The Satirist in America Today
This lecture was given at the Dinand Library, College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts, December 5th, 2022. It is republished here with the permission of the speaker. Thank you, Dr. Shelton, for that kind introduction. I also want to thank Lisa Villa, Teresa Reilly, and our wonderful library staff for once more inviting… The post The Satirist in America Today appeared first on VoegelinView.




This lecture was given at the Dinand Library, College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts, December 5th, 2022. It is republished here with the permission of the speaker.
Thank you, Dr. Shelton, for that kind introduction. I also want to thank Lisa Villa, Teresa Reilly, and our wonderful library staff for once more inviting me to come here and commit professional suicide.
I feel a bit like a one-man band up here, discussing my own work for an hour. Have any of you ever seen a one-man band? I mean, back in the day: the guy who stomps out percussion with his feet, strums the guitar, blows the harmonica, sings, and now and then adds some really odd effect, like a gong or kazoo. My new novel, Old Enemies, is best compared to the gong or kazoo. So what I’m going to do for you now—and I do hope it is entertaining—is to give a talk entitled “The Satirist in America Today.” Every now and then, however, I’m going to reach for the gong or kazoo, which means I’m going to read a selected passage from my novel.
I thought I’d start with a little autobiography. I was raised by a single working mom on Long Island. Mom was Bronx Irish. Her Irish father, a former IRA man from Sligo, was too short to become a cop; so he went to work on the subways, one of those quiet, uncomplaining men who worked two or three jobs to provide for his family. I was born in 1958, when Mom was twenty-three. They married young in those days. Long after her divorce, she became well-known in the academic field of Irish Studies. How well I recall her smoking cigarettes and typing out her dissertation about the American writer William Faulkner. We never had money when I was a kid. The longest trip I took was a drive with her from our home on Long Island to Montreal. My father was a force of nature. My earliest memory in life is of my father kicking my mother in the stomach. She was pregnant at the time with my brother, Brian. I couldn’t have been older than eighteen months. I can still see his punting leg high in the air, his dark sock and leather shoe. Brian was a redhead. He dropped out of junior high school, never had much in the way of education, did jail time, and died of a drug overdose when he was thirty-three. Our estranged father became a multimillionaire. I inherit my height from him. He was the most creative liar I’ve ever met. Divorced for over half-a-century, my parents died on the same day in 2016. My mother published a memoir in 2001 called Crossing Highbridge. It proved entirely useless when recently I started applying for my Irish citizenship. Mom married a Jew and died an agnostic, riddled by grief over the death of her younger son. Dad married four times and received final unction in the Roman Catholic church, the church his Jewish father had entered when he and my paternal grandmother married. I am roughly three-quarters Irish and one-quarter Jew, though my father told us that Oser was a Swiss name. It’s not. It’s Oseransky, the Russian equivalent of Asher, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The census of 1930 reports that Yiddish was spoken in the Oser family home into which my father was born. For these reasons and others, I confess to being a strong proponent of laughter.
When someone in my new novel insists that something isn’t funny—“that isn’t funny,” they repeat—I’m reminded of the famous words of Mark Twain: “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” What saved me was education. It was education that gave me perspective. Aristotle’s treatise on comedy is lost, but I suspect it had something to say about laughter as a golden mean. Too much laughter or too little laughter can miss the mark. There are times when it takes courage to laugh. The people in Hans Christian Andersen’s well-known story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” were afraid to laugh at the delusions of their naked emperor. This cannot have been healthy. What I call “emperor-level delusions” are common these days. For instance, we must rebuild our schools on the utopian premise of technology. We must defund the police, or hope for a summer of love, or, closer to home, bow to the faith that there are no trade-offs involved between the good of inclusive excellence and the good of a world-class education. I think that clear-eyed sober thinking will always try to recognize rival goods and difficult trade-offs. As students and educators, our moral dilemma is difficult. There is no way around the fact that serious training in a serious field requires the gradual mastery of difficult materials—materials that are not immediately accessible to anyone. There is no way around this except an emperor-level delusion. No one is born with a knowledge of calculus or Shakespearean rhetoric or the Peloponnesian wars. Any discipline that ignores the great challenges of learning will collapse upon itself. On the other hand, the society that ignores the poor and marginalized is not a society we want to live in. So we extend opportunities, share wealth, teach remedial classes. But there are trade-offs. Do you want a faculty that is deeply learned, or do you want a faculty of social workers? I assume the worst-case scenario, the emperor-level delusion, would be a faculty of fingerpainters grabbing good salaries while pretending to serve the interests of the poor and marginalized. And that’s where satire comes in.
Some laughter might strike us as poisonous. It can be a tough call: all medicines have their dangers. Shakespeare and his audiences had a remarkable tolerance for cruel laughter, as when the Fool in Lear laughs to see the Earl of Kent in the stocks: “Ha ha, he wears cruel garters. Horses are tied by the heads, dogs and bears by th’neck, monkeys by th’loins, and men by th’legs. When a man’s overlusty at legs, then he wears wooden netherstocks.” Life was cruel in those days, and cruel jokes were a popular means of acknowledging the usual, awful conditions. And there is another dangerous side to laughter; for while there is cruelty in Shakespeare, there is also a lot of bawdiness. This cruelty and this bawdiness were survival mechanisms. In the Elizabethan theater, you were confronted by the bare forked animal that King Lear speaks of—by the human body’s grotesqueries and provocations. Coming back to Aristotle, I think the Greek philosopher would have said that the human body needs a good laugh, because such laughter is cathartic. It’s a relief. We become morbid if we lock up our laughter for too long. And we moderns have a name for this condition of locked-up laughter. It is called puritanism. The puritan is not attracted to the shared experience of great theater. Rather, the puritan enjoys his or her bawdiness and cruelty in private, where no one can see.
When people accuse me of making them laugh, I recognize the truth of the charge because the same joke has made me laugh too. You might say laughter is the reflex to a joke, which has compelled you to laugh in the same way that a doctor’s mallet can make your knee jerk. The reflex of laughter is a test of your nerves. When we enjoy a belly-laugh, our body is getting in on the act. It registers a strong cause for laughter, which comes as a physical relief. I like the idea of healthy nerves and healthy reflexes. Or maybe we should speak of stealing a laugh. You let your guard down for a moment and I stole a laugh. It was like raiding your liquor cabinet. I crept in on tiptoe and stole your best bottle of wine. The one with the fancy label. I really enjoyed it. The force of laughter can’t be denied, and if it is mere courtesy to smile at a friend’s flat joke, it’s dull hypocrisy to say something isn’t funny when it is. It might not be funny to a soup can, but it’s funny to you because you’re a human being. That might be embarrassing. I saved you a glass of that wine, by the way. What Shakespeare especially mocked in the zealous puritans was their hypocrisy. They practiced the great hypocritical command of do what I say, not what I do. This is a perennial trap for us bare forked animals.
We grown-up Americans are parched for healthy laughter. I am referring to grown-up humor for adults, who require a more than childlike freedom. We are rightly told that freedom of expression can be used in ways that ridicule and dehumanize. Fire can be used in ways that burn down buildings. Guns, cars, computers, drugs, food, money: everything we touch is a mixed blessing. The good satirist knows this.
Lately our society finds itself in a game of brinksmanship, of testing what can be said, and what can’t be said. Whose daring finger will press the hot button? How big a ZAP will the hot button deliver? A humiliating zap? A zap of cancellation? A zap that reduces the hot-button pusher to a smoldering heap of ash? We are all implicated in the game, but as the game unfolds it divides into spectators and participants. Most of us, most of the time, are spectators, watchful, a herd pursuing our careers, even as our society detects that something is seriously wrong, that we, the herd of individuals, are drifting steadily in the wrong direction. Nonetheless, we remain spectators.
The satirist is not just a spectator. The satirist is a participant, and, what’s worse, in my case, a middle-class participant, taught by his Bronx Irish mother to believe that the pen is mightier than the sword. Wealthy giants stride the playing field. They are the great players. The Fortune 500 Companies are players. Big Tech is a player. Universities, major publishing houses, union leaders, and Hollywood bigshots are players. Let us not forget the big charitable foundations. Politicians are players de officio, lining their pockets by virtue of their office. The official language of the game is doublespeak. If you are not familiar with the everyday spectacle of someone pretending to speak truth to power when in fact that person is speaking power to truth, then you are a moral infant.
The satirist’s job, then, is to study this game of giants and to magnify its grotesqueries to the point where folks have to rip out their own eyes if the truth offends them.
And yet, satire has its limits. It works only if we are capable of suffering deep shame. “If God is dead,” Dostoevsky said, “then everything is permitted.” That’s the old version: “God is dead.” The new version is, “If UFOs exist, then everything is permitted.” If everything is permitted, then our morality is moot. Have you noticed that many people can no longer distinguish the word conscious from the word conscience? It’s all a moral blur. And if this is the case, if we are truly shameless, then satire will not only ricochet off its target like a shot off a shovel, but the ricochet is likely to hit only one person: the satirist.
Let’s take the case of one of our nation’s influential magazines: Teen Vogue. I was a dad of teenage daughters when the notorious sodomy issue arrived in our mailbox. Now you cannot satirize a magazine for teenage girls that runs articles on how to practice sodomy. What’s left for the satirist to exaggerate or caricature? Satirically speaking, my best joke is to invent a new publication called Pre-Teen Vogue. But the question naturally arises: can we draw a moral line between Teen Vogue and Pre-Teen Vogue? You see where this is going. All the way back to the crib. If you don’t want that baby, please just dump it on the floor and someone will be by shortly to turn it into a nice, nutritious meal. Baby jokes are a traditional staple of satire. Do you recall Swift’s “Modest Proposal”? No, probably you don’t, because you haven’t read it. You haven’t done much reading. And yet Swift’s satire did a lot of good. It embarrassed the colonial barbarism of England. The publishers of Teen Vogue are beyond embarrassment. They are so powerful, that they seem to have made reality and satire exchange places. If the enemy of your enemy is your friend, we can say the publishers of Teen Vogue have a lot of friends. We are good at rage, bad at grown-up discussion. And yet, whether they are conservative or liberal, most parents believe in protecting the innocence of their children.
To a mature mind, a mind informed by history and literature, no one can take the moral high ground by publishing recreational sex manuals for kids. The human sex drive is not easily linked to the moral high ground. Sex is by nature one of the most difficult topics; on top of that, the history of injustice against particular classes of desire, along with the question of nature versus nurture, complicate our current moral circumstances to the limits of our comprehension. Most of us choose the path of least resistance. Or it chooses them. We are overworked, exhausted, and numb. For instance, Old Enemies starts off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where the trending hot commodities are robots, sleep-aids, and sex toys.
So, to me, Teen Vogue is a sign of the times, a peculiar canary in a peculiar coal mine. I read just the other day that “the high fashion house Balenciaga has formally apologized for its Christmas advertising campaign featuring young kids holding teddy bears dressed in bondage harnesses.” You see, you can’t make this stuff up. It was in the time of Teen Vogue that the citizens of Loudon County, Virginia got angry at their school librarians for putting adult materials on the shelves. The definition of children’s books has changed. A Loudon County father was arrested for protesting at a schoolboard meeting just last year. His fourteen-year-old daughter had been raped and sodomized by a teenager—a biological male who claimed to be trans—in the stall of a girls’ bathroom. So the local authorities arrested her father. This is so grotesque that the satirist blushes to touch it. An incident that might have caused a war in ancient times became a “most replayed” minute in the game. Few of us have the energy to take stock of the situation, or to feel guilty about what happened. We are like Gertrude in Hamlet, before her son holds up a glass to her soul and forces her to look.
This leads me to draw an important distinction. Shame is essentially pagan. It is not the same as guilt. It’s about the pain of being exposed, outed, defeated in public. Social media is the greatest shaming mechanism ever invented. Guilt, as Hamlet’s mother reminds us, is much more Christian. When we feel guilty, we blame ourselves, not others. As the liturgy goes, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  It isn’t shame, it is guilt that requires a conscience. Possibly the pagan revels of social media have an ironical upside. C. S. Lewis remarks: “I sometimes wonder whether we shall not have to re-convert men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity.” Maybe that is what social media is doing, reconverting our society to real paganism.
But here’s the satirist’s quandary. How do you shame the shameless? How do you shame the celebrities and influencers who hold our important public offices? Which came first, the Trump-hater or the Trump? You may say, no one is shameless except the sociopaths. True. But the number of sociopaths seems to be growing. Conditions are ripe. A society of sociopaths is entirely consistent with the prevalence of emperor-level delusions. Whether you believe in the Incarnation as I do, or you believe in something else, most of us would say that Christianity is a friend of moral truth. Also, in many ways, it continues to preserve our society against the beast in us. As a satirist, I think my work is rooted in my Christian conscience. I actually want to convert pagans to Christianity. And if I cannot convert them to Christianity, I would at least like to encourage them to think. But then again why should my conscience count for diddly beans? Why should it have any authority at all? The reason, I believe, is this. The satirist senses that the conditions necessary for civilization are not being met. The Christian satirist is thus descended from the Hebrew prophets. The prophet Isaiah knew that Jerusalem was in peril. So did Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Their lessons were hard to take. The satirist’s lessons are hard to take. For the Christian satirist, shame and guilt are on tap, because the world responds to shame, and the Christian conscience responds to guilt. Unfortunately, shame and guilt seem to chart in inverse proportion to each other: as the internet expanded the market for shame, the Christian conscience was stigmatized in the popular mind as a guilt trip. There are, it must be acknowledged, grounds for concern regarding self-recrimination. I think my mother’s Catholic conscience was possibly too hard on her. I wonder what would have happened had she stayed in the church and received the support of a good community and a good priest? Was that even possible for a divorced woman in 1965? Would it have saved my brother’s life? Would she have come to peace with the difficult trade-offs that she faced as a mother of two boys and a rising professional in the 1970s?
The Shakespeare of the history plays anticipated the shrewd words of Karl Marx: “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” That’s close to the spirit of my novel, though Marx’s materialism is not my cup of mud. I much prefer Groucho Marx, whose voice sometimes slips into my head when I write dialogue. Satire is a form of what Jonathan Swift called saeva indignatio, savage indignation. The satirist is savagely indignant at the farce, at the repetition of hoaxes, at the spiritual arsonists, at the celebrity virtue-signalers, and at the haters who detect hate everywhere but in themselves. True satire, the kind that threatens the world’s routines of power, is a form of battle. And as in any form of battle, you must be good at covering your ass. The best way to cover your ass is to be a good writer. Off with the heads of all bad satirists, I say. To the block with the blockheads.
The satirist must possess the wit to go beyond the hot button issues, which reinforce the game. It is necessary to identify the sources of our shared moral helplessness. One has to be a close reader of our social arrangements, for instance, the widespread phenomenon of college newspapers that are not really student newspapers so much as indoctrination centers where young people learn to tow the party line. And here’s my point: this kind of obedience training is characteristic of our society. Not only does proper obedience training prepare bright young people for journalistic careers, but it unites the managerial class and is the theme of America’s favorite movies. The satirist’s job is to discern widespread patterns of behavior beneath apparent differences. I take it that obedience training is ubiquitous. It’s a Foucauldian nightmare regime of discipline and punishment. Also, I take it that there is roughly the same market among Democrats and Republicans for robots, sleep-aids, and sex toys. I add in passing: you can often tell a real satirist from a satirical con artist by the strength of his or her enemies.
William Shakespeare was a Christian satirist who took real chances, as was Jonathan Swift, as was Charles Dickens. The fact that all three of these well-rounded men escaped jail time is remarkable. It vindicates western civilization. For Shakespeare, Swift, and Dickens, sin was a moral fact. Nowadays, you might not believe in sin, but it may catch up with you, nonetheless. Also, if you do not understand evil, you will have a hard time understanding goodness. Bear that in mind next time you consider the role of religion in your lives.
I relish the sound of a certain POP, the puncturing of the hot air balloon by which the powerful, the wealthy, and the cruel command our moral landscape. And let us make no mistake, we humans have a great pagan relish for power, money, and cruelty. Give any one of us power over others, and it is the rare person who is not compromised by the situation. It is rightly said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power rushes in. Power wants you to be powerful. Power is its own defense. It does not look after the poor and marginalized. It looks after its cronies. Still, the game goes on. It seems to be the new national pastime: the great spectator sport of power, money, and cruelty. In the same sense, the global interface known as the media serves as the gladiatorial arena for our half-civilized pleasures. Thumbs up, we say. Or thumbs down. But let me linger over that metaphor a moment longer: the media as the New Coliseum. It is not mortal combat between hardened warriors we are witnessing, or naval battles on an artificial lake. If any parallel holds between the old Roman Coliseum and our contemporary media, it is the sacrificing of Christians to the lions. That is, the sacrificing of the Christian conscience to the beast in us. Everything is for sale, and everything must go. The UFOs are whizzing overhead.
Now I am aware that the insertion of a Christian point of view is generally as welcome as a colonoscopy. Still, it worries me that many young people know little about Christianity. Their ignorance will not help them in life. Gen Z is suffering a serious loss of historical consciousness.  I am not sure that all the diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world can compensate for that loss in the long run. What do I mean? I mean that utopia is a non-starter. Wikipedia has a page listing twenty-two former Catholic colleges and universities in the US. I suspect the number will grow. In fact, a good chunk of my new novel is set on the beautiful campus of a defunct Catholic college. It is set in rural Massachusetts, in the mythical town of Clifden. Here is my narrator, approaching the old campus for the first time:
He drove us past Hartford, past the Connecticut Coasters’ stadium, and across  the  Connecticut  River  Valley—once  a land  of  great  spiritual  fervor.  Eventually, he exited  the  inter‐state on a long, elevated ramp that merged on a two-lane high‐way.  We drove on  past  kettleholes  and  eskers,  up  and  down evergreen slopes, around a hill where a white steeple rose above a  sea  of  dark  woods.  At noon we passed through  a  juniper forest. Then I caught sight of snow in an ancient furrow near a rockpile claimed by crows.  The road bent slightly and  the campus  opened  up  on  our  left.  My first  impression  of  Saint Malachy  College  was  of  the  charred  ruins  of  a  brick dormitory,  a  single  wall  still  standing  and,  in  its  shelter, cinders pocked with snow. We made two lefts, the second one leading us under a cast-iron arch where two gold letters stood side-by-side, a  nonsensical  la  proclaiming  the entrance to the campus.
The remains of Saint Malachy College have been purchased by a Big Tech company called The Carthage Corporation, which is run by a billionaire named Nick Carty. Nick’s a former Catholic with a politician’s knack for returning to his ancestral faith when it benefits him. He is under constant pressure to conform to the political expectations of his fellow players. In the end, when the narrator is humiliated and shamed on social media, Nick does what is required and fires him, though he probably knows the truth of the matter—that his old friend is the object of a malicious hoax.
Why do hoaxes and false narratives have such great power over us? It’s gotten to the point where—and here I will deliberately lapse into academic jargon—the racism, residual nationalism, and late-capitalism of the Anthropocene define our global consciousness. And unless they define your global consciousness, you will be shamed and banished from the land of -isms. In heaven, the UFOs are executing unearthly maneuvers. Listening to certain confident voices at home and abroad, you’d think no moral progress had been made in this country since the Civil War. In my novel I write about this destruction of historical consciousness. Here is a relevant passage, in which the narrator reflects on his education:
I knew little of comradeship at Regis High School, though the Jesuits were, as always, unfailingly kind. My nemesis was an insulting boy named Arnold Benedict Dopp, who once slapped a perfectly dissected frog brain from out of my open palm so that his imperfectly dissected frog brain wouldn’t suffer embarrassment. Later in life he blended into the ranks of struggling authors until he emerged from obscurity with a prize-winning three-volume history of the USA called How History Happens. During one of the late brilliant presidencies (I forget which one), I sat down in a little café up by Columbia University with a copy of Dopp’s middle volume, Masters and Slaves. What I learned from the experience, while pacing myself through a series of cranberry muffins washed down with black coffee, was that America had fought no good wars and served no higher purpose. The traditional American story was nothing but an unusually grotesque lie, a European abortion without art or conscience, ending in pathetic jingoism. For A. B. Dopp, the older American historians wrote protofascist propaganda. At best, these writers with their warrior sentimentality were really kind of tacky. In fact, the familiar paragons of American virtue were evil. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, Lincoln Steffens and Samuel Gompers, Thomas Edison and Wilbur Wright, Ike and Omar Bradley, the whole star-spangled company, their reputations were ripped down like so many statues of Baphomet. Bad analogy. I got up for a refill and traded for Volume Three, One Nation Under White Supremacy. Sure enough, the KKK were in charge of the country. Executive Order 8802 had gone AWOL. Dopp framed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a recent, cosmetic departure from an ineradicable Jim Crow mentality. Affirmative Action? The Community Reinvestment Act? Not worth mentioning.
In a moment of what should have been paranoia, I looked around and realized to my growing horror that every kid in the café  was  reading  A.  B.  Dopp.  This  impression  mingled  with his squadrons of perfectly ordered paragraphs, saturated with an  essence  that  I  knew  in  the  bud,  the  tyrannical  instinct masquerading as rebellion, the arrogance of a man whose every opinion had been cribbed from editorials in the Times’ Times. It  was as  if a  flying termite  had  landed in  my mouth  while I was gaping in puzzlement at the inventiveness of fate. It lost its way  out,  and  died  on  my  molars.  It  left  a  bituminous  after‐taste. It seemed nothing could remove it. Gin and vodka failed. Only  at  last  I  discovered  a  cheap  Kentucky  bourbon  called “Hound Dog ’29” that seemed to do the trick.
Today’s students were born during a time of media-fication. I refer by this term to the virtual eclipse of nature by technology, of earth and sky by screen, of historical consciousness by rival media narratives. A common thread through all my novels is the JFK assassination, which I personally remember, and which above all else has shaped my chaotic experience of history. It’s as if the Zapruder film started the process of translating reality to media forever. After the Clinton years, the process of media-fication intensified as the news cycle went 24/7 and the internet gained ground. The narratives that divided us included the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision of 2000; the failure of the CIA in Iraq; the financial crisis of 2008; and, among recent highlights, the Kavanaugh hearings, peaceful protests, trans-rights, and the origins of Covid.
Mediafication and globalization are two sides of the same Bitcoin. One reason why media controversy so often involves free speech is because free speech claims to challenge the prevailing media narratives. Free speech is something of the underdog these days. It takes a lot punches. But let us be clear: free speech is not necessarily true speech. That’s the fundamental issue for our future: not the abuse of free speech, not ridicule or shame, but truth. If we can’t handle truth, you can kiss the future goodbye. Put it another way: the great media wizards casting rival spells are not bound by reality: they will bend the truth to win over as large an audience-share as possible. The effect of their spells and counter-spells is to grind an uninformed citizenry into submission, to encourage a proper obedience, and to mold an audience of moral infants as the UFOs speed out of sight. So I am suggesting that the satirist is in a position—it is a dangerous position to be in—to satirize this wizard’s battle of narrative versus narrative.
At this point I would mention that Moses Shea, the narrator-protagonist of Old Enemies, is an old newspaperman who has been exiled from the city desks of Manhattan, where he was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. Moses is extremely sensitive to how media narratives are constructed. Here is he talking to a journalist named Samantha Fallo, who works in Manhattan at a paper called the Daily Dose:
 The  evening’s  occasional  flurries  made  up  their  mind  to snow for real as Sam and I plodded up Broadway together, a she-whale  and  her  calf  navigating  the  northern  seas.  She  was letting  me  know  of  an  opening  at  the  Dose.  It  might  be  of interest, she  said.  Their Beijing  bureau  chief had been  forced to  retire  after  his  narrative  suffered  a  total  breakdown.  For decades, this poor man had constructed a meticulous narrative about  US-China  relations,  centering  on  a  dire  threat  to  the global order that could be resolved only by completely restructuring the American economy. Nothing could have been more urgent, if the  narrative  had  only been true. The bureau  chief swore by his narrative, prospered in its atmosphere, told clever in-jokes  about  it,  and  rose  to  fame  through  its  currency  in expensive college textbooks and peer-reviewed academic journals. It dominated so much of his brain matter that no earthly doctor could have removed it without losing the patient. Just that  week,  however,  a  longtime  State  Department  official shattered  it  in  a  highly  factual  and  sharply-worded  letter. The  Dose  published  the  letter  over  the  staff’s  fierce objections.  The  former  bureau  chief  was  currently  resting in  the  Journalism  Wing  of  the  Manhattan  Psychiatric Ward.
“Facts got the better of him,” Sam Fallo said solemnly.    
“He couldn’t do a soft reboot?”     
“I know,” she said. “He should have. Most writers have it in them, but some don’t. That’s why I always warn new writers about facts. Facts are the bane of this profession. When you mess around with facts you have to be careful. You have to know how to handle them. I wish they’d teach that in journalism school!”
I work this theme of narrative construction repeatedly. Here is Moses in Las Vegas, interviewing a Big Tech CEO named Holden Crawford:
“This way,” he beckoned, leaving me to shut the door. He led us to his temporary office, a spacious and scentless workspace  where  he  inserted  himself  behind  a  grand mahogany executive desk and apparently forgot I was there.
“The  only  question  that  matters,”  he  said  to  no  one  in particular, “is where are we going with NGL.”
I said, “Next Generation Lithography.”
Locating  me,  he  pointed  to  a  plush  wingback  armchair that  sat  directly  in  the  sun.  Then  he  droned  on.  “If  we’re working  in  the  extreme  ultraviolet  range,  how  do  we  limit photon shot noise on the wafers?”
“For transubstantiation to occur….” He frowned severely, thought about it, and burst into staccato  laughter.  I  think  it  was  laughter.  It  might  have  been  a Pomeranian barking from inside a body suit.
“You can tell them we found the sweet spot.”
“Optimal  wavelength,  resist  type,  thickness,  absorbance, and  target  dose.  That’s  all  I  can  say  for  now,  except  that  I wasn’t  sure  we’d  ever  #nd  the  right  combination.  It’s  like cracking a safe in five dimensions, only there’s a stupid factor of luck involved. Better not mention I said so. You can run a profile  on  my  Bavarian  genius,  Dr.  Stumpf.  He’s  the  brains behind  this…monkey  show.  Costs  are  manageable  and  we’re achieving 190 wafers per hour—that’s with an overlay of 1.1 nanometers.”
I scribbled all this down on my yellow legal pad. I could’ve recorded it, but I kept the phone in my pocket. I’ve found that a device can hinder the conversation. Certainly, it might have blocked the disclosures that followed.
“So  that  puts  volume  manufacturing  on  the  table.  Folks have  been  waiting  a  long  time  to  hear  me  say  that.  Moore’s Law  is  still  holding,  at  least  for  the  time  being,  at  least  for now.”
“You’re saying it’s another short-term victory.”
“Sure as hell is.”
“Starts to feel like Sisyphus and his boulder.”
“It does indeed,” he said, savoring the remark. “Like Sisyphus in Vegas.” He took a call and I got up to maneuver the chair out of the blinking sunlight.
“Hollywood?” he was saying. “I don’t give a damn about Hollywood. Life isn’t a fucking movie. You know that’s what they think. They think life is a fucking movie.” Then he returned his attention to me. His face was white as paste, except for a red blob rising in the shape of a mushroom cloud on his forehead. “Moore’s Law is going to fail us in the end. It’s like death. There’s no escaping it. But you better not mention that either. It’s not something the market wants to hear. Maybe Hollywood can make a movie where somebody saves Moore’s Law. Maybe a friendly humanoid can come down from the sky….”
He slid open a deep drawer from the side of his desk and pulled out a Kimber 1911 and a bottle of Spanish brandy. He put the pot-bellied bottle on the desk and the blunt-nosed gun back in the drawer. Hoisting himself upright with a groan, he plucked a pair of snifters from the shelf over his head.
“Let’s have a drink,” he said. “You’re not a Mormon?”
“Catholic. What are you?”
He poured two large drinks and thought about it.
“I’m an atheist. I believe it’s out of conviction.” He raised an impromptu toast. “Here’s to conviction,” he said.
The brandy went down like magical fire. It burned my palate before expanding in a warm blush to the heart’s country, all the while easing the tightness in my nerves like a gifted masseuse with beautiful strong fingers.
“Improves the décor, doesn’t it?”
“Sure does. Do you want to say something about how you envision your role?”
“Am I more of a Jobs or a Woz?”
“Michael or LeBron?”
He passed on my question and told the robot to play some Bill Evans. I recognized the opening bars of “Peace Piece.” It always reminds me of Satie.
“An Evans guy, huh?” I said appreciatively.
“A white guy who could play.” It was a grim sarcastic dead‐ pan, but not asocial.
I said, “He just played the white keys.” By now we were almost on the same wavelength. He poured a second round and we talked about Evans and Miles, Miles and Coltrane, Evans and Getz, Evans and La Faro. We talked about drugs and death. The conversation veered off in that direction like a blind old hunting dog.
Crawford leaned back and put his feet up on the desk. He was wearing laceless black sneakers and flecks of white hair grew above his ankles. “Some men are born addicts—doesn’t matter how talented they are. It’s the tragic flaw in their blood. I can’t imagine Bach or Vivaldi as drug addicts. But Evans….”
“Aside from music, Evans was a dabbler. He dabbled in Zen. He also dabbled in Islam. Vivaldi was a Catholic priest, Bach a serious Protestant.”
“They were religious men.”
“You think that makes a difference?”
“It’s like the generations of artificial intelligence that finally come to consciousness. You know—the vaunted singularity. Only the poor machines find themselves marooned in a remote part of the galaxy, revolving an obscure star, on an obscure planet like our own, with almost no record of how they got there. Now here’s the kicker. One computer says to the other, ‘What are we going to do?’ The other computer says, ‘Try not to think about it.’”
I mentioned earlier the famous phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up.” That’s true: how can satire compete with teddy bears in BDSM gear? Another difficulty lurks, however. It is this. The grand game of narratives cannot be effectively satirized unless there is a moral alternative to the grand game. To escape this situation, in which satire is impossible, we need an alternative to power as the arbiter of our differences. So the satirist has in effect two tasks: (1) the work of caricaturing what is morally grotesque in our society, and (2) the work of suggesting a better way that awakens the conscience.
As regards both these tasks—the work of effective caricature, and the work of suggesting a better way—one needs to overcome people’s defense-mechanisms, which is where laughter goes to work. One does not necessarily welcome self-knowledge. I happen to think, for instance, that our constant state of crisis serves to defend its producers and consumers against the painful work of self-knowledge. This November’s election was, as per usual, about the fate of democracy. The wave of hype also served to keep the shark’s fin of our 31 trillion-dollar national debt out of sight. After all, what does a 31 trillion-dollar national debt have to do with the fate of democracy? So I make fun of the narcissists at a Manhattan paper called the Times’ Times, where Moses Shea used to work, until he was fired by the new editor-in-chief, after the previous editor-in-chief was beheaded.  The new editor-in-chief, who is named Olwin Bright, is interviewing Moses for a job as editor of the Times’ Times Book Review:
Ending  her  call,  she  turned  her  attention  to  me.  It  was  a dangerous position to be in. Olwin Bright was a wizard of infinite craft. The ability to manufacture lies, disguises, and traps is  a  universal  mark  of  executive  talent,  but  her  ability  was layered, dense, and calculating to a level of sophistication that crossed like beautiful weaponry into the realm of the aesthetic. The game between  us wasn’t the ordinary  ape clash. It was a subtler struggle for authority like a war between two novelists bent on reducing each other to a minor character in one’s own superior fiction.
“All  the  time  I  knew  you,”  she  said,  as  I  sat  down  in  the chair beside her, “I was aware of two things. One, that we had serious  differences.  And  two,  that  you  were  actually  quite gifted. My  worry was that  you couldn’t  adapt to changing circumstances.”  A  pageboy  haircut  framed  her  face,  black hair  on  a  pale  cheek.  Her  blouse  and  jeans  were  black. Some  subtler  mirror-work  lurked  in  her  silver  choker necklace and, descending over the breastbone, a stiletto of white flesh. “I don’t want you to be misled. Book reviewing is a dangerous business. It comes with an interesting set of risks and  rewards.”  Her  lips were  red  and  warm, her  eyes gray and cold. “Our previous editor, poor Edie, didn’t last six  weeks.  She  couldn’t  stick  to  our  point  system.  It’s  a simple thing and it’s all we ask. Do you know about it?”
“I can’t say I do.”
“To make things easier we’ve put together a scoring guide. The basic principle is this: the greater the intersectionality, the more valuable the work. A novel about a quadriplegic black lesbian orphan adopted by an abusive white hetero couple and bartered into sexual slavery in exchange for logging rights in the Amazon rainforest would obviously be hard to beat, so long as it’s written by an Afro-descendent author whose preferred gender is pan.”
“So, if I understand correctly, I’d be given a scoring guide?”
“Yes. It’s a key part of our editorial equipment.”
“Do reviewers use the scoring guide?”
“Unfortunately, some of them refuse to do so. In particular, some of the older ones still show a tendency to ‘go literary,’ as we call it. It’s odd, because all the major publishing houses encourage new authors to follow our system. We kind of leaked it to them.”
Then she reached over to the coffee table, retrieved a 9×12 envelope from among the newspapers, and handed it to me. It was marked “Offer.”
“Take your time,” she said, retreating into her private office.
The better way I have in mind is a pluralistic America that is well educated, humanistic in culture, liberal and tolerant in politics, good at debating trade-offs, mature about recognizing pros and cons, competent at working through tricky topics, and versed in laughter. I refer to liberalism in an “old-fashioned” sense, because I do not sympathize with many who call themselves liberals today, but who strike me as illiberal in the extreme, particularly in their response to Christianity. I am old enough to remember when the spirit of the Fourth of July was neither a vestige of residual nationalism nor sacredly patriotic, but funny and even a little rowdy. July 4th properly understood isn’t so far removed from the Mayday festivals of Shakespeare’s day. July 4th should help us blow off steam. But as you can see, I’ve started preaching, and preaching doesn’t necessarily mix well with satire. So the satirist must be rather sly when working in a vision of the good. The trick, in my book, is to make your moral authority someone that the reader can connect to. In America, that means a flawed individual with enough decency to help keep the American experiment going. “A republic, madam,” Ben Franklin is reported to have said, “if you can keep it.” My protagonist, Moses Shea, is a short man who, in his bumbling way, measures up to the moral height that the Boston-born Franklin demanded of us. And one of the key indications of this moral height is that Moses can laugh at his own folly. He is a fool who knows he is a fool. Insofar as his Christianity helps him to know himself, it may prove to be helpful for the reader as well. In terms of the moral frame or standard of the satire, Moses’ being a Christian opens another possibility beyond the pagan game of power and shame and defeat. It opens the possibility of a well-formed conscience and compassion for one’s enemies.
I will conclude this paper with a final reading from my book Old Enemies, which is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Please feel free to buy a copy. Don’t let me stop you.
The passage I will close with starts with a long catalogue. This is an old device that we satirists stole from the epic poets. The Christian satirist François Rabelais is a past-master of this satirical technique. In the first book of Pantagruel, for instance, Rabelais lists an obscene catalogue of the books at a Parisian monastery. It begins fairly innocently, before the author starts slipping in the cocktails: The Handcart of Salvation; The Slipper of the Decrees; The Pomegranate of the Vices, The Testes of Theology; The Apparition of Saint Gertrude to a Nun of Poissy during her Child-birth; On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company; The Mus-tardy Pot of Penitence; and on it runs for six additional pages, including such gems as Fundamental Floggings; Tartaretus: On How to Defecate; Beda, On the Excellence of Tripe; Cardinals’ Bat-wings; Monastic Whoopings; Ape-chattering with a Rosary; and that anonymous classic, The Arse-over-tipery of the Confraternities. Now either you love this kind of stuff or you don’t. Personally, I steal from Rabelais whenever I can. The Irish writer James Joyce was a lover of Rabelais. C. S. Lewis was not. In a letter to his older brother, Warnie, Lewis admits to finding Rabelais funny though he is “very long, very incoherent, and very, very stercoraceous.” That’s the word of the day: stercoraceous! As we all know, stercoraceous is derived from stercus, the Latin word for dung. Lewis, with his puritanical streak, found himself laughing at Rabelais despite himself. And with his characteristic candor, Lewis admitted it.
So here’s my final bit. It’s starts with a catalogue, as I’ve warned you. I enjoyed sculpting this catalogue, and it’s interesting to me how it reflects the theme of how narratives are constructed. The scene involves the final stand-off between the leader of Saint Malachy College, whose name is President Eudora White-White, and a group of elderly alums, veterans of Korea and Vietnam, who arrive on campus to defend the college chapel against the outbreak of rioting:
Three hundred aging alumni, veterans of Korea and Vietnam, arrived to form a phalanx. A Latino guy, one Rodrìguez, had fought at the Chosin Reservoir and the other veterans revered him. To a man, they knew their duty. With multiple dormitories going up in flames, the President of Saint Malachy College arrived on the scene. In her left hand she held a megaphone. In her right hand she gripped a mysterious object and pointed it at the noses of the chapel’s defenders. Some said it was a cigar, others a flute; some a banana, others a fig; some a wedge, others a stake; some a spike, others a prong; some a ruler, others a dagger; some a ferule, others a pointer; some a fly-swatter, others a spatula; some a crayon, others a drill bit; some a carrot, others a maraca; some a spyglass, others a squash; some a curling iron, others a goad; some a sheath, others a scabbard; some a popgun, others a popsicle; some a blackjack, others a bodkin; some a windshield wiper, others a chopstick; some an arrow, others a dart; some a bottle, others a bottle rocket; some a toy submarine, others an umbrella; some a truncheon, others a nutcracker; some a fasces, others a crow‐bar; some a baton, others a pool cue; some a snow cone, others a lollipop; some a mushroom, others a harpoon; some a Snickers, others a snake; some a pike, others a pickle; some a glasses case, others a bar of soap; some a chile pepper, others a Philly cheesesteak; some a rook, others a queen; some a handle, others a spout; some a candle, others a candlestick; some an AA battery, others a flashlight; some a monkey’s paw, others a mummy’s foot; some a Berkshire pork tenderloin, others a rectal thermometer of American manufacture; some a bicycle pump, others a grenade launcher; some a volumetric flask, others a poodle balloon; some a crab’s claw, others a corn cob; some a gyro, others a gyroscope; some an iron poker, others a skeleton key; some a cricket bat, others an oar; some a rolling pin, others a screwdriver; some a blaster, others a blintz; some a baguette, others an éclair; some a saltcellar, others a pepper shaker; some an egg-whisk, others a Panasonic remote; some a squib, others a stick of dynamite; some a kaleidoscope, others a refracting telescope; some a candlepin, others a can of ReddiWip; some a sausage, others a lance; some a whipstock, others a pizzle; some a boomerang, others a tailor’s clapper; some a nozzle, others a cruet; some a catkin, others a peapod; some a gator tooth, others scrimshaw; some a strigil, others a fan; some Ken, others Barbie; some a peace pipe, others a lead pipe; some a cattle prod, others a straw; some a tusk, others the jawbone of an ass; some a lobster, others a harmonica; some a right circular cylinder, others an oblique cone; some a crystal, others a pestle; some a frankfurter, others a shish kabob; some a roll of Buffalo nickels, others a roll of Mercury dimes; some a stalagmite, others a stalactite; some a thyrsus, others a distaff; some a syringe, others a fountain pen; some a cane, others a marotte; some a brickbat, others an ingot; some a cactus, others a crocus; some a gewgaw, others a gimcrack; some a vacuum hose, others a vacuum tube; some a mace, others a parade stick; some a voodoo doll, others a philosopher’s stone; some a shillelagh, others a shofar; some a crozier, others a stage hook; some a dingus, others a grail; some a totem, others an idol; some a scepter, others a rod; some an Oscar, others an Emmy; some Circe’s wand, others Moses’s staff; some a 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano cartridge, others a booster shot; some Pinocchio’s nose, others a satirist’s head; some a lightsaber, others Gaudier-Brzeska’s Torpedo Fish; some a golden bough, others a vial of dreams; some a diploma, others nothing. My personal theory is that these accounts are all true, quite true, but true on a hermeneutic level, unlike the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, which I have always taken literally.
Her name was President Eudora White-White and she denounced the men as fascists. She decried their patriarchal logic. She condemned their toxic masculinity. She demanded they check their privilege. She said she didn’t mean counterargument. She lectured this crew of war-torn, working stiffs about the overriding importance of wealthy women who had enjoyed every benefit afforded by an advanced and tolerant society—that is, the society the men before her had defended to the hilt—in order to be celebrated and professionally pampered because of historical injustices that were cynically exploited by beneficiaries of the system like herself. President White-White digressed from her lecture to bust a few moves to “The Power” by SNAP!, which blasted from a nearby loud‐ speaker. She went on to advance a number of strategic initiatives and to say she was very optimistic about the future, as well as to solicit donations for a new, thirty million-dollar mental health facility intended to “unite the campus.” Then she commanded the men to do the right thing by shutting up and getting out of the way.
When the rioters rushed the hill, intent on toppling the statue and burning the chapel to the ground, the three hundred old guys endured cuts, bruises, and one or two heart attacks, but they held out until some local skunks, provoked by the ungodly racket, hosed down the belligerents with a fine artisanal spray. Skunks are basically peaceful animals.

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