deal with their poverty is by selling their children to the rich as food. This is, of course, a ghastly prospect, which is kind of why Swift did it. See, he wasn't attempting to comment on the poverty of the Irish. He was attempting to illuminate the attitudes those who through their own cruelty or negligence allowed the Irish to get where they were. He was saying, in effect, "You've taken everything from them, why don't you eat their children now, too?" This is the problem with satire, though. At least, it's the problem with good satire. The people most likely to be offended by it are the people being targeted by those the satirist is attacking. This morning I heard a snippet of an interview with Obama. He was being asked about the magazine cover and said something to the effect of, "Well, when you're running for President you develop a thick skin." If I may presume to address the candidate: THEY AREN'T ATTACKING YOU. THEY'RE ATTACKING THE DUMBASSES WHO SAY, "DON'T VOTE FOR OBAMA 'CUZ HE'S A SEEKRET MUSLIM TER'RIST!" Ah, I feel better. Anyway, I like good satire, although I think that by its very nature it's one of the hardest forms of writing. See, a good work of satire is almost indistinguishable from the original piece or attitude it mocks. Too much overcharacterization takes it out of reality, while too much time with tongue placed firmly in cheek ruins the mood and makes it obvious (and usually not funny). For instance, I am utterly convinced that Snakes on a Plane is one of the greatest satirical movies of all time. But, um, that’s a story for another day... -------------------- On a similar note: While perusing Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the other day (because one doesn’t really read that particular book. It’s just too friggin’ long...) I ran in to this particular line attempting to explain his conclusion that the persecution and martyrdom of Christians in the height of the Roman Empire just wasn’t as bad as we’re lead to believe: The total disregard of truth and probability in these representation of these primitive martyrdoms was occasioned by a very natural mistake. The ecclesiastical writers of the fourth or fifth centuries ascribed to the magistrates of Rome the same degree of implacable and unrelenting zeal which filled their own breasts against the heretics or the idolaters of their own times. It actually fits quite well with the idea of misplaced assault against satirists. I actually found this quote by James William Johnson while looking up some stuff on A Modest Proposal: “human depravity is such that men will attempt to justify their own cruelty by accusing their victims of being lower than human.” In situations where the “victim” is an immobile “enemy,” they’ll often simply accuse their enemy of doing whatever they themselves are working on doing, or barring that, accuse their opponent of whatever will get their followers the most riled up. I added this link to Acquire the Evidence to the right side sidebar. The stuff in it is a little old, but it’s instructive. I first heard of BattleCry a few years ago and didn’t like them from the moment they first arrived on my consciousness. In fact, I wrote a post about them last spring. Anyway, back in Ought Six, BattleCry was busy getting ready for a big event in San Francisco, which I believe was the event that brought them to my attention. They had a big ol’ rally/concert thingy, then marched on city hall. Meanwhile, they were given a permit that said they couldn’t play loud music before ten o’clock in the morning because otherwise the people in the area would be kinda pissed. And they called this persecution. Here’s something to keep in mind. Whenever someone is playing the persecution card, try to find out why and what they’re calling persecution. Because, you see, Jesus said something like, “The world hates me, so it will hate you, too.” Here in America, though, we really don’t. Really, ever since Constantine that hasn’t been the case anywhere in the Western world, save France during the period between the Revolution and Napoleon. What hasn’t disappeared along with the persecution, however, is the need by some people to define themselves according to their enemies. In fact, I personally have run in to Christians since leaving the church who will declare me their enemy just to show how magnanimous they are in loving me, their enemy. I haven’t declared myself anybody’s enemy. I’m not evangelizing (at least intentionally) to anybody. I’ve specifically said that my plan was to hold off on “going public” so I could make sure I didn’t just become an angry evangelist for anti-Christianity. But there are plenty out there who want me to be their enemy. They don’t have a purpose without one. -------------------- On a totally different note (and not at all related to the subject at hand), I got this comment from Jake today: I'm just visiting from Slacktivist. I haven't read any of your posts yet, and I really would like to, but unfortunately the light letters on dark background scheme actually makes it very uncomfortable, verging on impossible. I know I'm not the only person around who has this problem and I wondered if you would be at all open to changing the colour scheme of your blog? For the record, the white on black color scheme is a remnant of an older blog color scheme from back in the day when all we had was CRT monitors. White words on black screens was better for the eyes on the ol' radiation guns. Now since most people have gotten rid of their CRTs its not as big of a deal. I actually don't like it as much with flat screen monitors, either. Still, I haven't quite gotten around to changing it due to, um, inertia, I guess. But so anyway, anybody who wants to voice an opinion on the color scheme is welcome. I probably will change it, and change it to whatever I want, but I like to give the opportunity for input. It makes me feel like less of a despot.


Suzy-q said...

1. The white type on black screen kills my eyes. I usually can't get through more than a few paragraphs and I currently have halos.

2. BLT - baby, lettuce and tomato sandwich. I had Swift and I believe Pope ordering one for lunch at a restaurant...

Tayi said...

I don't mind the white type on the black screen. However, if you feel like changing it, I would like to suggest a green or blue background. Yellow reminds me a bit too much of an elementary school cafeteria.

I remember when I was in high school, going on missions trips with my youth group and such. It seemed totally reasonable at the time to see ourselves as a persecuted minority, but now I wonder if we didn't cast ourselves as the underdog because it was the only way to explain our complete lack of success. We would have outreach events that didn't bring in a single new person, and there were really only two explanations for what we saw: either what we were selling was not appealing to anyone, or there was some other outside influence keeping people from paying attention. So of course our leaders were eager to tell us that we were persecuted, that we were being brave in being a Christian in such a post-Christian culture. If you don't demonize the people who don't like your religion, you have to start to wonder why they're not interested, and then the whole thing comes crashing down.

I'm sure this idea of persecution is also used by leaders who want to strengthen their hold on power by drawing lines between in-group and out-groups, but there's a reason the American Christian church is so susceptible to this particular idea.

Geds said...

So of course our leaders were eager to tell us that we were persecuted, that we were being brave in being a Christian in such a post-Christian culture. If you don't demonize the people who don't like your religion, you have to start to wonder why they're not interested, and then the whole thing comes crashing down.


I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. We used to do a lot of ministry together and then left the church at the same time. He asked, "Why is it that my Bible studies were fail, fail, fail, BIG HIT, fail, fail?"

My response was, "It's all a big freaking crapshoot."

Meanwhile, I remember the leadership team at my college ministry having a lot of conversations revolving around what we could do about a student population that just didn't care about anything. I generally said little during those conversations, since my considered opinion wasn't that they didn't care about anything, it was that they didn't care about the crap we were doing. Looking back, I chose a real bad time to decide that I shouldn't rock the boat.

I know so many Christians who pretty much seemed to think that verse that said, "If god is for us, who can be against us?" was the most important thing ever written. I think, though, that creates a bit of cognitive dissonance whenever someone thinks, "Ha, god's on our side!" then fails miserably. After something like that, you have to start blaming god, yourself, or make up something that can be against you. I think that's why so many Christians blame the people their trying to reach for their failures.

Also, I wonder if it isn't a bit of wish fulfillment. I mean, we'd get all the stories of the Christian martyrs growing up in church. It all seemed so exciting, especially compared to the boringness of life. Plus, there was no question for the persecuted martyrs in any of the stories. Maybe it's a subconscious admission that they're worried about the state of their own faith and want to test it to be sure.

I don't know. I suppose it's all speculation, anyway.

Oh, and the color scheme is a continuing evolution. So, y'know, suggestions are still nice. I find black on white kind of boring, but haven't really fallen in love with any of the color schemes I've played with so far.

Stinger said...

Ahhh, dark font on light background! Your posts are well worth the effort, but this is much easier on the eyes!

Geds said...

So apparently I'm one of about three people on the planet who wasn't bugged by the light on dark thing, eh?

Also, it's really weird, but this background looks blue on my home monitor and gray on my work one. I'm not entirely sure what to make of that.

Fiat Lex said...

I actually was quite fond of the light on dark thing. Brings up happythoughts of poorly translated instructions on old-school videogames. Man, I love what Dave's been doing with our NES/SNES emulator.

Whenever one of these media offend-fests crops up it makes me angry not at the media, who can be relied upon to do their shitty thing, but at the person who gave them something to go nots about. Whether it's an offensive sketch of a political candidate or a noose on the cover of a golf magazine or a sitting president talking about giving up golf in honor of our troops, I always see the instigator as cold-bloodedy manipulating the hangdog media in order to get themselves, their organization, their publication, more airtime. Of course the New Yorker knew that people wouldn't get their sarcasm.

But how many people are going to go out and buy the New Yorker now because of this? The good folks at the New Yorker may have been outraged at the callow and slanderous innuendos put forth by the Fox network, and created this satire to throw said slander into sharp relief. But I have to hope, maybe over-optimistically, that they knew exactly how the callow and slanderous Fox news and their ilk would react. Because if the so-called "news media" wasn't exactly the type of idiots that would jump all over the chance to display the senator from Illinois in a disparaging context, the satire never would have been necessary in the first place.

Which is why the only conclusion I can settle on in my own mind is the New Yorker was out for a circulation boost. If they're smart enough to recognize the news media needs to be satirized, they oughtta be smart enough to realize the news media are stupid enough to use satirical images in an at-face-value manner, designed to be misinterpreted by a casual viewer to impute slanderous untruth.

*goes off to march through the streets carrying a sign that says "don't vote or watch television!"*

Dash said...

The New Yorker's claims don't wash. For comparison, consider what's become a common cartoon trope: depiction of George W. Bush as a child. He's shown half the height of other characters in the cartoon, and often with an outsize cowboy hat and boots.

Question: would we buy the claim that those cartoons aren't making fun of Bush, but of people who think he's childish?

So Remnick's explanations don't make sense. (And, as someone said, good satire doesn't have to be explained.)

Geds said...

Something to bear in mind: I first got the New Yorker story in an attack against it, took one look at the cover, shrugged and said, "That's satire, yeesh," and kind of ignored the whole thing until it blew up all over the news.

I'm no mouthpiece for the New Yorker here. I saw it as satire from the very beginning.

The difference between the Gee Dubs cartoons, by the way, is that those cartoons are making fun of him.

And that is the problem with satire. It's hard to tell who the target is sometimes.

But the fact is, I don't think fear of being attacked should keep anybody from making any statement. And fear of misuse of the image shouldn't drive anything, either. It's free speech, even if they are saying, "Hey, Obama's a secret Muslim terrorist!"

But I don't think they are...