#27 On satire

Dear Mat,

I’ve tried lamely over the years to make fun of leaders for doing stupid things. Pretty standard really. I’ve always felt that something like, say, mutually assured destruction ((Re: your last letter. Your second claim about doomsday was that “we’re most likely to die to a Black Swan, so we’d probably not realise it was coming”. But I gotta say, although we obviously can’t predict Black Swans because they will include unknown unknowns, that doesn’t imply we’re more likely to be wiped out by one of them than some more mundane reason like nuclear annihilation. Sure, there are things we can’t anticipate or prepare for (save for diversifying our portfolio by colonising other planets as you point out), but that doesn’t negate the point that there are known knowns that could kill the fuck out of us.)) is so insane that maybe very harsh mockery is the way to tackle the apathy and the status quo bias on this issue. Ditto for climate change, wars, treatment of refugees or any other thing where people in power need to have their actions subjected to a much harsher burden of proof.

Satire for me is an extension of scepticism or falsification. Ridicule everything and the really stupid ideas will sink and those left floating will be, not perfect, but passable. Obviously you share this view as well, hence the momentous and world-historical publication of our satire manifesto this week. But does satire work?

Take Trump. I feel like he wasn’t actually satirised properly. The partisan political comedy (not true satire) of the likes of Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and John Oliver arguably served merely to polarise audiences ((And of course there’s also the possibility that a robust, non-partisan, satirical culture would have weeded out the lacklustre field of Democrats as well.)). More importantly it wasn’t quite funny enough. Why wasn’t Trump hit where it hurts? Why wasn’t the knife really stuck into his ego, the fact that he’s an effete billionaire who’s never worked a day, that he’s a whiner, that he’s a conman, that he’s an atheist (probably) — things that Trump supporters care about? Instead there was a whole bunch of stuff about how crazy, xenophobic, backward and unconventional his ideas are: things liberals care about, kind of.

My amateur historical investigations leave the question of satire’s effectiveness wide open. Certainly the Nazis weren’t brought down by jokes. But then again once they had any power they intimidated everyone into not making jokes. Before they were at that level they were accorded a fair amount of respect by some and treated as a harmless joke — a joke not worth making a big deal of — by others. I guess ideally satire would have prevented them ever getting to power. Maybe.

I’ve rarely seen real satire actually prosper. Full-blown satire should in theory be a blunderbuss that fires indiscriminately in all directions. Hopefully the only ideas or people left standing will be the least bad ones. In this sense satire is an internal regulator of the least bad system, democracy. It’s strange, therefore, that in countries with pretty solid freedom of speech, there’s still a restraint, a sense of decorum, even in satirical spaces. Why?