Thursday, June 7, 2012
Somebody's joking and perhaps it's funny
One of the nice things about a reputation for writing satire is that people will sometimes assume you're joking in bad taste rather than deliberately offending them. This can save anything from lunch with your mother to, literally, your life. The drawback, of course, is that if you ever do want to deliberately offend someone, you can pretty much blow your nose on their shirt, pee on their date's leg, and call them a Nazi goat-rapist and people will just laugh a little nervously, as if you'd announced you were going to let one at your seventh grade class party.
Most of the time, though, the ambiguity is a wonderful thing; you can draw what you see as truthfully* as you like and leave people to guess at your intentions, and if they don't always get yours, they almost always will connect with some of their own. Whether you are encouraging smug self-satisfaction in people to whose parties you would like to be invited, or dangerously jacking the blood pressure of some irredeemable asshole, or just admiring your own skill in drawing what you see, there's a lot to be said for the life of the satirist.**
Chapter 4 of Raise the Gipper! begins with a quote from John Ruskin:
"... riches are a power like that of electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour's pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you; the degree of power it possesses depends accurately upon the need or desire he has for it,—and the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist's sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor."
And a bit later in the chapter, a right-wing-think-tanker, boring the crap out of a young journalist at a meet-and-greet, explains that...
"There is very little value in being rich if no one is poor. Material necessities, piffle. If one is careful about money and has even a low‑end full time job, one can live without going hungry, or being too cold or hot, and though one might have to husband resources carefully, go through a bankruptcy or two, perhaps delay treatment a bit too long and lose a limb or an organ, even manage some sort of medical coverage as well. And in that regard one will be fully equal to the also not‑hungry, not‑cold, not‑sick rich. Better off, in fact, because people worry about the whether the poor are getting the things they need, but no one worries about whether the rich are; as for compassionate concern and interest in their well‑being, the rich live in a vast empty desert. Unfair, of course, as so many things in life are unfair, particularly for the well off, but nonetheless true. So what incentive does anyone then have to become rich?
"And of course the answer is simple, and, as we have been saying, obvious: a high net worth leads to a strong self worth because the affluent are treated as if they are worth a great deal. If one has enough money, one's obvious inferiors will all be leaping to do one's bidding; just watch the behavior of any cocktail waitress, car rental clerk, or gardener, or for the pleasure of true oneupsoneship, complain about the service, demand to see a manager, and watch the lengths to which they will go so as not to displease one. So the question, of course, is how the political system is to ensure an adequate supply of the right sort of favor seekers and fawners so that one will have some adequate reward for all the trouble of becoming rich."***
Now, a couple of rightie friends have chided me about that, and some other material in that chapter and elsewhere in the book. One very perceptive one also noted that there are similar themes in Losers in Space and in my novels about Giraut Leones, which are sort of linked by being set in a very post-scarcity**** world. And those conservatives had, universally, the same reaction: Come on, you know it's not like that at all.
Well, is it "not like that?" At all?
I might point out that the incessant Tea Party chant of All we are saying, is "Pay your own bills," rather strongly characterizes the people who lack adequate health care as ne'er do wells, losers, and undeserving – and thus, by implication, the chanters as the superior people here. Furthermore, in a way exactly parallel to the way the abolition of segregated drinking fountains and bus seats greatly reduced the acceptability of expressing casual or petty racist sentiments, the enactment of a genuine national health plan in the United States would mean that within a generation, most of the class markers of early health care would diminish or disappear. Are people seriously suggesting that it has never occurred to anyone that medical care for the people who don't currently have it will erase or blur many of the visual signifiers of class?
And if the symptoms of early poor health care are not the visual signifiers of class, then why, in pop entertainment, do costumers and designers express "unattractive in a funny way," "comic because s/he had no business being attracted to a major character," and frequently "malevolent for its own sake," all of which have obvious and brutal implications about class, by displaying some of the consequences of a lifetime of poor health care? Villains and clowns have bad teeth, cheap plastic horn-rims rather than fashionable glasses/contacts/Lasik, obesity, the early aging brought on by poor or no skin care, the muscle-bound bent body a person gets from heavy repetitive labor (as opposed to the sleek flexible body that a person gets from the gym or the yoga studio). In the entertainment world, pretty people know their place (and if they're pretty enough, it's at the top); and they became pretty because they had enough health care when they were young enough.
I might point out that one of the right-wingers who has griped to me about all this is someone I know personally, who has a trick of making it clear the tip is going to be large if the waitress is attractive, and, if "Shut the fuck up" is not firmly but gently explained to him, will babble happily about all the cleavages and crotches his well-paraded tips have caused to be revealed to him.*****
Or in short, when conservatives say it's not about class, and that class is not about preserving differentials, I find I want to ask, now who's talking silly to get a laugh? And they don't even get paid for it.
*Which is not at all the same thing as realistically; compare almost any competent political caricature with a photograph of the same person, and you'll see the difference between telling the truth as you see it and recording the facts. There's a place for both facts and truth, but any quick random perusal of Congressional Record will show you which is scarcer and therefore more valuable.
**There may be more to be said for the lives of people in other occupations, such as pornography casting director, musical genius, Roman emperor, world-famous athlete, eugenic culling operative, cult leader, or decadent hereditary billionaire, but as it happens, satirist is the one I know something about.
*** I am showing off here, I think – that is, I know I'm trying to show off but as to whether there is anything here to show off, you must decide that for yourself. The reason why I think it's show-off-worthy is that the hardest thing to satirize is dullness; to depict a person being boring and pointless, one must sooner or later show some of the boring pointlessness, just as you depict a racist by having him make racist remarks or a sexually attractive woman by depicting some combination of her appearance and male-or-lesbian behavior around her. The difference is that depicting racism may outrage the reader, and depicting sexiness may either titillate or outrage the reader (please, dear god, let there be no readers who are titillated by racism), and people will keep right on reading through outrage or titillation and even hope there will be more of them, but if a depiction of a bore bores the reader, the writer is truly excrementally devoid of good fortune and at the headwaters of the tributary without means of propulsion. (Note the anxious use of jargon-parody here because of further fears on this point). Anyway, I think I did a pretty good job of depicting something that would be horribly dull in real life as something to be laughed at. Those of you who were bored, why are you still reading?
****and thus post-economic; economics is about manipulating scarcity.
*****He attributes this to his tipping custom; I suspect strongly that if you stare without ceasing at a woman who is working physically (and waiting tables is pretty physical, as anyone who has done it can tell you) you just never miss the rare moment when something is accidentally exposed, and what the tip is buying him is not a deliberate flash, but toleration that allows him to sit there and stare like a zoo lion who can see the gazelle enclosure.