Satire is art, serious and complex. As it pokes fun at powerful people, institutions, and movements, it serves as commentary as important and powerful, when done well, as the best op-eds.
I define satire as the art of seeing through hypocrisies of bloviating egotists, pompous blowhards, and righteous moralists and producing pithy lines that incisively cut through their flimflam. In short, it’s humorous invective.
The liberal mind has a predilection for satire because it attacks power. The powerful don’t use satire against their inferiors because it doesn’t work; instead, they demean them, thus the basis of racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes and put-downs.
The butt of satire and his/her/its defenders, who often aren’t equipped to process and appreciate satire, vehemently push back against it for they sense how ridicule undercuts power. It’s difficult to be taken seriously when one is the butt of jokes. Picture, as I wrote last week, the POTUS unzipped.
The satirist’s job is to lay low the powerful. Yet, it’s important to keep in mind the satirist himself is flawed. The difference between him and those he satirizes, though, is that he recognizes his warts and doesn’t try to conceal them through skullduggery.
The master satirist, of course, was Mark Twain. Through his timeless novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that many critics—Hemingway and Mencken among them—consider the greatest American novel, Twain eviscerates the hypocritical society and religion of his time.
Considering the king and duke in the novel, one cannot help but to make the correlation to our current drama. (Picture Donald Trump descending the escalator at Trump Tower when he announced his candidacy.) Upon meeting the king and duke, he says, “It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars weren’t no kings and dukes, at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds.”
Huck, though, is amazed that so many fall for their ploy. For him, the masses who cannot or refuse to see through the scam being perpetrated on them before their eyes are “prejudiced chuckleheads.”
H.L. Mencken was a protégé of Twain. His wit, though, took its form through cutting ridicule more than humor.
“It is a tragedy, indeed,” he wrote, “to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”
Mencken wrote that about William Jennings Bryan, the lead prosecutor during the Scopes Monkey Trial, which took place in July 1925. Like Trump, Bryan had the power to captivate his adoring disciples. Bryan’s vehicle was eloquence; Trump’s, anything but.
I haven’t read much Mencken. But then he was a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, and who reads journalists, right? In his prime in the twenties when he was in his forties, they called him the Sage of Baltimore. He was one of those educated, reading, thoughtful types intellectual dimwits fear, sneer at, and call elites.
Mencken was most irreverent. A racist, social Darwinist, and admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche, he disdained democracy, holding zero faith in the collective wisdom of the masses, particularly those strolling Peoria’s Main Street and any street in the South. To him, they were uptight, righteous rabble that found God but not their ability to reason.
“No one in this world,” he wrote, “so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
On the eve of Warren G. Harding’s election in 1920, he predicted, “On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
That election bore him out, and nearly a century later, we’ve given evidence to George Santayana’s maxim about history repeating itself. But at least we’ve disproven social Darwinism. The court of our Monkey Trial is in session.
To be continued.