Is Satire A Dying Art?


Please visit, from where I stole this image.

I just watched a David Frost documentary about television satire in Britain and America. Frost is of course an alumni of the first British satire programme, That Was The Week That Was (TW3), which ran from 1962-3 in the UK and from 1964-5 in the US. In both cases it survived for just two seasons before a nervous establishment shut it down.

I’ve always thought good satire should go for the jugular, in a moment that’s shocking, funny, and true, all at the same time. That was certainly true of TW3 and the splendidly splenetic Spitting Image, which brought a Frankensteinian element to satire. After that it seems to have lost its bite in the UK, though Saturday Night Live is still going strong in the US.  Tina Fey is Sarah Palin, and more people probably formed an opinion about her based on Fey’s interpretation than from exposure to Palin. With the later addition of The Daily Show and Bill Maher, satire is in good shape in the US.

Here I’m not so sure. For example, would this song and dance routine from the final episode of TW3 in 1963 make it onto the screens today? It’s inspired by the murder of a white civil rights worker in Mississippee.

We’d be embarrassed both by what is coyly referred to as the N-word, and the black-faced minstrels, as much as the explicit lyrics. In fact, the BBC broadcast The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1958-1978. Here’s Part 1 of the last show.

And Part 2. Go on, you know you want to click on it.

Public figures were pilloried unmercifully in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The gentleman below, in this cartoon by James Gillray, is the Prince of W(h)ales.

James Gillray's A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion (1792)

This tradition of robust satire temporarily found a home on television. Now it’s returned to its original home in political cartoons in newspapers. Steve Bell of the Guardian is the foremost exponent of going for the jugular. Rather than maunder on forever, I’ll finish this post with one of his favourite targets.

Pope Tony

Emission Impossible

One of the upsides (and there aren’t many) of the Mail Online is that it sometimes posts quirky sciencey stories when there’s not enough right-wing, immigrant-bashing, foreigner-hating, Little Englander bollocks to fill the “news” section of the site. That’s the wide bit to the left of the sidebar of shame.

This one is quite charming – “Sperm have ‘an appalling sense of direction’ crashing into walls and each other in race to the egg”, complete with a photo of stock cars crashing into each other to make the point. While I’m considerably miffed that the Mail pre-emptively stole the obvious choice for a photo to head this blog post, I have to admit they’ve done well with the article. I can’t vouch for its scientific accuracy, or when the research took place, since there’s no link to the study. But that doesn’t matter. As entertainment it’s already done the job.

Woody Allen has been here before, in his role as an inept sperm in the 1972 film, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Here’s the entire coital sequence, from fettuccine to apres-sex cigarette.

April Fooled

The Guardian really had me going with this story – Cameron asks Shaun Ryder to advise on class and help to detox Tories. I’m not usually that credulous, but the track record of the Coalition thus far has blunted my sensibilities. Particularly in the last week or so, with the Tories blatantly trying to score political points in response to the proposed tanker drivers’ strike. Their call for motorists to keep their vehicles topped up, and stockpile jerry cans of petrol in dangerous conditions, only created panic buying and shortages before the strike. Not only that, it brought down a firestorm of criticism from the normally supine right-wing press. Well done, chaps. More seriously, a Yorkshire woman was badly burnt while trying to decant petrol in her kitchen.

And  David Cameron’s desperate scrabble to position himself as a man of the people vis-a-vis the humble Cornish pasty is such a risible spectacle that I was prepared for anything. Not knowing who this Shaun Ryder is certainly helped sustain the illusion of truth. After all, it’s not unknown for musicians to occasionally go doolally. Rick Mustaine of Megadeth, has become a born again Christian, and now supports Rick Santorum. Mustaine is also a Birther. So there are terrible precedents.

But the devil’s in the details of the Guardian story. Ryder’s recipe for transforming Call Me Dave into a man of the people involves brilliant wheezes like getting him into a Salford chippy. “Dave needs to be seen tucking into chips and gravy.”

It was the “We’re All Eating This Together!” T-shirt campaign, modeled by celebrities who I had never suspected of being closet Coalition fans, that finally alerted me to the hoax. The obviously photoshopped image of Call Me Dave eating a pasty was a big clue, but even then, I had a few minutes of appalled contemplation at having to stop watching the lovely Claudia Winkelman on The Film Programme. And David Tennant! How could the Doctor be a secret Tory? For a moment, my universe turned upside down, and I was grateful that Matt Smith wasn’t among the T-shirt models – at least I’d be able to watch the next series of Doctor Who.

A brilliant April Fools’ Day from the Guardian. Here’s a list of their pranks from 1974.

Missing the Point by a Mile: Stewart Lee and the Observer Commentariat

Stewart Lee, stand-up comedian, has been writing an Observer column for the past few months. Part of the pleasure is seeing how many of the commentariat think he’s serious. He does make serious points, but they’re cloaked in absurdist humour that makes categorical statements appear as if he actually believes them. Some readers get extremely offended and even try to correct his mischievous misinformation. I think he understands this and consciously writes his material as a snare for the ones who won’t get it.

This week’s article by Stewart Lee – Shame on you, Alex Salmond, for selling us out to the Bullingdon Club – is subtitled, The loss of 5.5 million Scots would mean 5.5 million fewer voices to say no to Cameron’s cronies. Fair point, now that Scottish independence is front and centre of the political parade ground. Bit of a back-hander, though, implying as it does that the English are so thick they’ll vote against their own interests every time. To be fair, he also attacks Alex Salmond and makes surrealistically egregious slurs against Scotland. I particularly enjoyed, “It was that treacly Scottish heroin that finally freed my imagination to make me the important artist I am today.”

Some of the material in the article is a retread of this video of Stewart Lee talking about national identity. The article’s brilliant, as much for some of the baffled, spluttering responses as for the content. And the video is hilarious. His Glasgow nightclub audience has a sense of humour, unlike some of the people commenting on the article.

A Temple to Atheism? Dear God, No!

I have been driven to prayer by faux philosopher, Alain de Botton’s idea for a “temple to atheism” in the City of London, as outlined in this Guardian article. Why does he want this temple? Because he thinks Richard DawkinsChristopher Hitchens, and other militant atheists are a “destructive force.” In other words, he wants a kinder, gentler atheism that stresses positivity and goodness, with an awe-inspiring building to evoke the correct response.

I think most people seek positivity and goodness in their own way, atheists and believers alike. Including Dawkins, who recognizes that the lies and institutionalised power of religion are the enemies of reason, and any happiness derived from religion depends on studiously ignoring the reality of how the world works. I don’t think Dawkins et al are being overly zealous in combatting what would be insane ideas if someone had only invented them just a moment ago. With hundreds or thousands of years of tradition behind them, they have accumulated an entirely undeserved authority. We think Scientology is utter bollocks, a cynical, money-making scam, but time will turn it into an established Truth.

That said, I part company with Dawkins in not thinking that religion will eventually succumb to the forces of reason, or that believers are influenced by everything in their holy books. Institutional religion has such deep roots in human societies that digging them all up is impossible – they’re like weeds, springing up where fear and longing meet a supernatural idea.

What makes this truth palatable is that we’re only human, and only give practical credence and expression to those parts of a holy book or political dogma that accord with the manners and mores of the society we inhabit. Obviously, it’s a chicken and egg situation, but societies do evolve in response to real events and real knowledge. Bad news if you live in a theocracy, because real knowledge is in short supply. For citizens of liberal democracies, religious institutions are generally more benign, their practiced doctrines more or less compatible with civilization. Even these societies have their fundamentalists, but they’re more likely to be marginalized. A glaring exception is the US, which has a thriving Christian Taliban, currently choosing the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

So I try to respond to people as fellow human beings, and refrain from criticizing their religious beliefs unless they bring them up, or behave in a completely unacceptable way. People are interesting and generally do the decent thing – I’d rather talk and try to understand where they’re coming from. I reserve my criticism and anger for the institutional coercion of secular societies and special pleading. Nobody should be exempt from secular laws.

This is the “temple” proposed by de Botton:

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Brilliant. Sounds like a really imaginative architectural project. I’d be proud to back something like that if only he didn’t tack the silly label of “temple to atheism” on it. Ask yourself, what does this project have to do with belief or non-belief? It’s about science, evolution, the whole glorious panoply of emerging life on earth. Isn’t that enough? And we already have such buildings. They’re called the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum among many others. The only way de Botton’s project could be a temple to atheism is if he installed an altar at its centre, housing an illuminated copy of The God Delusion. Even then, it would be pure idolatry.

The fact is that being religious does not preclude either respect for the scientific method or the well-established theories derived from it. Catholics, for example, accept the Big Bang and evolution, although they insist on a God somewhere in the process. By and large, only fundamentalists reject the basic tenets of science. By calling this a temple to atheism, he is in fact shutting the door in the faces of those believers who respect science. As atheists, we can’t afford to do this. We need all the help we can get to establish and maintain secular societies where both belief and non-belief are protected and tolerated.

As it happens, de Botton has already run into trouble with his daft label.

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well, d’uh!

Please read the Guardian article, which has all the meat on its bones. I hope there’s a cif article on the subject soon, so we can all pile in with comments.

Jesus and Mo: Storm in a Beer Mug?

Good news for University College London’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. They put this cartoon on a FaceBook page, advertising a society event, but the Student Union wanted it taken down. The atheists stuck to their guns, and the Student Union have now backed off. See the Guardian article for a complete account of the brouhaha.

So, a victory for freedom of expression. I’m genuinely surprised there was so much fuss about what is a rather charming cartoon about two friends having a pint together. How do I know they’re friends? Because the cartoon is the second frame in a strip. All 4 frames are drawn the same, but the first has the caption, Today Jesus, Mo, and the barmaid have pledged not to say anything which might cause one of them to be offended. The fourth frame has Mo saying, This is nice, isn’t it? Gentle satire on the stupidity of religious conflict, with a sideswipe at political correctness.

Jesus and Mo is a series. Behind the personae of verbally sparring college room-mates, they are the mouthpieces of Christianity and Islam. They also spend a lot of time in the pub, debating among themselves and with the barmaid, who always wins the argument.

Now let’s turn to a far nastier cartoon. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy is well-known, and I don’t need to rehash it here. The cartoon on the right is the most egregious of them all, and I’m including it only to illustrate my point.

To be completely clear, I’m a atheist, I think all religions are doctrinal nonsense, and none of them should be allowed any institutional power. No belief should be immune from criticism, and I firmly believe that no-one has the right not to be offended.

That said, the devil’s in the motivation. To my mind, the Danish cartoons spring from bigotry, as does the burqa ban in France. Just in case anyone should think I want to condemn Muslim women to living in a sack, there is provision for a fine and imprisonment if convicted of forcing them to wear it. See my previous blog post here for further thoughts on the subject.

It’s telling that while most newspapers recognized the bigotry, and did not reprint the Danish cartoons, the media that thrive on bigotry pounced on them with glee. I give you, reluctantly, Human Events, which glories in the likes of Ann CoulterNewt Gingrich, and Pat Buchanan. The last thing we need is propaganda.

Jesus and Mo, in contrast, is a humane take on religious belief, bringing it right back to human beings where it belongs. Better yet, it’s funny. Exactly what the debate needs, rather than hatred masquerading as fundamentalist principle.

Google Chrome Kicks Ass

First of all, a disclaimer.  This is not a tech article (for that, see below), but my experience of the browser wars.  I’m a huge fan of the Guardian’s Comment Is Free pages, because their writers cover pretty much every nuance of the human condition, from a celebration of the Krankies as swingers, through quirky subjects like limericks, to solid broadsheet articles on politics, religion, and society.  All with a liberal perspective and a certain wit in the writing that’s missing from other newspapers.  Like the Independent.  Worthy, but a bit stodgy.

I’ve been commenting on this largesse for several years, using Mozilla Firefox as a browser.  Not because of a critical assessment of its capabilities, of which I’m incapable, but because it’s open source, a rebel against the corporate machine.  Then, a few months ago, the Guardian introduced a couple of much-needed improvements to CIF.  The first is a preview function, for those us with a tendency to post without first checking grammar, punctation, and spelling.  Easy to do in the heat of debate, and extremely embarrassing when you realise there’s sod all you can do about it after the event.  So far, so good.

Another brilliant innovation is the respond function, which links your comment to a specific post, putting the username and link at the top of the post.  Before that you had to put it in yourself to get a specific poster’s attention: @soandso, with the date and time of posting.  Trouble is, it didn’t work with Firefox.  Or rather, it did if I disabled Adblock Plus.

That was non-negotiable.  I hate internet advertising like poison.  It’s like being trapped in a room with a horde of obnoxious spivs, all of them trying to grab your attention at once.  If I want to buy something, I’ll go and look for it.  So I had to find a new browser, one that would allow the respond function to work and still let me block all the advertising crap.  Lest you imagine the search was methodical and logical, think again.  If I dink around long enough, something’s bound to work right.  I have very little sense, however, of what steps took me to that happy conclusion.

Safari is already installed on my MacBook, so that was the obvious alternative.  Lo and behold!  It worked with its own Adblock extension.  I was well pleased, and transferred the toolbar bookmarks to save the trouble of switching browsers when I wanted extra information for a post.  I still loved Mozilla the best, and planned to use Safari only for CIF.  And yet there was was a fly in the ointment.  A small tic or mannerism in someone you like a lot can become so irritating over time that you have to break up rather than tolerate it any more.  Just so with the Safari/CIF interaction, and it wasn’t that small of a problem even to begin with, just something I thought I could live with.

CIF would crash after a fairly short time, under an hour, although it varied from session to session.  The only remedy was to clear cookies, empty cache, and reboot Safari.  When you’re in the full flow of eloquence, this sort of speed bump is really irritating, to the point where I couldn’t stand it any more.  Time to move on.

So I gave Google Chrome a try, and it was love at first sight.  Birds twittering, butterflies fluttering by, and so many fawns underfoot they were a danger to navigation.  Chrome was fast, smooth, with its own version of Adblock purring quietly in the background and slaughtering the ads with efficiency and pleasure.  Nary a glitch in the entire process.  I was chuffed pink, and plan on moving in with all my favourite bookmarks.  Sorry, Mozilla, it just didn’t work out.

Happy ending, then.  Apparently.  But with my luck, Chrome will probably turn out to be an axe murderer.

P.S.  For a proper discussion of the relative merits of the various browsers, please  visit the site where I stole the splendid graphic from: Explorer.