Thursday, September 14, 2017

Functional Defenestration

It’s almost been a Friedman unit since I published anything in this joint so, with due deference to that old standby public service pamphlet, What everyone should know about blog depression, and a head nod to Bertrand Russell's note In Praise of Idleness, here goes some throat-clearing toli.

I. Defanging Satire (or Editorial Genuflections in the Internet Age)


Defanging satire in the age of the internet (New Yorker edition)

A highly paid editor at The New Yorker is now intervening to neuter the bite of Andy Borowitz's normally savage satire. The first injury came a few months ago with the retitling of the column and RSS feed from "The Borowitz Report" to "Satire from The Borowitz Report" as if to say “we must protect you from being a moron in a hurry”. Then the lasting, almost fatal, wound was the recent move to change the contents of the feed summary, which used to be the first few sentences of the article, to instead actively bash you over the head with a spoiler warning that each article is "a satirical report". Apparently the reader needs to be informed upfront that they are about to read a humorous article and protected from the dire possibility of being spoofed.

In other words, even for the most potent source of written content (and the New Yorker proclaims itself to have "the best writing anywhere"), it now of paramount importance to maintain its listing as a Google News "source" (and now with Facebook's Zuckerberg apparently faking concern about clickbait and fake news and the like, the audience needs to be coddled). The bean counters (and search engine optimizers) have run the numbers and, on the evidence, it is clear that telegraphing an article's intentions, and blunting its impact is worth the downside risk and what, I rather think, is grievous damage to art.

Up until a few months ago, the feed summary would have been the following (a pithy defenestration of age-old hypocrisy)

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) — The pornography industry has likely suffered permanent damage as a result of its unfortunate association with the Texas senator Ted Cruz, industry sources said on Tuesday.

It is soul-deadening to contemplate the considerable effort expended to actively sabotage noble hatchet jobs.

The only concession to art is that the editor didn't additionally prepend "Satire" to article titles as I noticed smaller publications starting to do routinely 12 or so years when Google News started being a dominant source of web traffic.

And here Dear Reader, as I wrote the foregoing sentence and began winding up to a thoroughgoing rant, I realized that I had been down this path before. Indeed I left a community (Blogcritics) back when its writing guidelines started to ask that writers explicitly tag their work and the site started messing with titles. The injunction then was that we needed to telegraph and prefix "Satire" to titles '(if you "make things up" or "bend the truth" notably to make a point, or for comedic effect)'.

Searching through the archives, I even found a cri de cœur written on the topic, Husbanding the Blogcritics Commons, a jeremiad-in-vain as it soon became a case of This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.

It is a disappointing development a decade later, that ostensibly powerful media outlets have thoroughly succumbed, even as one cannot deny their economic logic, pace Buzzfeed. And yet I remain a maximalist on the issue.

The story, I suppose, is about capitalism in the internet age. Per Jeff Hammerbacher by way of Allen Ginsberg, it is a case of "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads". Per contra, we could harken back to Slim Charles's folk wisdom from The Wire: "Game's the same, just got more fierce."

The existential question posed is how do we weigh the competing demands of popularity (as expressed by the Google News imperative) against whimsy (as expressed in satire). Sacrificing whimsy at the altar of attention is not a price worth paying, and I am yet to be convinced otherwise. Needless to say, I dissent.

II. Attention Mongering

Apropos attention, for a good decade, say right up to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and much to my consternation, a note I had hastily written On the importance of biting satire was regularly the top search result on Google about satire. It has since found its proper obscurity, but my unexpected Googlejuice in the interim meant that the occasional student writing a term paper on “why satire matters”, “significance of satire”, “importance of satire” etc. would start mining this blog.

The early web was a great equalizer, one in which my rants occasionally trumped the combined insights of Jonathan Swift, Will Self and the like, hell even the encyclopedic Wikipedia was lagging in the Anglophone internet. Even as Jon Stewart and company started a revival of the satiric tradition in America, the clicks kept coming my way.

I don't know if I ultimately managed to convince 15 readers of the paramount importance of savage satire as opposed to the milder form that Americans favor, but I feel my ultimate insight is worth restating:

I like my satire savage. It should be vicious, biting and deeply heartfelt. The targets should feel a sharp wound. The whimsical and comic artefacts of the best satirists are side-benefits; their purpose is really to serve as social barometers and canaries in the mineshafts of our communities.

III. On Satire

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that that so few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.

Jonathan Swift - The Battle of the Books
Satire is an art form that thrives best on a certain instability and tension in its creator. The satirist is always holding him or herself between two poles of great attraction. On the one side there is the flight into outright cynicism, anomie and amorality; on the other there is the equal and countervailing pressure towards objective truth, religion and morality.

Will Self - Junk Mail
[Will] Self sees himself paradoxically both as a moral satirist and as a social rebel who is more interested in shocking his middle-class readers than in reforming them. "What excites me," he has said, "is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable"

— Gillian Glover, as quoted in Brian Finney's The Sweet Smell of Excess: Will Self’s Fiction, Bataille and Transgression.
Of all the gifts of the pen perhaps the most fraught with danger is that which resolves itself into satire. It is indeed difficult to distinguish between cynicism and satire, perhaps the former is born of disappointment perhaps the latter is born of humour. Let it remain so and it cannot be called debased, let it become cold and let it die.

— Patrick Braybrooke writing on Hilaire Belloc as Essayist in Some Thoughts On Hilaire Belloc

Instability fundamentally disturbs markets which is why even the threat of boycotts so unmans even the most cynical modern corporations. The reverse of the coin however is that whimsy, that most valuable human concern, and its close counterpart satire thrive as disturbances to the mundanity of life. Reconciling whimsy in all its messiness to the demands of hard-nosed capitalism remains a struggle and yet struggle we must. For better or worse, we must humanize capitalism.

IV. Orphaned Thoughts

I once spent forty minutes on a subway sitting opposite a group of engineers and salespeople that worked at Functional Fenestration. They were attending a conference in Oakland about window hardware and automation, of all things. I was fascinated with their technical argot, the intricacies of the actuators, track and carriage systems and door automation that they were discussing. I marveled at the engineering arcana, and the fact that the windows and doors that we take for granted could have such complexity. Their deconstruction of the merits of some of their competitor's offerings and their strategizing about how to market the new feature of whatever widget they had just come up with (a slide handler if I remember correctly) drew me in. The intensity of the back and forth between the marketers and the technical folks reminded me of a comedy of manners of sorts, office politics writ large. Hypnotized as I was by the language and the context, I immediately imagined a novel or short story, something in the vein of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist and the title came unbidden, Functional Defenestration.

Most ideas are destined to be half-formed and ultimately, I never got beyond the few pages scribbled in my Moleskine, a meditation about a man unmoored by capitalism. The first sentence remains:

Man, it was hard to compete against those guys at Functional Fenestration, they were intense.
Run with it.

Soundtrack for this note

A playlist for those tilting at windmills.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An African Leader Bestiary

"When you are surrounded by vultures, try not to die", goes the Ivorian proverb, a touchstone for many post-colonial Africans. Changing the perspective somewhat in light of the unnatural longevity of Africa's leaders, I've been pondering the survival tactics of these scavenging creatures that have been our omnipresent companions. Cast yourself back to the middle of one of those lost decades in Africa and consider a magazine cover from 1984 featuring a representative trio of the time: Biya, Buhari and Rawlings. These names are still in the news thirty years on, but their paths have diverged. Most have stayed true to authoritarian form - albeit pretending to shed skin on occasion, and yet some have been reformed. Mitterrand, Thatcher, Gorbachev and Reagan have passed on but their African contemporaries have endured. What accounts for this tenacity? If the initial frame was the good, the bad and the ugly, something more elemental proved a better fit. Consider the following as fragments of an African leader bestiary of sorts.

talking drums 1984-05-28 Cameroon executions Biya - Buhari - Ghana's PDC-WDCs Rawlings

Conversion Narratives

Muhammadu Buhari is the exemplar of reform and reinvention. In his early career, he was an unabashed coup maker, repeatedly stopping Nigeria's nascent though imperfect democratic experiment in its tracks (1966, 1975). A severe military man, he came out of the shadows as head-of-state leading the December 1983 coup that ended the Second Republic. His mantras, such as they were then, were all about cleaning house, stopping Shehu Shagari and company's corruption (although the military proved in practice to be the most vicious and corrupt actors in the country's history), and most notably, a War against Indiscipline. He would be later be memorably satirized by Fela (who he imprisoned) as a Beast of no Nation.

Make you hear this one / War against indiscipline, eei
Na Nigerian government, eei / Dem dey talk eei
"My people are useless, my people are senseless, my people are indisciplined".
talking drums 1984-01-09 coup in Nigeria Africa's day of shame
The tumult that the grim-faced military put the country through under Buhari is not remembered with fondness by anyone, even if what followed (Babangida, Abacha) was perhaps more catastrophic in economic terms. These stronger, and more venal, predators stepped into his opening and overthrew him in short order in 1985. This was a rather friendly palace coup - a disagreement among wolves as it were, and he wasn't liquidated. Licking his wounds and withdrawing from the fore of Nigerian political life, Buhari was able to craft a second life. There has been reform and, with the passage of time, and three attempts (in 2003, 2007 and 2011), Nigerian democratic hopes, long disappointed in the intervening three decades, were pinned on him and his party in the 2015 presidential elections. There was no one Road to Damascus moment, but rather a pragmatic adjustment to multi-party democracy, the man calls himself a "converted democrat". The Nigerian political machine has accommodated him as much as he has accommodated the system. Given how large Nigeria looms in African fortunes, one prays for success of this experiment.

Blood

J.J. Rawlings had his two coups and 18 years in power in Ghana, ostensibly shedding his military uniform after a decade in 1992, and handing over to himself in a couple of shrewdly rigged elections to bring in the millennium. Dictator-no-more was the story although the authoritarian instincts persisted during the 1990s even in his civilian guise. The thin reed of political relevance that he stands on these days is making the occasional unreflective pronouncement about the probity of others, all the time hoping that no one confronts him about the bloodshed he amnestied his regime for. Surely the best indicators about Rawlings' enduring legacy were the 16,878 votes cast for his wife in the recent 2016 presidential elections. A full 0.16% of the electorate still paid obeisance to unbounded vanity. By and large, Rawlings as a phenomenon is healthily ignored. Still, as befits spent, but still viable, carrion, there will always be the occasional discarded carcass of the Ghanaian body politic that he can feast on.

talking drums 1984-06-25 why Ghana is not stable - Nigerian journalist's trial Rotimi

His progeny, the NDC, had another bite at power, feeding at the trough of pork barrel politics for the past 8 years. But looting and purely transactional deal-making can't stand for long in a country as politically sophisticated as Ghana. For a cabal that originally proclaimed populism if not socialism as their ideological markers to be revealed as a pack of common traders, if not mediocre, wannabe oligarchs, ought to be humbling. That is, of course, only possible if they were capable of shame and the jury is still out on that. The real sadness about Ghanaian politics is that a healthy opposition is needed for democracy to thrive.

Sin

And so we come to Paul Biya... What can one say? Well Monsieur Biya is having the last laugh - all at the expense of the Cameroonian people. It has been the most charmed life for the past 42 years, living most of the year in luxury villas in France, Geneva, Brussels and the like. Where some American presidents could golf their way while bombing others, insouciance a l'Africaine is really a quite rarified thing. Like Omar Bongo, he didn't have to take up arms to remain Prime Minister or President. He wasn't a strongman per se, but one-party systems have their own logic. It has rather been the shrewd exercise of patronage politics and cronyism, his modus operandi is to buy everyone off and compromise everyone. He skillfully adapted to the veneer of elections and multi-party democracy that became obligatory with the donors after the changing winds of Africa 1989. If five years of Biya was already enough in 1987, what could one say now, thirty odd years later?

west africa 1987-11-09 5 years of Biya Cameroon Nigeria election momentum Sierra Leone economic saboteur

To his credit, the Biya brand of autocratic rule hasn't caused as many direct deaths as others on the continent, but there has been quite severe collateral damage to the Cameroonian soul. Cronyism causes pervasive decay and long periods of decay corrupt everything in sight. We all vie to see how obsequious one can be, bowing down cravenly to gain favour with the old man. A quarter century ago, everyone was asking whether Biya could survive the transition to multi-party democracy? He laughed then and is laughing now. We have long stopped asking that question, instead articles marvel at his longevity as we wait him out

The danger, of course, is that a hollowed state could well be his legacy and, as with Bokassa and Bozizé in the Central African Republic, Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d'Ivoire, and especially Mobutu in Congo, we may still be picking up the pieces long after he is gone. Boko Haram, for example, may not be bought off as easily as recalcitrant French politicians. Sectarian and economic grievances long suppressed are fertile ground for opportunistic mischief. All it will take for Anglophone Cameroon, to take a recent troubling example, to explode is the rhetoric of the right populist. We have seen in our neighbourhood what a few bloody minded people willing to do their worst can do. The recent examples are not pretty.

For too long the original sin in African politics was our colonial legacy and the external meddling. We can no longer blame Francafrique. Paul Biya's generational mismanagement proves that we were never innocent, indeed it is all sin.

west africa 1991-10-14-20 Cameroon Can Biya survive Nigeria Babangida at the UN

Further Reading

  • En Attendant Le Vote Des Betes Sauvages by Ahmadou Kourouma

    The definitive anthropological study of the bestiary of Africa rogues that have led the continent astray. The English translation is fine, we are all waiting for the wild animals to vote.

  • A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

    There are no winners in the African Game of Thrones

  • Farting Presidents and other poems by Tope Omoniyi
    A lovely chapbook full of quotable witticisms
    or who does not know
    that rotten eggs and doublespeak
    are recipes for the broth of chopped justice
    logs in the eye or a nation?
    and well-deserved anger
    And I wonder endlessly how the hell
    Chicken generals figured they could run a nation
    from their DIY book of trash
  • A Goodbye to Arms by Kwesi Brew

    Where the green khaki struts and grinds
    its marijuana terror into unarmed hearts,
    They come as men-at-arms
    Badged as justice, grim of face.
    And then at last, dissembling cloak removed.
    A pack of common traders stained in violence

    Wresting bread out the mouths of babies
    only to give it back to them at a price
    so kind are they who betray us.

    from Return of No Return

Soundtrack to this note

sundry beasts
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