Jim Geraghty at National Review Online has an interesting essay on the state of satire in American political culture. He makes a contrast between satire in the good old days and the way it’s used today:
When everybody’s getting mocked, there’s not much consequence to the mockery…. The older notion of satire as a tool for addressing some wrongdoing or social ill may be falling apart before us. We don’t hold many of our national political or cultural leaders in high regard, and yet somehow they keep on with business as usual. Some of the egos attracted to political power have proven that no amount of ridicule can deter them.
So, to keep score: old satire is taking a moral stand using irony as a means to speaking truth to power, new satire is irony for its own sake. The new satire just heaps ridicule on everyone who’s earnest, so is incapable of communicating a coherent moral vision.
[T]here isn’t really room for a genuinely heroic or noble character in those (parodic) worlds. A storyline can’t include Mother Teresa or a Medal of Honor recipient. . . unless, say, the protagonists had just claimed to be noble and virtuous, and the genuinely heroic figures appeared in order to make the protagonists appear pitiful by contrast. The true heroes of the real world aren’t particularly funny….
And so the new satire is simply (a) nihilistic, and (b) because it takes no substantive moral stand, can’t have any real critical bite. Now, I think Geraghty is wrong about John Stewart’s political satire. He does have a moral view. But, regardless, if satire doesn’t have a critical bite and satirists are just nihilists, then why is it that satirists, according to Geraghty, only needle the Republicans?
As a close to the essay, Geraghty makes a move I find very interesting, and one I’ve been considering on and off for a while — the Poe phenomenon. Given all the scandals and their silliness (Mark Sanford, Bob Menendez, Larry Craig, Anthony Weiner, Elliot Spitzer), the real stories of those in power sound very much like the silly send-ups of them. Geraghty notes:
[I]n the exaggerated, ludicrous, comedic alternative universe depicted by the Onion, there is no Onion. In a real world that increasingly resembles the Onion’s satires, the Onion is superfluous.
Now, I think this is an overstatement. I’m not sure that if Poe’s Law is true, satire is superfluous. Satire, even if it’s the nihilistic contempt Geraghty’s worried about, is expressively different (even if not always received as different) from the events satired. Satire is a meta-language, one that comments on and captures a reaction to the events satired. Now, I don’t think it follows that satire is superflous, even if it’s nihilisic and difficult to tell from simple reportage, as it’s a different thing from what’s satirized. But maybe Geraghty’s on the right track – some forms of satire are simply self-indulgent post-adolescent pap. But that can be satired, too, and (if it’s well done) that’s not superfluous, is it?