Toward a sociology of satire

We've been reading a lot of serious stuff about humor since the assassinations of the "Charlie Hebdo" team and the related assault on the supermarket in Paris. It's really hard to joke about so much blood. But sometimes humor is the best, or even the only, way to deal emotionally with such trauma, without totally breaking down. And that's really what satire is about, coping with horror by laughing at it. That's what the latest cover of "Charlie" has tried to do. But millions of people don't get the joke, and can't be expected to, because the kinds of horror they're facing is something entirely different from "Charlie"'s audience.

Satire is an interplay of three terms: author, target, and audience, and they have to work in concert. The author is looking for a laugh at the expense of people or practices that make him and his intended audience uncomfortable. The laughter is supposed to be cathartic, a release (however brief) from that discomfort or fear.

For it to work, the audience has to recognize the target and share the author's discomfort.

And there's the problem. Or several problems. To wit,
  • To be effective, it has to be deliberately offensive to its targets without alienating its intended audience. But with the Internet and television, its targets are a big part of its audience.   
  • In France, readers of Charlie Hebdo were and are uncomfortable with Sarkozy's frenetic impulses, Hollande's wavering, Valls' authoritarianism, the Catholic church hierarchy's moral pronouncements, Zionist nationalists and radical Islamists — among the more frequent targets. But even within France, from Paris center to the banlieues, in Marseille from the port district to the fancy shopping area next door, very different factors make people uncomfortable and fearful.
  • Getting the laugh depends on irony, deliberate exaggeration which demands shared understanding of symbols and caricatures. All of us non French have probably been misreading a lot of the jokes in Charlie Hebdo, according to this persuasive discussion by Tekno. And the readings in Chechenia or Pakistan are also wildly opposite the satirists' presumed intention.
  •  Satire also requires a shared culture of discourse, i.e., what is permitted and what is not permitted to say. What a satirist can get away with in France can get you lashed to death in Saudi Arabia, jailed in Egypt, run off the airwaves in Venezuela. 
  • And you can't really get away with all that much in France, either — as Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a very funny man but with very different targets, long ago discovered. 
And those are some of the problems with "Charlie Hebdo" and all satire today. But we have to keep laughing, every chance to get, whenever we start quaking with fear. Even, or especially, when we're afraid somebody who is offended is going to try to kill us.


The imaginary "Muslim community": postscript to my latest post

I just read this essay (in its Spanish translation) in today's issue of El País. It struck me as a revelation, making sense of all the contradictory news reports from France, and about Muslims generally. Here it is in English translation, from Huffington Post. It will set in context what I posted earlier today, on "Two trails to terror".

There Are More French Muslims Working for French Security Than for Al Qaeda — Olivier Roy

Two trails to terror

Alabama-born jihadist Omar Hammami
How is it that so many young men and women born and raised in secular, post-Christian, democratic societies in Western Europe (or the U.S.) acquire the passion to kill and die for Islam? Not just the slaughterers of Charlie Hebdo or their confederate in the kosher supermarket in Paris, but many others in Syria or Iraq or on the streets of London who pose proudly for videos as they prepare to slay defenseless prisoners.

We actually do know how this happens in most cases, though it's harder to explain just why. What is clear is that it is not Islam that has driven these youth to terror, but their commitment to the movement that requires them to embrace an extremely violent caricature of Islam — to justify their actions. They are what French investigators of the phenomenon have called "precarious personalities," youth bursting with energy and rage who need direction and control in their lives. Some, like the Kouachi brothers, are/were orphans, others feel their parents have failed them for all or any of the reasons that children generally rebel against their parents — the parents' attitudes are from another time or even another country, and thus seem irrelevant. And the children live in societies where employment, education and other social goals seem unavailable or unrewarding, and where other outlets they've tried — becoming a rap star, playing video games, or petty crime in some of the known cases — have failed, and they'd much rather blame the society rather than themselves. Some of these European Jihadists come from Christian or even Jewish families, and even those whose parents were nominally Muslim were not raised to be devout.

In this respect, their path to terror has been the opposite of the original Afghan taliban, whose zeal derived from a skewed but dedicated reading and reciting of the holy scriptures of Islam, the Koran and the haddiths. "Taliban" is the plural of talib, religious scholar, a term which took on a special meaning in the isolated madrasas of the Afghan mountains, which exaggerated the intolerance of very rural people against modern, urban intrusions.

Because of course there are many other Muslims, more modern and worldly, who have also  studied the teachings and history of their religion, but come to entirely different conclusions. Islam was a religion of war, originating in a 6th century warrior society, but became in many parts of the world  a religion of brotherhood and peace and the encouragement of learning in all fields, very notably in medicine in the so-called "Islamic Golden Age" of the 8th to 15th centuries. But, like any religion, a selective reading may be taken as a pretext for bad behavior. How the ignorant, fierce taliban became useful tools for more sophisticated Muslims with other grievances against modern society is a big part of the history of Al Qaeda.


But back to our European Jihadists. Once they've committed themselves to this violent, anti-European and anti-democratic movement, at great risk to themselves, belief in the literal meanings of the Jihad becomes essential to their self-definition. Other Muslims may laugh at or ignore mocking of their preachers and their poses and their rhetoric, but the new converts to violence cannot stand it. Satire shakes the very fundament of their being, the substance that holds their personality together. It's called "cognitive dissonance" in psychology — people can't stand evidence that tells them they've made a foolish decision.



Roots and wings

Power in the Global Age: A New Global Political EconomyUlrich Beck died of heart-attack on January 1. To remind us of some of the important contributions of this very original social thinker, I am reposting this review which first appeared here in 2007.

Power in the Global Age: A New Global Political Economy by Ulrich Beck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this much-praised essay, Ulrich Beck, German sociologist and professor at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich, demonstrates why neither nation-states nor international capital alone can save us from the many dangers of the "globalized" globe, and proposes an alliance of these two forces (which can't be ignored) with global "civil society" movements -- not to withdraw from globalization, but to engage it and realize its potential for making a better world for all of us.

Beck argues that: 1. The most urgent problems are now too global to be dealt with effectively by any state (global warming, pollution, exhaustion of carbon fuels, AIDS and other diseases, immigration, terrorism, etc.); 2. Transnational organizations (UN, WTO, NATO, etc.) are clumsy and ineffective, because they are still playing by obsolete "rules" of seeking common ground among states rather than among citizens; 3. Global capital is thus unrestrained by laws except companies' own "extralegal laws" of agreements among themselves, and exercises power over states by nonviolent means of threatening not to invest (in, say, Bolivia, if its laws become too uncomfortable) -- though companies do have to invest somewhere in order to survive, and fierce competition among and within companies makes their leaders' power precarious; 4. Global NGOs can exploit the vunerabilities of global capital (e.g., by organizing consumer boycotts) and pressuring states (e.g., by mobilizing voters and demonstrators), either to solve terrible humanitarian or ecological problems (e.g., Greenpeace, Amnesty International) or exacerbating them (e.g., al-Qaeda -- which is another kind of global nongovernmental organization).

The only hope for humanity is for these three forces (states, which are still necessary instruments of power, enlightened global capital, and global civil society) to combine forces as cosmopolitans, meaning that they feel themselves as belonging simultaneously to the cosmos and to the polis ("glocalization"), not to impose a Western vision of democracy or American culture or any other particular ideology ("universalism" of this sort is imperialism), but recognizing and accepting "the otherness of others" (die Andersheit der Anderen), different strokes for different folks, all recognizing one another's rights to live in a better world.

He says all that in far too many words (my favorite, from p. 286, is Globalisierungsbefürwortungsgegner, rendered by the translator as "opponents of the pro-globalization lobby") and occasionally surrealist metaphors (cosmopolitans should have "both roots and wings" he says over and over), repeats ideas and even phrases, and tells you many things that you already knew (e.g., Pres. Bush's attempt to impose his own sketchily-developed vision of a world order has had and can only have disastrous results, in Iraq and everywhere). Still, the basic ideas (the 4 points numbered above) are probably valid and well worth thinking about and maybe even acting upon -- the utopian (his term) cosmopolitan vision is a lot better than any of the alternatives under discussion.

View all my reviews


Historical fiction: impossible and necessary

Anyone who has seriously attempted it knows the impossibility of representing past events authentically, as they were lived and felt by the people involved. Michael Graves was surely aware of this impossibility when he impersonated a Roman noble of the 1st century A.D. in I, Claudius. John Fowles, in The French Lieutenant's Woman, interrupts his narrative to acknowledge the impossibility of truly understanding the thoughts of his character Smithson, who is, like Fowles, an Englishman and lived only a bit more than a century before Fowles' book. People then just didn't think the way we do. Even in our own families, in overlapping generations, grandchildren and grandparents are often bewildered by one another's reactions and behaviors.

There are authors unaware of this gap, and who present a Cleopatra or a soldier of Napoleon's Grande Armée as though they saw the world just like, say, a contemporary American teenager or a Green Beret. They put contemporary characters into past situations, changing little more than the wardrobe. But when you and I read historical fiction, we demand something more. We want to get into the minds of those very foreign people. People in the past just don't think and act the way we do. It's not just a question of how much they know or what tools or weapons they have available — all that is important — but, more mysteriously, the ways their brains are configured.

The biggest break between one kind of thinking and another comes, historically, with literacy. Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, and the pioneering work of Vygotsky and Luria in Uzbekistan and other neuroscientists and diverse scholars have made clear, the neural paths that connect and stimulate different parts of the brain change enormously with literacy. As Jaynes put it, preliteracy we used to hear voices that seemed to come from afar but were really memories stored in one hemisphere of the brain, whereas learning to read connects the two hemispheres so that one half of the brain is aware of what the other half is firing off in electrons.

But the changes don't end there. Even in a society where everyone is literate, new technologies — the telegraph, then the telephone, then TV, and on to Smartphones and Whatsapp — create new neurological connections. Our concepts of time have changed enormously, but also our sense of relationships in an era where one can suddenly acquire a zillion "friends" or even "followers" without leaving home.

In my case, in my novel in progress, I'm trying to understand and to present to readers the thinking of people who acted in — whether for or against or just trying to survive — the Paris Commune of 1871. They spoke a different language from the one I'm using, but more than that, they lived in a culture that was more oral than ours (not everybody knew how to read, and only a minority read anything at all complicated), where inner city mobility was either on foot or by horse-drawn vehicle or on horseback, and where relationships — men and women, or comrades of the same sex, or rivals — obeyed different traditions from ours. 

But we must try to reach them, if we are to understand anything about the Commune and thus to understand how the western revolutionary tradition emerged and how it has changed. We can come closer to understanding if we read carefully what they themselves said about it, and the testimony left by survivors of the bloody massacre of May 1871, together with court transcripts and newspaper reports and other documents, is abundant. We can come closer, but we cannot quite reach them. So my solution, like Fowles' in The French Lieutenant's Woman, is to acknowledge the gap, to let readers know that I am aware that those people are and ever will be different from us.


Petition Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee

In case you haven't seen this, there is a petition going to Lt. Gen. Claude M. "Mick" Kicklighter of the Vietnam 50th Anniversary Commemoration Program, demanding that any commemoration include all of us who protested with all the energy we could summon against that monstrously cruel war.
Petition Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee
If you too were active, here's your chance to sign and describe some of what you did. Together, we finally made it impossible for them to continue — making it clear first to LBJ, and then to Nixon, that they couldn't keep the peace at home if they continued the war abroad.

Here you can find my statement, along with those of all the other signers, describing a little bit of how we were involved in those actions.
Viet Nam Today: Annotated Signers


Vietnam, the ongoing memory | Harvard Gazette

Lest we forget. This war shaped all our lives, even of those not born till afterward. For thus of who were young adults 40 years ago, the draft, the enormous expense of the destruction (bombs, aircraft, medical attention to the wounded, junkets of congressmen), the deep political divisions (antiwar vs. LBJ and McNamara 'Realpolitik'), the clashes of protesters and police, the career decisions and other moral dilemmas, the grieving for the enormous human losses skewed the lives of all of us — and that was just in the United States. The consequences in Vietnam were enormous, too enormous for most Americans to even think about at any length or depth — because thinking about it, seriously, could bring us to the brink of despair, or of action.

Vietnam, the ongoing memory | Harvard Gazette