— Bud Norman
— Bud Norman
— Bud Norman
— Bud Norman
These are hard times for the satire business, and not just because of the bad economy. The bigger problem for the modern satirist is that no parody can be so broad, so exaggerated, so obviously made-up that much of the public won’t take it seriously.
Yet another example of this phenomenon was recently provided by the many supposedly smart writers who regurgitated some obviously fabricated quotes attributed to Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. The column had Ryan responding to some pol’s claim that he would have to wash off the “stench” of his association with Mitt Romney by saying such things as “If Stench calls, take a message” and “tell Stench I’m having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan and will text him later.” A casual reader could be forgiven for failing to notice the satirical intent because of its lack of humor, a usual indicator of satire, but the quotes are so at odds with the usual caricature of Ryan as bland and annoying wholesome that it should have tipped off anyone the slightest bit astute.
An even more frustrating example from recent days is Mitt Romney’s infamous statement that “I can relate to black people, my ancestors once owned slaves.” Romney never said any such thing, of course, and anyone who wants to trace this bizarre rumor to its source will eventually arrive at a little-known internet publication with the telling name of “Free Wood Post,” which bills itself as “news that’s almost reliable” and offers a disclaimer that flatly states all articles are fiction and “any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental.” Even this was insufficient to prevent the quote from appearing on countless blogs, tweets, and exceptionally gullible cable news networks such as MSNBC.
Similar mistakes are too numerous to mention. Cases of people falling for similarly obvious attempts at satire in the widely-read on-line satire publication The Onion are so common that a site called “Literally Unbelievable” has been created just to chronicle them.
This problem goes back at least as far as the era of Mark Twain, who noted that “To write a burlesque so wild that its pretended facts will not be accepted in perfect good faith by somebody is very nearly an impossible thing to do,” but we suspect that it’s far more in the post-Gutenberg era of sitcoms and Saturday Night Live-derived movies. As practitioners of a drier form of wit, we’ve discovered that too many people now require a comically contorted face or outstretched palms or some other form of ample warning that a joke is coming, with a howling laugh track to accompany both the set-up and the punch line, and then have it followed by a capitalized “LOL” in order to understand that a remark is not meant to be taken literally.
We suspect the polarized state of American politics probably has something to do with, too, as people are ever more eager to believe the very worst about their ideological opponents. At the “Literally Unbelievable” site there are several examples of Republicans falling for clearly satirical exaggerations, but the Democrats who truly believe that anyone to the right of Sen. Al Franken is plotting for environmental Armageddon and the restoration of slavery seem to be most susceptible to mistaking satire for journalism.
— Bud Norman
We rarely inveigh against slavery anymore, not because of any fondness for it but rather because we have long assumed that in these enlightened times one’s abolitionist opinions can go without saying. Imagine our surprise, then, upon hearing that the Republican party’s presidential nominee is intent on restoring the peculiar institution.
Vice President Joe Biden made that extraordinary claim while speaking Tuesday at a campaign event in Danville, Virginia, where he told a cheering crowd that Mitt Romney and his party are “going to put y’all back in chains.” He appeared to be looking a mostly African-American section of the audience as he said it, and unless “y’all” is a Delawarism that we weren’t previously aware of it also sounded very much as if the remark was intended for their benefit.
In the interest of providing context, lest we be accused of misquoting the famously quotable Biden, the line was wedged into the middle of a tirade about Romney’s proposed financial regulation reforms and his running mate Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. After looking over the Ryan budget rather carefully and finding no provision for the restoration of slavery, we can only assume that it’s buried somewhere in one of Romney’s Wall Street position papers.
Any financial regulatory reform that entails the restoration of slavery will likely be found unconstitutional, probably on thirteenth amendment grounds, but then again one can’t really count on the Supreme Court for anything these days, and in any case it’s quite appalling that Romney would even want to do such a thing. Setting aside any moral qualms about the proposal, it seems a most unpromising political position. One wonders about the focus groups the Romney campaign used to the test the idea.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising, however. The Obama campaign has already helpfully informed us that Romney is a dog-torturing, gay-bashing, tax-cheating, Swiss bank account-holding cad who killed a guy’s wife, and is one of those rich guys to boot, so it isn’t much of a stretch to him as a latter day Simon Legree as well. There’s still plenty of campaign left, too, and it will be interesting to see what accusation the Obama crew will come up with to top this one.
Biden might very well be incorrect about Romney’s pro-slavery sentiments, of course. He was apparently under the mistaken impression that he was in North Carolina when he made the speech, after all, and he has gained something of reputation over the years for saying outrageously stupid things. He’s not backing down, and the campaign’s spokeswoman has declined to disavow the comment, but we’re still awaiting some proof of the allegation before rendering a final judgment.
— Bud Norman