Thursday, October 02, 2003

Al Franken is a Big Fat Splotchy… What?

The claim seems to be that Al Franken writes satire. It’s a claim worth examining because it leads to deeper questions about Franken and liberals in general. And the answers to those questions are more illuminating than anything Franken offers in his so-called satire, which is also revealing.

First, I should explain I have had a lifelong interest in satire as a literary form. I’ve read the great practitioners of this art – Swift, Voltaire, Twain, Bierce, Waugh, Orwell – not just as a consumer of their ideas but as a student of their skills and techniques. I concede up front that I disagree with Franken’s politics; however, I have resisted giving in to my political reaction, which was to fight fire with fire by writing a satirical response of my own, because my intuition tells me there is more going on here than politics. Or perhaps there isn’t. At any rate there is something at work in Franken’s latest books which inclines me to reverse my field and fight fire with cold reason. Thus, this essay – an attempt to identify the elusive sources of my unease with Franken’s methods and results.

The ‘Limbaugh’ and ‘Lies’ books don’t strike me as satire. That’s my beginning point. Why? That’s the central mystery to be solved. They unquestionably employ some of the basic tools of satire, and much that conservatives find offensive in these works is nevertheless consistent with any good definition of satire. For example, the satirist has no obligation to be fair. He has the right to select his content, arbitrarily if he so chooses, and plant it into a context of his own making for the express purpose of making the familiar unfamiliar and the (seemingly) reasonable absurd. He can be outrageous, shocking, and offensive. He can be as heated as he wants, and he can even employ ad hominem attacks if he deems them useful, though there are undeniable risks associated with both heat and and ad hominem tactics. He has no obligation to be funny; George Orwell’s 1984 is brilliant satire, but it’s not exactly filled with yucks.

The point has been made many times that it’s counterproductive to analyze humor, because the very act of analysis slays its target; that is, humor thought about too much is no longer funny. As it happens, this phenomenon is one of the most effective tools for distinguishing satire from humor. Satire can be analyzed because unlike humor, it is primarily a function of reason. Confusion arises from the fact that humor is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal the satirist uses to achieve his objectives. But it’s not the only weapon, and as we’ve seen, it’s not a necessary one.

So far, none of the elements we’ve considered raise any particular obstacles to regarding Franken as a satirist. It’s immaterial that conservatives find him offensive, unfair, and unfunny. These responses might even be considered proof of his success. Yet this circumstance is precisely why it’s imperative in Franken’s case to employ a rational, analytical approach. Reason requires us to ask: Does the mere fact that a piece of writing is offensive, unfair, and unfunny constitute proof that it is satire? And the answer to this question is no.

Satire is permitted to be offensive, unfair, and unfunny as long as it achieves its single non-negotiable objective, which is to make the audience think and, hopefully, rethink its point of view about the subject topic(s). It doesn’t have to achieve this objective with every member of the audience – only with those whose minds can be reached or reopened with ingenious uses of reason, which is the one weapon that must always be deployed in a work of satire.

Now the reason requirement is important because it leads us to the discovery that effective satire does have an obligation which is related to fairness, after all, though not synonymous with it. The obligation is to be consistent in the application of whatever rational model underlies and shapes the work. In other words, the prerequisite of satire is some rational description of what is right, correct, or appropriate. The satirist’s weapons must be selected and employed for the express purpose of helping readers discover this usually unstated ‘right description’ by demonstrating the absurdity of any or all ‘wrong descriptions.’ Tactics that confuse the reader, obstruct his progress toward the ‘right description,’ or that give the reader good reason to doubt the soundness of this ‘right description’ are by definition failures of consistency that damage or destroy the satirical intent.

I apologize for the academic flavor of the discussion to this point; however, it has been necessary to show there is an academic component to satire. Humor may be a souffle. Satire, on the other hand, must be a kind of machine. It has working parts, a structure, an architecture, an overall design. Otherwise, it doesn’t bear thinking about and fails. If it is, in this event, also offensive, unfair, and unfunny, that’s all it is, no more worthy of consideration than a handful of mud slopped against a wall.

If Al Franken is a satirist, we must be able to discover a ‘right description’ that is illuminated by all the ‘wrong descriptions’ he targets with the weapons he has chosen to use. Moreover, this ‘right description’ must be inherently preferable to all the ‘wrongs’ and persuasively superior in absolute terms; that is, in terms that could be absolutely defended against the same kinds of weapons used to dismantle the ‘wrongs.’ Finally, the ‘right description’ defined by the satirist must possess a certain simple universality. Why? Precisely because it must be discoverable, appealing, and satisfying as an alternative to the various ‘wrongs,’ and it cannot be vulnerable to any of the attacks which define the ‘wrongs.’

The process of writing thoughtful satire tends to be an uncomfortable one for the satirist. If he is honest, he is continually measuring and refining his ‘right description’ as he subjects it to the same kinds of attacks he levels against the ‘wrongs.’ This is how he arrives at universality. If he is fair in terms of his assessments, he winds up discovering errors and contradictions in his own assumptions; he experiences an unwelcome compulsion to attack various of his own traditional viewpoints and allies. He finds himself becoming more remote from specific thrusts and parries in the arena he is exploring, because the set of elements which can defended absolutely against all the attacks he can make is actually quite small. The definition of universality consists only of what he cannot destroy by the means available to him. The composition of the satire is thus a journey of self education and self criticism. If the satirist is not himself changed by that journey, he has probably accomplished nothing.

An excellent example of this journeying aspect of satire can be found in Voltaire’s Candide. His beginning point is the optimistic philosophy of his age, as espoused by Leibnitz, whose ideas Voltaire recapitulates as “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” It would have been sufficient to poke a few gaping holes in this platitude. But Candide does far more than that, as if Voltaire was relentlessly scouring his own mind and experience for something, anything, that would arrive at a destination short of the platitude’s exact opposite: all is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. And one might argue that the ‘right description’ he leads us to is just barely short of that destination: “il faut cultiver notre jardin” (we must cultivate our own gardens) is a very small island of potential meaning and fulfillment, but it’s the only one he cannot destroy with his own potent weapons of reason.

There are, of course, some ways in which the satirist can simplify or minimize the journey and the self education associated with it. He can, for example, cast his ‘right description’ in very narrow terms. This is the stratagem generally employed by newspaper satirists like Russell Baker and Art Buchwald. However artful and sophisticated their weaponry, their product is the lowest form of satire; its ‘right descriptions’ tend to be mere opposites of their ‘wrong descriptions.’ They choose a position for or against some policy or person, construct an assault aimed at highlighting the weaknesses of the ‘wrong’ side, and the reader draws the obvious inferences about the unstated ‘right.’ There is a rational point to it, but the point is usually so slender that it sometimes seems no more than an excuse for the exercise of humor.

A variation of this approach that often results in considerably larger works consists of selecting a ‘right description’ that is from the outset so simple and self evident that it doesn’t have enough specific gravity to warp the satirist’s assumptions during the writing process. This stratagem tends to result in very pyrotechnical attacks against what in the end prove to be easy targets. The same villain is slain again and again and again – here garrotted, there exploded with dynamite, now shot in the face, then poisoned with cyanide, and so forth. The reader may be dazzled by the writer’s display of weaponry, but his discovery of the ‘right description’ does not lead to thinking/rethinking so much as a disappointed ‘So what?’ An example of this kind of satire is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The right description, “war is insane,” is not much of a discovery. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the book for its spectacular creativity and humor; it’s just that as a satire, its end point tends to be more self-congratulating than thought-provoking: “Yes, I agree that war is insane. How enlightened and sophisticated I am to be in accord with so brilliant a writer.”

There’s a particular pitfall associated with this kind of satire that is important to recognize. The danger of selecting a simple and self-evident ‘right description’ lies in the possibility of inadvertently settling upon a platitude so generic that it actually represents a half-truth, meaning that its sense of rightness is derived more from point of view than from any rigorous process of reason. When this is the case, for a certain percentage of readers, the ‘right description’ will collapse into a perhaps unintended and different, though more basic, ‘right description.’ Here again Heller makes for an interesting example. In hindsight, it looks very much as if Heller discovered this phenomenon of collapse in his own work and followed it stage by stage to progressively lower common denominators – war and the military are insane -- all organizations, including corporations, are insane – all human efforts, including the best intentions of liberal governments are insane – life is insane. Of course, this final step takes us into the realm of nihilism, where reason avails nothing, and there is no help to be found and thus no point in the satire. It becomes black comedy, a mere existential exercise, at which point any uses it makes of moral outrage or discriminating definitions of justice are reduced to irrelevant, showy accessories – a diamond stickpin on a concrete overcoat.

The defense against this kind of vicious circle is easily seen in truly effective satire. When we arrive at Voltaire’s “il faut cultiver notre jardin,” we have reached a new beginning point. What does this mean in terms of my own life? What is my garden? How should I be cultivating it? The learning process of the book leads us to a new learning process in terms of individual decision making. This is the elusive objective for which satirists strive in the journeys they map out in words.

What is the journey we undertake with Al Franken? What is his ‘right description’? If we begin with his most recent work, which presumably represents the pinnacle of his own philosophical development to this point in his life, we are permitted to draw inferences from the title: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. At least as a working assumption we can infer that his ‘right description’ relates to truth. That seems promising. It sounds rather grand. Truth. What about it?

For the moment all we have to do is accept that his ‘right description’ pertains to truth. All the ‘wrongs’ he will eviscerate with his satirical weapons will fill in the details of his ‘right description’ by showing us what cannot be included in that description by virtue of belonging to the ‘wrong description.’ His choice of weapons will also provide us with information about his ‘right description’ because we will discover something about the importance of his ‘ends’ by observing what ‘means’ are acceptable in pursuing them, and indeed, if there be any such thing as a means which is not acceptable.

The first thing that cannot be allowed in the ‘right description’ is, apparently, errors or misrepresentations of fact. It speedily becomes clear that the author has mustered fairly abundant resources to document a long list of such errors and misrepresentations. He takes pains to identify such departures from truth, however he (and we) will ultimately define it, with specific individuals, including Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, a variety of Republican politicians, and, of course, George Bush. He is, therefore, operating in the realm of nonfiction, which is permissible in satire. The choice of a nonfiction approach does, however, entail some additional risks and requirements which should be noted before we proceed further.

A satirist’s choice of fictional devices of any kind is almost always a means of simplifying and clarifying the scope of the underlying idea or set of ideas. If the premise is wholly fictional as in, say Orwell’s Animal Farm, it does not follow that the satirist is any less interested in directing our attention to specific events, situations, and people. It is child’s play to pick out the historical figures of Lenin and Trotsky in Animal Farm, and Orwell very much desires us to do so. What benefits is he therefore seeking in his use of a fictional device, and what problems is he avoiding?

The primary benefit he gains is to eliminate most of the messy and complicating noise of the real-world history he is using as a vehicle to reach his ‘right description.’ He wants to separate his readers from the probably fragmentary and distorting context of what they may think they already know about that history. For his purposes it doesn’t matter whether or not the Russian Revolution involved atrocities in its process of coming to power. It doesn’t matter if Lenin was ugly or bald or had bad breath. He wants us to focus on the contest of ideas and character that were acted out in the establishment of the Soviet Communist model. He is simultaneously clarifying the focus of his attention and predisposing our perspective on the events and people he is recreating for us. Lenin and Trotsky are, for example, to be viewed as pigs.

The principal problem he avoids is creating unnecessary vulnerabilities in his renderings of events, situations, and people. There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by depicting historical scenes about which there may exist factual disputes, multiple subtle interpretations relating to personalities, and external factors that probably did affect outcomes without illuminating the ideas with which Orwell is most concerned. He knows that every instance in which a reader can take issue with his factual reporting is a distraction, a detour from the most effective route to the destination he has in mind.

With this example before us, we can draw some pretty straightforward conclusions about Franken’s decision to use an almost purely nonfiction approach to his subject. He is informing us by this choice that all of the messy noise of the real world is relevant to the journey he has charted for us. We are therefore permitted, perhaps even encouraged, to draw upon our own memories of the events, situations, and people he references, and he is so confident of the irreducible rightness of his ‘right description’ that he knows it will survive any distractions created by his reporting of the facts. Note that this represents a pretty enormous promise on his part, that he will be scrupulously accurate about the points which matter most. This is a promise which is amplified by an order of magnitude because the primary subject of his ‘right description’ has to do with truth.

The scale of the additional risk he is running with this approach can be understood if we recognize that he has, to all intents and purposes, accepted a requirement almost never needed in satire: the requirement to be fair. It is possible, of course, that his definition of fairness will differ from ours, but our journey will also educate us about that definition, which will be helpful in understanding his ‘right description’ about truth.

As we read the text, we discover almost at once that we were right in the main conclusions we’ve just drawn. In Franken’s context, the circumstance that Lenin might be ugly and bald and have bad breath is relevant. In his prior work, we cannot escape the reality that to Franken, it is significant that Rush Limbaugh is fat. He repeats this fact many times. In the newest work it is important that Bill O’Reilly is ‘splotchy.’

This is significant information for us, the readers. It enables us to assume that the ‘right description’ of truth has to do both with factual accuracy and physical appearance, or if we don’t want to leap all the way to that conclusion, we can read physical appearance as a stand-in for the specifics of who and what people are, as opposed to their positions and statements about ideas. We can infer that truth has intimately to do with being.

We also know that Franken’s decision to be specific about personal, physical imperfections is fair. This derives from the implied contract he makes with us in his choice of a nonfiction, real-world approach.

All right. He is operating in the real world, allowing in all of our preexisting knowledge such as it is about the topics he references. He is being fair, whether it appears that way to us at first blush or not. He is leading us to a ‘right description’ of truth that will not be violated or compromised by the weapons he deploys against the ‘wrongs.’ Where does our journey go from here?

Well, actually, it goes all over the place. It touches upon most public policy issues, including matters of budget, race, war, and almost anything else that can become a topic of discussion in the nation’s political life. It takes in dozens of individual Republican or conservative targets, from media personalities to the president of the United States. It involves lengthy citations of what the author characterizes as lies, misstatements, and misrepresentations. It even ventures into areas where most readers would concede that a finding of fact rests far more upon untidy interpretations of complex variables than on clearcut yes/no data. For example, the decision to declare as fact that victory in Afghanistan is solely attributable to the military stewardship of the Clinton administration is presented as a triumph of Franken’s logic, even though it clearly can be, and has been, disputed with seemingly strong counter-arguments by Republicans.

Perhaps this is an important clue about the ‘right description’ of truth in Franken’s view. After all, he also informs us as baldly as if it were fact that there is no liberal bias in the mass media. In making such an assertion in the context of the real world, he is expressly acknowledging that other viewpoints exist, as they do. Most public opinion polls reveal that by very dramatic margins Americans believe that a liberal bias does exist in the mass media. Yet we know that this circumstance is also relevant to what Franken is telling us. Part of the lesson, therefore, must be, inescapably, that where our views of what the facts are differ from his, his are right, and ours are wrong.

The real world enters the picture in an even more significant way if we examine his lists of lies, misstatements, and misrepresentations in the context of messy history, the author’s methods, and the overall tone of his presentation. The title of the book makes it clear that he is not just offended but enraged about the lies he has engaged so many resources to document. And yet his choice of nonfiction has allowed us, even required us, to recall our own experience of what we may consider unassailably proven facts about lies, misstatements, and misrepresentations during the two terms of the Clinton administration. He knows we may very well harbor such convictions, and even though we’ve been admonished to accept his statements of fact over our own, he absolutely must be aware that a reasonable person could conclude from his presentation that both sides of the great right-left, Republican-Democrat conflict tell lies. In fact, this could easily be the sign of an empty half-truth lurking inside the ‘right description’ he is leading us to.

Yet if that were the case, all the heat – the rage, contempt, and ridicule – he heaps upon his targets would be irrelevant. And no one could be so stupid as to write a whole book, backed by the blessings of Harvard University and more than a dozen of its best and brightest graduate students, in such a continuous state of venomous high dudgeon if there were any possibility whatsoever that its end result might be the “So what” conclusion that all politicians and their media advocates tend to tell lies that advance their interests of the moment.

No. This is a flat impossibility. Franken knows that we know that there is evidence of lying by Democrats and the Clinton administration. And since he specifically limns for us sprawling abstractions, such as the military credit for victory in Afghanistan, which he is nevertheless confident about labeling as lies, it has to be the case that he is telling us something very new and different about the ‘right description’ of truth.

We have all the pieces spread out before us. Lies are disgusting, revolting, repellent things. Republicans tell long lists of lies, ranging from errors of fact to misinterpretations of complex issues. Their immorality in such matters makes it fair to pile abuse upon their motives, their characters, and even their physical shortcomings and defects. It is even fair to condemn them for piling abuse of a similar kind upon Democrats and to deliver such condemnations with all the self righteousness one would expect from a writer who has never engaged in such low practices.

Is there some key we can use to unlock the ‘right description’ at the heart of the book? Perhaps there is. At one point Franken pillories Ann Coulter for using end notes rather than footnotes in specifying the charges she makes against Democrats. Is it a coincidence that Franken employs the very same device to document his own charges?

It is not a coincidence. Indeed, all the available evidence points in the same direction. In this book Al Franken is cleaving the world in two, and different standards are to be applied to the two halves. Here is the only ‘right description’ which is consistent with all the content and all the ‘wrongs’ he attacks. The truth is what Democrats and liberals are. Lies are what Republicans and conservatives are. It is therefore appropriate to demonstrate what Republicans and conservatives are by enumerating instances in which they lie or can be accused of lying. Significantly, it is not appropriate to use documented lies to demonstrate what Democrats and liberals are, because such an exercise is entirely irrelevant to their unassailable definition as truth.

What more can we discover about truth in terms of this definition? Surely, the tone of hatefulness and bile is intended to lead us to a realization that this truth of Democrats and liberals is an absolute truth, which represents a 100 percent opposite of the lies which the Republicans and conservatives are. And Franken can be so completely confident and absolute in his own pronouncements for the simple reason that he also is a Democrat and a liberal. Everything he does is fair because the truth is always fair, and he is the truth (regardless of what the definition of ‘is’ is…).

Now that we have arrived at this core definition of truth, we can recollect that it is allowable and appropriate for us to flesh it out with our own knowledge, however imperfect, of the other attributes – e.g., beliefs, positions, behaviors, specific actions – of Democrats and liberals, because all such attributes represent some part of what they are and therefore what 100 percent truth encompasses.

Thus, if we examine what they are for, either from their own collective record or from a reading of what Republicans and conservatives are against, we will find the truth that we must all accept, whether or not we’re inclined to hold dissenting views of any sort. We will know that we’re on the right track if we find evidence in Franken’s curriculum vitae that confirms the conclusions we draw.

For example, we can start with an easy one: abortion. Republicans are against abortion. They are convinced that it is murder or something very like it. But Republicans are 100 percent wrong. Therefore the truth is that abortion is not murder or anything like it, and there is no possibility of there being any question about this fact.

Republicans believe in God. In fact, they believe in a very specific God who has very definite views about what is right and what is wrong. But Republicans are absolutely wrong. Therefore the truth is that even if some Democrats choose to believe in a God, it is a fact that God does not have definite views about what is right and what is wrong, unless it’s the case that God’s views are indistinguishable from the truth of the Democrats and the liberals. In either case, the Republicans are absolutely wrong in believing that some presence of God should be permitted in institutions of government, including the schools, because it is a fact that God must be eliminated from such institutions, as Democrat positions demonstrate beyond doubt.

Republicans believe that the increasing absence of God and his definite views on morality have precipitated broad cultural decay, marked by dangerous levels of sexual promiscuity, a pervasive coarsening of popular culture, a steep and accelerating decline of educational institutions and the professions, including law, medicine, and the academy. But Republicans are absolutely wrong. Therefore the truth is that even if there is some increase in sexual promiscuity it represents progress, and there is nothing wrong with having a coarse popular culture, and it’s perfectly appropriate for the professions to attack and cannibalize the very institutions they were once sworn to protect. By the same token, it is perfectly fine and appropriate for Democrats to make the kinds of statements and representations that would be lies if they were uttered by Republicans or conservatives, because everything done or said by Democrats and liberals is fair, by definition, because it is right, since they are truth.

We could go on and on like this, fleshing out all the particulars of the incontrovertible truth, but it is perhaps more productive for us to check our reasoning against what we can know about Al Franken. We know we’re right about the God part of the equation. He is on record as saying that he has “no formal religion.” We know we’re right about the truth of popular culture, because he has spent years helping to coarsen that culture by pushing the outside of the envelope on Saturday Night Live. And we know we’re right about the absolute nature of his cleaving of the world in twain because he has told us that he would like the title of his next great work of satire to be “I F*cking Hate the Motherf*ckers.” If you love humanity as profoundly as the Democrats and liberals do, which postulated love of humanity is of course part of the definition of truth, then it’s a mighty strong message that half of the humanity in an entire nation can be deserving of such hatred. It means they must be 100 percent wrong about everything. Even if that doesn’t seem possible. I mean, who are we to say about that? A key part of The Truth is that only Al Franken has a right to say anything about it.

At this point we have accomplished one of two things. We have established that Franken’s latest book is a complex, ambitious, and novel satire leading us to what is indeed a brand new beginning point for an individual learning process – or we have demonstrated that he is so incredibly stupid and shallow that he wasted the time of 14 Harvard graduate students and himself on a satirical point that is at best a half-witted half-truth whose rebuttal is assured in every scrap and line of invective penned by its impossibly arrogant and ignorant author.

Which do you think it is?

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