Tag Archives: teaching satire

“A University Course” on the Value of Satire in a Crazy World

Life, fundamentally, is absurd.  Every day we encounter opinions, actions, experiences, or events that make us wonder whether we are crazy, whether the world is — or whether there is sanity to be found anywhere.

Satire provides a vehicle for holding such contradictory world views in simultaneous suspension — a way of shifting the ground to contain the uncontainable, to allow the simultaneous expression of unresolvable and sometimes ambiguous opposites.  While some argue that students struggle with recognizing satire or analyzing it successfully, I think that the struggle is more than worth it — and I find that once students move away from the idea that there is one right answer, they truly enjoy the power of satire to open their minds to new possibilities, uncertainties, or perspectives, without the overwhelming despair that sometimes comes from a “serious” or “straight” presentation of difficult material or moral conundrums.   As I have argued in a previous posting, the power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh painfully, or laugh it off — if we so choose.  Because sometimes, laughing is the only way that we can keep moving, keep functioning in an upside-down world.

In the late spring of 1923, W. E. B. Du Bois found himself in such a place.  About six months earlier, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill “died” in the Senate, the victim of a filibuster and a deeply divided nation, after four years of Congressional debate and re-working of the bill in committee and on the floor of the House.  The bill had been introduced by Congressman Dyer of Missouri in 1918, and its defeat was marked that spring by a lynching in his home state, the communal and extra-legal murder of James T. Scott in Columbia, Missouri.  Scott was an African American employee of the University of Missouri, and the lynching was noted nationally for the presence of students — and particularly, 50 female students — though reports state that none of them actually “took part,” but were spectators.  While Du Bois had often responded to previous lynchings with a trademark sarcasm and satirical outlook, the defeat of the Dyer Bill and the lynching of Scott seem to bring a new level intensity to his satire — a satire marked by both despair and desperate hope.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois's opening salvo.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois’s opening salvo.

The cover of that June’s issue offers no clue as to the intensity of the subject matter on its opening page.  The drawing is peaceful, a mother and her daughter with flowers against an open and non-threatening backdrop of hills, trees, and sky.  It is an intimate moment, and the mother frankly and calmly returns the spectator’s gaze, while the little girl seems off in her own thoughts, undisturbed by the watcher.  The title of the magazine, The Crisis, jars a little, its meaning in opposition to the peaceful, domestic feeling of the artwork.

But that moment of dissonance becomes cacophony when the page is turned, revealing a scathing and brilliantly, horrifically, and shockingly funny satire entitled “A University Course in Lynching,” penned by W. E. B. Du Bois.

The page is clearly marked “Opinion” in bold letters rivaling the title of magazine, Du Bois opens the editorial by proclaiming that “We are glad to note that the University of Missouri has opened a new course in Applied Lynching.  Many of our American Universities have long defended the institution, but they have not been frank or brave enough actually to arrange a mob murder so that students could see it.”  He notes that the lynching of James T. Scott took place in broad daylight and that at least 50 women were in attendance, most of them students.  Du Bois goes on to satirically praise the University’s efforts in a style that recalls Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”:  “We are very much in favor of this method of teaching 100 per cent Americanism; as long as mob murder is an approved institution in the United States, students at the universities should have a first-hand chance to judge exactly what a lynching is.”

He describes the case in brief detail, stating that “everything was as it should be” for a teachable moment.  Scott “protested his innocence” against that charge that he had “lured” and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl “to his last breath.”  The father has “no doubt” of Scott’s guilt, but “deprecates” the violence of the mob.  What Du Bois does not say here was that the girl’s father, an immigrant professor at the University, actually tried to speak up and stop the lynching, but chose to be silent when the crowd threatened to lynch him as well.  Du Bois concludes:

Here was every element of the modern American lynching.  We are glad that the future fathers and mothers of the West saw it, and we are expecting great results from this course of study at one of the most eminent of our State Universities.

Suddenly, this little girl and her mother are in a different world.

A world upside-down.  A world in which communal murder is officially condoned, due process is suspended, and lynching is not a phenomenon of a wicked South, but of the West.

My students notice different things every time I teach this satire.  Partly because Du Bois’s piece also mentions a lynching at the southern University where I teach, my students often focus on that aspect, on the power of the satire to enlighten them about history they did not know, history that hits close to home.  This week, however, my students focused Continue reading →

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Teaching American Satire: A New Piece for the Classroom from the Onion

It is fun to teach humor. Laughter keeps students awake more effectively than most things. The promise of relief or diversion from the cultural and personal stresses implicit in all humor (and explicit in much of it), to my mind, not only makes for more pleasant classroom discussions but also helps to make those discussions more productive. This I believe.

But I have my doubts when it comes to exploring satire. I have revealed my misgivings in this spot before (Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically); see also Sharon McCoy’s excellent response: Embracing the Ambiguity of Satire).

Within the overall umbrella of my courses on American Humor, satire demands its space, and rightfully so. But it’s harder to get through the material, and methinks many students pick up on my hesitations here and there.  I don’t mind the difficulty factor, it’s the pain of the subject matter that wears me out. The suffering underlying much of humor in general stands foregrounded in satire.  This is the nature of the art form. Satire cannot hide its rage, or its hopelessness, and as a result there is very little room for the pleasant relief of laughter. Satire is rarely funny “ha ha,” or funny “weird.” It’s just painful.

I have just read what I consider to be one of the most engaging pieces of satire on political and cultural intransigence that I have encountered since first reading Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” a work by the American master that is perfect both in its conciseness and its artistic vision.

Image for Twain's War Prayer

Twain’s short piece, which has a stranger translate the prayers of a people on the verge of war, is powerful for its accuracy as a comment on the human capacity for making war in the name of god and its recognition that the commentary is timeless because the war making machine is timeless, and unending. Students will always study it because they will always understand its targets. The Onion has just provided another piece that seems, to me, worthy of being taught alongside Twain’s work.

It is an “Editorial Opinion” that first appeared on August 13, 2013 (Issues 49.33). The title is: “The Onion” Encourages Israel and Palestine Not to Give a Single, Goddamn Inch.”

Announcing New Peace Talks

Here is a link to the article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-onion-encourages-israel-and-palestine-not-to-g,33473/

Standing in opposition to “the international community” which has pleaded with the two sides to meet to discuss peace, The Onion satirically asks the sides to remain steadfast and persist in absolutist positions:

“Israelis and Palestinians, you must accept nothing short of total victory against those who threaten your religion and way of life. Sacrificing just one of your ideals would at this point be tantamount to compete and utter failure.”

The writers of The Onion then follow this assertion with details that simply recount the history of the last 60 years (and by implication 2,000 years?) in four concise sentences:

“If a settlement is built, you must attack it. If a settlement is attacked, you must rebuild it. Rocks must be met with bullets; bullets must be met with rocket fire; rocket fire must be met with helicopter assaults. This is the only noble way forward for either side.”

Noble. Forward. The writers know, and readers know, the words “noble” and “forward” serve as the key bits of irony here.  There is nothing noble in the bloodshed, nothing forward looking about continued intransigence.

Building on this sardonic tone, the satire gets heavier and heavier, and the reader wants relief while at the same time knowing that none is forthcoming. As with Twain’s work, the writers are devoted to the point of the satire, which is the grotesque pointlessness of continued aggression. The secondary target of the piece, though, may also be the ever-present demands from the international community to urge the parties to sue for peace. Pointless. I don’t really believe that peace efforts are pointless, by the way, but it seems the accurate thing to say here in the context of The Onion satire, the art. If we are to teach such aggressive and unnerving satire, we must be ready to accept the full brunt of the hopelessness the piece addresses. And thus figure out a way to help students talk about it. I am open to suggestions.

I just know that as I read this, I wanted an outlet, some peek from behind the curtain from the jester. But it is not there because there is no peace ready to peek out from behind any curtains either. The article ends concisely and with a key repetition:

“Remain steadfast. Remain strong. And never give up your noble fight, even if it takes several more generations.”

That, my gentle readers, is first-rate satire. It is exhausting and no fun at all.

Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire: A Response to Jeff Melton

Last year, Jeff Melton wrote a thoughtful meditation on teaching satire for Humor in America.   I had started drafting a response, but because of life’s ironies, I ended up in the oncology ward instead.

Context is everything.

Since my own sense of humor tends to be firmly grounded in what might be called the painfully funny, I do not share Jeff’s concerns about whether the serious and the humorous are diametrically opposed, or whether the study of humor needs some sense of legitimacy for my colleagues or students.  For me, the serious is funny, and being funny is serious business.  Without laughter, I am not sure how any of us would get through the day.

Satire is a particular form of humor that uses exaggeration, ridicule, derision, and exposure of contradictions to criticize or censure human folly or vice.  As such, its foundations are always serious.  But those foundations are often ambiguous, ambivalent, and complex, rather than possessing the single focus that satire is often assumed to have.  The power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh it off — if we so choose.

It is for this reason that, unlike many other colleagues, I was not disturbed by the findings of LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam (2009), in their study, “The Irony of Satire.”  In this study, the researchers showed a clip from The Colbert Report to groups of students who were self-identified political conservatives or liberals.  The study found that while both groups found Colbert riotously funny, they disagreed about the nature of that humor and his genuine targets.  Conservatives tended to see that Colbert “only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.”  In other words, the participants interpreted the humor through the lens of their own ideological beliefs.

What a surprise.

No, seriously.  I mean it.  What do any of us do?  We interpret events through a lens composed of our experience and our belief systems, critically assessing how the new event fits in with our experience, and dismissing aspects that our own experience denies.  Satire, like all critical thinking, offers the possibility for change, but it does not guarantee that others will see it our way, whatever that way might be.

But this does not mean satire is impotent, or that any of us have to stop with looking through our own limited ideological lenses.  For me, the power of the “Irony of Satire” study was that it showed opposing interpretations without trying to reconcile them, or to privilege one over the other.  Yet numerous (unintentionally funny) popular news stories about the study tried to assert defensively that while the researchers pretended to draw no conclusions, clearly they knew what everyone knows, that Stephen Colbert really means  . . . whatever the writer’s particular political ideology wants him to mean.  The plethora of passionate and diametrically opposing responses both during the study and its aftermath should make us think.

To me, this stimulation of critical thought is the study’s real power as a teaching tool or a theoretical tool — for a close reading of the study shows that the researchers do carefully report their findings without judging their participants.  And equally clearly, the different popular news stories fall all over themselves trying to assert that their personal view is the “correct” one and that not only does Colbert agree with them but the researchers really do, too.  But they cannot all be right any more than the study’s participants can.

Or can they?  The study asks us to think it through.  And so does satire itself.

Good satire does not limit its targets to the service of a particular political ideology or reduce an issue with complex contributing factors to the responsibility of a single villain.  Neither does a good satirist.  As irresistible targets, neither conservatism nor liberalism has a monopoly.   Satire — to be effective satire — must skewer pretension, folly, vice, and contradiction wherever it lies, regardless of political affiliation or personal preference.

And so, when Jon Stewart of The Daily Show showed reluctance in June 2011 to publicly attack a longtime friend, Anthony Weiner, after the exposure of his sexting scandal, Stewart had an obligation to turn his satiric lens on himself.  In a hilarious “press conference,” Stewart takes full responsibility for his reluctance and his lack of action, even momentarily and parodically stepping down from his job and letting John Oliver take his place.  The satire is pointed, against himself as well as his friend, and it is personally painful — literally so, as Stewart accidentally cuts himself during the course of the skit, bad enough to require stitches.  And then there were the multiple follow-up episodes to make up for the lapse, like “The Dong Goodbye” about “the wedge between the Democratic party and their constituents” or  the “Wangover” episode.  Regardless of politics, regardless of friendship even, the satirist had to proceed.

But does satire alone have the power to change deeply held convictions or topple governments?

Of course not.  Or war would have become obsolete long ago.  And we all can see that there is little danger of this happening.

So why do we want to believe so passionately that “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand”?   The quotation is attributed to Mark Twain, and he certainly wrote it, but the context is far from unambiguous.  It appears in “The Chronicles of Young Satan” and is put in the mouth of the nephew of the big guy himself, sort of a Beelzebub, Jr.  Appearing as the quotation does in the midst of a scathing and complex satire, it cries out to be read — well — satirically. Continue reading →