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Commercialization, lack of purpose keep modern satire from being helpful

In South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the U.S. invades Canada in order to free American children from the smutty influence of the Canadian media industry. Why? Welcome to the world of satire!

The makers of South Park pour derision on a pseudo-morality that finds “fart jokes” and movie sex unconscionable while cheerily applauding (or ignoring) the thousands of deaths resulting from America’s unjustified military invasion of a foreign country.

Satire is at its best when its attacks on our common sense notions of right and wrong cause us to take a step back from our pre-conceived notions and ready-made ideologies. At times, satire provides us with a much-needed opportunity for self-reflection, growth, and even progressive change.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if we are living in a post-satirical age-is there still an important role for satire to play in the 21st century?

First, we tend to laugh only at satire that ridicules beliefs and people that we don’t like. Republicans enjoy Bill Clinton sex jokes, while Democrats laugh at George Bush stupidity jokes.

Is satire that guffaws to the choir really accomplishing any constructive purpose, or is it merely multiplying the divide between already-distant “sides” in our American political conversation?

Second, satire often claims to subvert the flawed structures of a corrupt society, but to gain a mass audience, contemporary satire must navigate our corporate media environment.

Can there be such a thing as subversive, commercial satire? After all, the most common way to succeed in the commercial mass media is to secure the largest possible audience. Satirists go about this by becoming equal opportunity offenders.

As Stuart Klawans noted in his movie review in The Nation, if the makers of Team America: World Police slam Bush for his cowboy brand of foreign policy, they also have to use every possible method of demolishing and defiling plastic effigies of notorious liberals like Michael Moore.

What satirical claim is this making? Are all political positions ludicrous? Are all politically-charged behaviors created equal-i.e., is waging a costly, questionable war in Iraq the ethical equivalent of making a pretentious, left-leaning documentary about America’s love of guns and violence?

If one problem with contemporary satire is that it is too divisive, perhaps an equal but opposite problem is that it often seems too ratings-driven to stand up for a single, coherent moral or political position.

Where is the value in one satirist mocking liberals and conservatives, John Kerry and George W. Bush, Michael Moore and Ann Coulter? In failing to take a coherent stance, the satirist risks abandoning the very standards of morals that satirical comedy is supposed to defend.

Finally, is ridicule really a useful tool in a culture that worships entertainment? As cultural critic Neil Postman would say, we demand that our education, our politics and even our religion be entertaining and, if possible, funny.

What meaningful role can satire play in such a context? What good does it do to make a politician look ridiculous, when he or she is already trying as hard as possible to be amusing?

I am reminded of all the political guests on Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show, the Tonight Show and the Late Show-all of them tripping over each other to make fun of themselves.

But if George Bush and Al Gore think the jokes about them are funny, are these jokes really all that effective as satire? What’s the point? Shouldn’t satire sting a bit more than this?

In a culture that delights in trivializing everything that might otherwise be important or sacred, satire often leaves me unsatisfied. At the end of the day, jokes won’t devise a good exit strategy for our troops in Iraq, and they won’t make sure that New Orleans is rebuilt in a way that is economically and racially just.

But if the satirists have convinced the populace that everything is meaningless and absurd, who will bother paying attention to the very important (but not very funny) public and private conversations that will decide how America treats its own people and its neighbors around the world?

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