Satire

So a bunch of “activists” get together and create a hysterical video. These people claim that in 2012, a foreboding date that conveniently matches up with the Mayan calendar, the Internet as we know it will end. No more net neutrality. ISPs moving in for the big avaricious kill. Without citing a single shred of evidence to support their claim, the video that these “activists” post results in hysteria. It has, at the time of this posting, been Digged 7,170 times, and a strong majority of Diggers have swallowed this castor oil without stopping to question the specifics. Among the group: Tania Derveauax, who promised Belgian voters 40,000 blowjobs when running for political office, who promised to take the virginity of anyone who supported net neutrality, and who pledged online that she would kill herself in 90 days. What’s more, these “activists” created another video in May in which they used the same music cue and much of the same language justifying Ms. Derveaux’s suicide blog.

This latest stunt is fine satire and it’s certainly a masterful prank. And if the point made here involves demonstrating just how gullible people are when accepting such codswallop, then this group has certainly served its purpose. Nevertheless, I find myself a bit troubled by this video. Troubled by the manner in which so many people have easily accepted this. Troubled by the unseen joy that this group has had in witnessing these reactions. Troubled by a group who wishes to abdicate their sincerity and who believes, quite rightly as it turns out, that people are willing to believe nearly everything. One can certainly make the claim that this group is recused from guilt because they were only putting out prevarications that any reasonable person would resist, but these people knew what they were doing. And this video has now been circulated so widely that I’ve even received a few emails from people who seem to believe that it’s real. And while I respect the right of this group to declare nearly everything on a freedom of speech principle, I’ve always felt that if you’re going to execute a gag along these lines, there needs to be a few subtle clues in the details that alert others to the blatant fabrications.

These hangups are mine. I choose to believe, perhaps with solid dollops of naivete, that most people are good. That, in the grand scheme of humanity, the assholes and the solipsists are outweighed by those who are kind, amicable, and wish to help others out. NEE may very well be the living embodiment of the boy crying wolf, and the organization, if we can call it that, certainly has every right to challenge its audience. But I ponder the long-term view. Is life something in which you’re expected to mock every heartfelt gesture or concern? What is the value in being an inveterate cynic? I suspect these are the questions that nearly every satirist asks. But does not effective satire involve getting others to think about a subject? Lenny Bruce’s infamous “nigger” routine is, to my mind, a tremendous achievement. Bruce managed to get his audience to re-examine a loaded issue. The satire bristled against its audience, but it did get them to see another perspective running a bit counter to their own. The perspective practiced in this video doesn’t involve this level of thoughtfulness. It suggests a false expertise and a sense of self-importance (“If you don’t believe us, call your ISP”) on the part of the satirists. George Saunders got into trouble for suggesting a similar line of thought in relation to Borat. And while I disagreed with him, I can see his point. Even if people can ferret out on their own that this video is an outright lie, I find that the best satire is that which respects the audience’s intelligence.

And yet I find myself still justifying the right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater. And I am willing, on some level, to defend this video and website for the way in which it pushed its audience. Those currently duped will indeed understand this at some point. So perhaps on this basis, NEE is no different from a satirist who chooses a more pellucid distinction. But should there comes a time in Ms. Derveauax’s life when she is suffering some genuine physical calamity, I wonder if others might consider it a gag. I wonder why there can’t be a balance between an elaborate joke and a true sense of being. When one lives exclusively in a satirical bubble, how can that real person or the real voice flourish?

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2 Comments

  1. Ed, I sometimes brood over this terrible dilemma: the power of speech, writing and language over people’s minds, over their sanity even — a dangerous power for anyone to wield.

    My brooding goes like this:

    “Oh dear. I could state anything… anything at all… using the full arsenal of language, imagination and sheer gall — and somewhere, some fanatic or gullible person will take the statement as Truth — no matter how fake it sounds. In fact, the more outlandish the statement, the more feverishly the believer will accept it. He might even act on it.”

    Language can be a more terrible weapon than the Bomb.

    What a burden of responsibility this insight brings you! You are no longer able to throw around careless words, because you’re painfully aware that mere words can hurt; mere words can breed fanatical followings, lynch mobs, suicidal terrorists, crazed gunmen, endless strife.

    What to do? We must teach. Teach the world to tell the difference between a word and what it’s supposed to represent; that just because you name something the “named” doesn’t exist.

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