Monday, May 14, 2012

Wheeling to attack my own flank ...but it's still my own.

I'm back from the alcohol-fueled etc. across the Midwest, having spent quite a bit of time with stepson (18 hours in a car is quite a bit, even with a college guy as delightful and pleasant as this one), and visited a total of eight bookstores, including the marvelous Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green, OH, where I gave a reading/signing and seemed to be pretty well-received, even by my brother, who is a notoriously tough crowd.  I visited a number of Barnes and Nobles because they have the excellent taste to keep my Daybreak series perpetually in stock (and some of them actually have small displays of Losers in Space, apparently for a summer reading program), and those were very pleasant places, signed the copy of Losers in Space at The Bookworm in Omaha, and discovered there is still a surviving Books-A-Million in Perrysburg, Ohio, and it's a really nice one.  I ate various kinds of home cookin', saw people I hadn't seen in a while, and reminded myself that it's a big country and I like quite a bit of it.

So now with a little luck I'm going to be resuming more regular blogging, sort of where I left off, getting back to things like global warming, dirty jokes, and fourness, and one fairly good prompt for it was a long letter from an old writer buddy who happens to be fairly conservative, and who, bless his open-minded heart, has been wading through my bit of left-leaning electoral propaganda,  Raise the Gipper!  He firmly believed he had cracked the secret code, or I had secretly cracked, and that I was now on his side of things, because he thought I was being far rougher on liberals than on conservatives.  I think the answer is of some general interest so I've shorn out the purely personal stuff ("How's things with Binky and Popo?  Remember that time that involved the bathtub, the Jehovah's Witness, and Crazy Randy?  I saw Morf the Dishwasher yesterday and he said hi and all the kids are fine," and so forth).  and here's that more or less general interest part, about why a conservative reading the thing might decide I had stealthed in a conservative message (I don't agree with him, but I see what he's talking about, so this is more about why he'd think that than about why he shouldn't):

I'll start with what I think is a pretty good analogy: if you read the comments for a few months on Trudeau's Doonesbury  page, you'll discover regular accusations by one liberal or another that Trudeau has sold out and is now a crypto-rightie, and also occasional notes from conservatives saying, about one strip or another "See!  See! Told you you should be one of us!"  Generally that happens whenever he depicts soldiers and veterans sympathetically, or when he aims particular mockery at various trends that conservatives deplore, or sometimes when one of his more clueless leftist characters is on stage.  I do recall that long ago when Jonny Hart's B.C. was not yet heavy-duty evangelical,  liberals sometimes thought he was turning liberal and conservatives that he was betraying them, usually because Hart was a fairly strong backer of women's rights.  I have no data but I wouldn't be at all surprised if political strips like Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, L'il Abner, and Pogo got similar reactions at one time or another in their long runs in the papers.

Or analogy 2, straight back to the source in Western culture: Aristophanes was, we can be quite sure, a conservative, indeed by 5th c. Athenian standards a right-wing curmudgeon.  It runs all through his plays, from his attacks on the war with Sparta (conservatives were generally pro-Sparta and saw the war as unnecessary) through his various ways of satirizing the democratic politicians (especially those who wanted to broaden the franchise).  He blazes away at Socrates's radicalism in Clouds and stands foursquare and then some for old style Aeschylean drama against that upstart melodramatist Euripides in Frogs.

But he's also the author of Lysistrata, which nearly every drama student with pacifist and/or feminist leanings loves, because not only does it imply that war is senseless, it suggests strongly that men are particularly stupid on the subject because they have dicks.

So pulling all those analogies together, your reasonable question about just whose side I'm on is I think produced by one major factor:

Satirists, as satirists, aren't actually on anyone's side.  

We're kind of more freelance snipers.  The fundamental message of satire is that the struggle against absurdity is futile, nothing is really worthy of being taken seriously, and that every earnest, dedicated Preserver or Grower  (to use the terms from Raise the Gipper!) needs its pants yanked down and its wee-wee pointed at and giggled about.

This is not as popular a point of view as one might think, as every  twelve year old with a smart mouth used to learn in junior high school.  Hence, if there's a great big honking target right next to one, how can one resist slipping a blade into it, especially if it is on one's own side? (It's easier to reach and their back is right there).

Then too, fiction writers often see the things we love more accurately, and tend to keep them close to us, and accuracy makes for better jokes. This is one reason, apart from a generally less vulgar and hateful climate about ethnicity, why generic jokes about the general smelliness/stupidity of various ethnic groups (whoever cleans the toilets or collects the garbage  in your time and place tend to be elected the butt of them) are mercifully on the fade – they just aren't funny, for the most part .  (I'm thinking here of things like the original light bulb joke, the punch line of which is "one to hold it and four to turn the ladder"; or the one about why They are so expensive in cannibal restaurants —"Have you ever tried to clean one?"—and those sort of insults that can be aimed at any group that is unable to defend itself and is currently stuck in jobs nobody wants.)

On the other hand, the precisely targeted right-on-a-sore-spot jokes that are told within the group are still circulating because their sting is part of the appeal; satire is aggressive humor and it is much more aggressive with the stiletto than it is with the ball bat.  Hence, for example, if you browse through the "Shit X Say"  videos on Youtube, you can all but instantly sort out the ones that were made by people who are X or know X well; they're a scream if you know X and incomprehensible otherwise.

It's simply easier to hit your own side, and even if you're mainly aiming at the other, when the satirist's urge to bombard your own flank strikes, your fire is likely to be both more accurate and more creative.

That also explains a difference in the reader.  When the reader leans opposite the satirist, it's probably going to happen that the reader will find the mockery of his/her own side is heavy handed, crude, repetitive, and a bit stupid, because after all there are only so many root-gags about any given side; but the jokes about the satirist's own side (and the reader's enemy) will seem fresher because the reader is less likely to have heard them to the point of being tired.

And also there's something about the structure of satire that positions the attacks on one's own side into higher visibility: Many satires are some version of Candide, or of  Frogs or Clouds, or most of Moliere (or to get more contemporary, of Forrest Gump, Tully Bascombe,  Leo Bloom, or Truman Burbank).  Very often the nominal protagonist is a naive young person (very often male, which may or may not be interesting, but is certainly the convention for the last few centuries) who is just after a few mundane goals like a good job and a happy marriage,  determined to do right and believing the best of people.  This hapless but well-meaning and sincere goof stumbles into the chamberpot of folly and evil that the satirist is targeting,  catches his foot in it, falls out the open window, has it dumped over him, and then is plunged into it repeatedly until, wiser and less innocent, he's allowed to have some sort of happy ending.  And that sort of character has to at least start out on, and maybe remain on, the side the satirist is targeting.  Which would explain how Joe Loinaudroit got into Raise the Gipper! and why he gets more viewpoint time than anyone else.

Why is that such a common trick?  Well, off the top of my head, it has to do with
• comic potential for pratfalls (a naive hero will run into stuff where one who is already knowing will either avoid it or look stupid),
• being a valuable Bob for dialogue (people can explain "as you should have known, Bob ...")
• maintaining someone likeable, since satire generally likes no one very much and most readers want to like someone,
•creating a pseudo-happy ending (the world is full of fools led by knaves, but at least the nice people got together), which again can make satire bearable.

The great satires that don't use that structure are very often the really bleak and bitter ones (Ben Jonson's Volpone and The Alchemist come to mind, as does most of Joe Orton), which are sort of the brussels sprouts of the entertainment world – done just right they please a few discriminating palates, otherwise they're cabbage-flavored ball bearings.

And the short political satires that were my model surprisingly often use that trick.  So, genre-jammin' dude that I am, when I decided to write a short contemporary political satire about one absurd premise, I grabbed for the standard toolkit, and Joe was born.  He was, as you say, an honest conservative, because he needed to be honest to make the satire work and conservative to believably go where I needed to send him.