The problem with satire

… is that it is usually a fancy name for ridicule. And the problem with ridicule is that it amuses us and our friends at the unloving expense of its target. I know nothing about Cards Against Humanity or the recent accusations against its author, but I thought this passage was good:

You see, I’ve been having second thoughts about Cards Against Humanity for a while now, and about satire in general. In my younger years I was such a fan of satire and of defending controversial, offensive art as “satire” that it’s strange I’ve done an almost complete 180. I’ve been wondering if satire isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

The often-cited problem, as master satirist Tom Lehrer has pointed out (referencing master satirist Peter Cook before him), is that satire always preaches to the choir. It requires you to get the joke to understand it, and the people most likely to get the joke are those who already share the satirist’s opinion. Indeed, the ease of missing the point of satire is part of the point. Satire isn’t intended to teach so much as to test. It’s a way to filter out smart people who share your beliefs from the dumb masses who don’t.

If The Onion were, say, trying to convince Christian fundamentalists of the error of their ways, then fundamentalists thinking an Onion article claiming J.K. Rowling is a practicing Satanist was real news would be a failure. Instead, it’s a victory, because the point was always for The Onion’s educated, liberal, secular audience to read such stories and pat themselves on the back for finding an article mimicking Christian fundamentalist conspiracy theories ridiculous because they already find Christian fundamentalism ridiculous.

Here’s the relevant passage from the Tom Lehrer interview:

I don’t think this kind of thing has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It’s not even preaching to the converted; it’s titillating the converted. I think the people who say we need satire often mean, "We need satire of them, not of us." I’m fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the ’30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War. You think, "Oh, wow! This is great! We need a song like this, and that will really convert people. Then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I thought war was good, but now I realize war is bad.’" No, it’s not going to change much.

Now, I enjoy titillation as much as the next convert—sometimes even more, if it’s cynical enough. But I try not to fool myself into thinking that it accomplishes something for “our side”. And I try, though not as hard, to resist the temptation to engage in it myself.

"… a theology which justifies doing practically nothing"

Whenever I suspect I’m getting a little too negative about things in my writing, I read a  bit of Gary North—and come away feeling like a Pollyanna. I admire North’s willingness to state his views, no matter how fringe, plainly and without hedging. I also enjoy his style and his humor.

Today North observes the church has almost completely checked out of society, in particular dealing with social problems, but objects to being seen that way.

Let us take the universal problem of alcoholism. This problem can be found in every society, at any point in its history. What has the church, synagogue, or mosque done to deal in a systematic fashion with the problem of alcoholism? The answer is clear: nothing.

People who attend worship services on a regular basis do not want to sit next to drunks, bums, and the general riffraff of society. They want to sit next to people who look pretty much like they do, dress pretty much like they do, and smell pretty much like they do. The riffraff of the world are well aware of this, so they don’t step foot inside churches, at least not during worship services. They may knock on the pastor’s door, trying to get a handout, but they know better than to come into the worship service. They are not welcome. People know they are not welcome.

This is nothing new. It has been true for centuries. It is why a few denominations support skid row rescue missions. But most do not.

There is some residual shame about this—Christians know that this is exactly the sort of work they are called to—but even that recognition manifests itself in a shameful way.

So, in the great division of labor, the institutional churches, synagogues, and mosques defer to other organizations. But then when those organizations are successful, some members of the church, synagogue, or mosque complain that the organization is not run by, and especially not financed by, the church, synagogue, or mosque. The members of the religious groups do not want to fund the treatment centers. They do not want to interact with people who are afflicted by these problems. Yet they resent the fact that other organizations are interacting with such people — organizations that are independent of the church, synagogue, or mosque. […]

The churches have defaulted, and they have not given guidance to members who might otherwise start charitable organizations. Then the leadership of the churches wail on the sidelines of life, complaining that the world doesn’t pay any attention to the church. This has been going on in Protestant circles for about 300 years.

The harshest line in North’s essay:

Contemporary Christians are incapable of doing much of anything, and they have developed a theology which justifies doing practically nothing.

Is this fair? I’m still thinking about it. I was thinking about it as I skimmed through a long essay by Carl Trueman, subtitled “Why Reformed Christianity Provides the Best Basis For Faith Today”.

Christianity is moving to the margins of American life, and Christians are heading into cultural exile. The question is: How will we survive? The answer is: as Paul did in the first century. First and foremost, we need the simple proclamation of God’s Word in church week by week, reminding us of our identity in Christ. We need liturgies and worship saturated with that Word. We need engagement with the world consistent with the identity formed in us by a clear and confident faith in that Word.

Aha, engagement with the world! Does Trueman describe anywhere what he thinks constitutes such engagement?

Today’s world is becoming a colder, harder place. Even so, we have ongoing civic responsibilities. Shaped by our faith, we too can speak to those in power. We must remind them of their responsibilities to protect the innocent and to punish the wicked. We must remind them of the fact that they, the magistrates, will ultimately answer to a higher authority. It is this consciousness of civic responsibility—and of a firm place to stand in Christ—that frames Calvin’s Institutes and has served to make Reformed Christianity such a powerful force for change in history, from the Puritans to Abraham Kuyper.

Really? Reminding the magistrates of their responsibilities is what made Reformed Christianity such a powerful force for change in history? Maybe North’s line needs to be amended slightly: “… and they have developed a theology which justifies doing practically nothing aside from talking.”

Good thinking alert

These are the opening paragraphs from a post about urban planning. You may not be interested in his topic, but the writer’s point can be applied much more broadly.

The New York Times ran an op-ed the other day that helpfully demonstrated the pitfalls of lifestyle arguments in favor of urbanism, namely that they are annoying to everyone but the people making the argument.

The boys, like their father, are lean, strong and healthy. Their parents chose to live in New York, where their legs and public transit enable them to go from place to place efficiently, at low cost and with little stress (usually). They own a car but use it almost exclusively for vacations.

“Green” commuting is a priority in my family. I use a bicycle for most shopping and errands in the neighborhood, and I just bought my grandsons new bicycles for their trips to and from soccer games, accompanied by their cycling father.

These arguments – whether they’re about physical health, or “diverse” or “vibrant” or “creative” communities, or whatever else – are, at bottom, about telling people that they are lacking, and that in order to improve themselves they should become more like the author. In the 1970s, when city dwellers felt superior mainly because of their supposed cultural capital and were telling middle-class suburbanites to loosen up a little, that might have been obnoxious but harmless. In our current situation – when the city dwellers making these arguments are the economic elite (the author of this particular piece, Jane Brody, lives in gentrified brownstone Brooklyn, I believe) – it’s a lot more sinister. Brody talks about commutes as if their length and form were something that most people could freely choose, rather than something imposed upon them by their wages and the price of housing and form of development of their metropolitan area. She makes this a story about personal morality, rather than the constraints we choose to put on people through public policy.

Waiting for the Barbarians

I was reminded today of this poem by C.P. Cavafy. As the reminder said, it resists easy interpretation. The barbarians are a kind of solution—but to what? I have my own tentative answers, but I think the value here is in the seeking—and seeking again—more than in the finding.

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Playing Notre Dame

I ran across this expression today in an article which claims that conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza once did solid work but turned to the dark side for the sake of money. (As D’Souza himself puts it, “The book industry was changing after Illiberal Education [his first book], and I found out you could make money by not writing for the critics, that book reviews didn’t matter,”)

Already a recent convert to the idea that book sales were not wedded to critics’ judgments, D’Souza decided to stop writing with one eye on the reaction of critics. […] Yet failing to take on the best arguments of the other side—“to play Notre Dame” in the words of Charlie Peters, editor emeritus of Washington Monthly—carries risks. D’Souza’s subsequent books and films testify to the intellectual pitfalls of ignoring the critics.

Pandering to a crowd is sometimes just too lucrative to pass up, regardless of ideology. Here’s Mickey Kaus in 2005 criticizing a Malcolm Gladwell article:

Like many New Yorker policy articles, Gladwell’s reads like a lecture to an isolated, ill-informed and somewhat gullible group of highly literate children. They are cheap dates. They won’t think of the obvious objections. They won’t demand that you "play Notre Dame," as my boss Charles Peters used to say, and take on the best arguments for the other side. They just need to be given a bit of intellectual entertainment and pointed off in a comforting anti-Bush direction.

This was quoted in a blog post by Steve Sailer, who went on to say:

Indeed, there’s a huge market in this country for people who will flatter liberals about how they are culturally and ethically superior to conservatives. Just as there is plenty of money to be made telling conservatives why they are more patriotic, practical, and moral (conservatives are "moral," liberals are "ethical"). Over the years, Gladwell has been perfecting a spiel that might eventually prove the most profitable of all: he tries to appeal to his readers’ capitalist greed and progressive snobbery simultaneously.

“Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We've been eating grass!” —Gary Larson, Far SideNow I love reading Gladwell, but ‘tis a fair cop. Reading his stuff is not only entertaining but makes you feel smart for reading it—a royal road to that feeling, rather than the hard slog of working through all the best arguments on both sides. Back in the 80s I used to enjoy the slick science magazines Omni and Discover in the same way. Except when I occasionally ran across an article on a a topic I knew something about, I invariably found that it was shallow and misleading. Hey!

Probably the longest-lived character building project I’ve engaged in is to stop expecting others to do the hard thinking for me. Not that I ever didn’t think at all. But until my late 30s I used to gravitate towards areas I hadn’t explored, find authorities I found amenable, and devour their writings uncritically.

This isn’t a bad thing at the start. If you don’t know anything about a topic, e.g. good business practice, ethical behavior, Christian thought, then you have to accumulate a lot of basic information before you can begin to evaluate it. There are always temptations not to do that. You can find a comfortable groove, and continue to read “new’” writings on a topic that are really the same stuff repackaged in an inviting way. Or (my weakness) you can fill up on the basics, then move on to another topic instead of diving more deeply into the current one.

I avoided critical evaluation partly because it was comforting to take things on authority (not to mention that it indulged my natural laziness). But it was also partly because I had no clear conception of an alternative. Nobody was there to tell me that I could and should think these things through for myself—certainly not the experts I was reading, whose livelihood depended on me not doing that—much less to suggest that a little bit of hard-won understanding would be far more precious to me than being handed a treasure trove of neatly packaged, pre-digested nuggets of wisdom.

An early inkling that there was another way came one day in a reading group I was part of. We were working through excerpts from Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. At that time I had no particular opinion for or against Freud, regarding him only as a great thinker—or so I’d heard. I went in expecting to learn some things, and I did, but what surprised me was a growing feeling that not only did I not agree with this guy, I thought I could make a pretty good case against what he was claiming—not a scholarly, publishable case, but a personal case, one that would allow me to file Freud’s thoughts in the “important and interesting though wrong” folder. There were many things in that folder, but this was the first time I had decided for myself to file something there, rather than being told to do it by some smart guy I trusted.

I’d like to say that was a turning point, but it was really only a starting point. For the next fifteen years I continued to embrace other people’s thinking, to seek out people whose thinking was worthy of embracing. That led to a string of disappointments. But the episodes were never as lengthy or as damaging as they could have been, because despite my best efforts I could no longer adopt someone else’s thinking wholesale. I knew that I was capable of evaluating ideas and claims for myself, no matter how lofty the source. I also knew that it was lazy and irresponsible not to do so. Somewhere along the way I learned that it was actually a satisfying thing to do. And eventually I had done enough groundwork to discover that I could go wandering through minefields that were less explored but more potent than the well-tended Victorian gardens where celebrity teachers like to graze their flocks.

I can’t exactly recommend that folks set their sights on playing Notre Dame. It’s not a quick fix but a hard slog, life is short and there are other profitable ways to spend your time. And if you take 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 as a life passage (“aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one”), then there are many paths you can walk fruitfully and safely with only a basic knowledge of how God’s ecology is constructed—and that basic knowledge is easily available.

But for those who fancy themselves thinkers (I do) and intend to devote a good portion of their energies to exploring and understanding God’s ecology in some depth (I did, and still do), then I’d recommend making Notre Dame the standard, as a prophylactic against the lures of mediocrity. There are more than enough Christians around to make insularity a temptation, to deny that what goes on outside our circles possesses any value or quality, to think that our own culture is inherently, self-evidently superior, that any apparent weakness when comparisons are made can only be illusions. If we manage to convince ourselves that third-rate thought and action is acceptable and even preferable simply because it is Christian … well, there are a lot of third-rate thinkers and actors eager to cultivate that attitude, even make a comfortable living from it.

Rules are overrated

What would a massively busy traffic intersection look like if there were no traffic lights, no lane markings, no rules at all as to how to proceed? There is at least one such intersection, in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Here’s what it looks like.

If you’re interested in the details of how this works, click on the gear icon at lower right, then set speed to 0.25 — that seems to slow pedestrians down to a normal walking pace.