Saturday, April 16, 2005

On The Importance of Biting Satire

So Michael Froomkin is upset about Robin Givhan's recent commentary on John Bolton - Bolton's Hair: No Brush With Greatness. He writes:

I suppose there has been a dumber Washington Post article, but offhand I can’t think of one.

The Senate is considering John Bolton’s fitness for office, an issue that has implications for our policy towards North Korea in the past and present, and the world in the future, and the Post Style section runs a critique of the man’s hair, mustache and shirt?!?
Fair enough, the clothes don't make the man; everyone knows that. There is almost a sense of disdain that the Style section of the Post will deign to weigh in on political matters instead of the Ivory Tower of law professors. With respect, the reasoned discourse of Froomkin and various others is a vital part of my daily reading. Indeed the ruminations of these sedate, professorial types are the first things that Bloglines presents to me when I fire up my conversational browser engine.

But here, I think he understates the importance of satire in social commentary. Saying "The Emperor has no clothes" as this piece almost literally does is a very valuable thing in human affairs. And Bolton is far from being down and out. It is only a truism to say that his appointment and imposition by a Party and administration that controls the 3 branches of the US government is a very literal slap in the face of the UN as an institution, and that amorphous mass we call "The International Community".

Unlike say handing Robert MacNamara the job at the World Bank, the Bolton episode, and Paul Wolfowitz's recent ascension to that same institution (I should be careful about what I say), are cases in point about the mindset of these very serious neocons. This is in line with all the appointments of this current administration. I'll only mention Gale Norton at Interior, and the various memos, tweaks of rules, and insidious regulations written in backrooms by churchgoing, wonky policy-types that Froomkin daily decries.

Theirs is a determined and focused program to reshape and tilt the playing fields of the US and of world affairs at large. I am less concerned with how Americans decide to manage or mismanage their patrimony. The body politic of the US has proved to be amazingly resilient to similar depredations in the past. I may worry perhaps about an economy that my future children will have to live in, about housing bubbles and their impact on my prospective forays into real estate, or that I barely beat inflation in this year's raise, or even the increased cost of my trips to visit my sister in London. By and large however, in economic terms I am one of those in whose favour the economic tide is turning; I get the incidental backwash of the current single-minded focus on the top 1% of American society.

Having, however, to deal with the collateral damage of Quiet Americans in my native society means that I feel that this is something that should be resisted vigourously and at every opportunity. I have written just in the past week, manifestos about how it feels to be grow up as the grass that elephants trample on. Others have the luxury of picking the settings of their battles with care and can choose to make more judicious interventions. As the Ga proverb my father is so fond of recounting so vividly puts it:
An elephant which is lean is still bigger than a cow.
Politicians understand very well the power of ridicule and fighting against the cultural Zeitgeist. Just ask Howard Dean if he will ever again open his mouth in a public forum without vetting, and ask if we are not all the worse for losing his very serious, if overly blunt, political insight. The daily headlines bespeak a sadness on that front.

The fabled Emperor knew at the instant the child spoke those words that life would no longer be the same. In the same vein then, I'd suggest that Froomkin instead think of commentary of this sort as in tune with the purity of that child's impulse. The measured and courteous hand-wringing of the Democrats in this, and other, Senate confirmation hearings are emblematic of decorous insipidness. Catty, biting, personal pieces like Givhan's are about as vital as can be, and sometimes even more effective acts of resistance.

There's a reason why satire is about the most dangerous thing for the powerful. The visual fodder of video bloopers on TV shows are fine as far as these things go. The Griots of times past and current also have this powerful ability with their storytelling and the sounds of kora strings to get at the same essence. Ever since humans have had writing systems however, it has been the pen, quill or the wielded keyboard that has been the weapon of choice (if they were here perhaps, the hieroglyphic painters might disagree). With notable exceptions, including current favourites in other media, Dave Chappelle and John Stewart, satire has been something that is best done with writing. In the blogosphere, the ever-witty Billmon has been a leading exponent of accurately sourced quotes and delightful juxtapositions in service of this same impulse but even he knows that sometimes you have to resort to the down and dirty column.

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.

In certain Ghanaian traditions, one day of the year is reserved for the entire village to berate the chiefs, village elders or whatever else has irked them during the past year without fear of reprimand or disapproval. Indeed it is encouraged as being healthy and liberating to lampoon the chief and the bureaucratic proceedings that trouble us everywhere. The wide variety of clowning and comic antics that ensues is fascinating fodder for tourists these days. There is a serious intent however in these ceremonies. The monopoly of coercion of the state is a burden that we have decided is a good tradeoff for our societal organization. The responsibility of the powerful to the social fabric means that they should be ever mindful of the tenuousness of their village's approbation. Being subject to your subject's ridicule is a small burden to bear.

Indulge me while I again quote the great Gil Scot-Heron in 1980's "B"-Movie who also has a definitive musical contribution in song and poetic jazz-funk which spoke to Ronald Reagan's earlier impulses in the Boltonian direction.
The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia.
They want to go back as far as they can - even if it's only as far as last week.
Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards.
And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse or the man who always came to save America at the last moment; Someone always came to save America at the last moment.
Especially in "B" movies.
And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan. And it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at like a "B" movie


As Wall Street goes, so goes the nation.
And here's a look at the closing numbers:
Racism's up, Human rights are down,
Peace is shaky, war items are hot.
The House claims all ties.
Jobs are down, money is scarce.
And common sense is at an all-time low on heavy trading.
Movies were looking better than ever and now no one is looking because
We're starring in a "B" movie.
And we would rather had John Wayne.
We would rather had John Wayne.

"You don't need to be in no hurry.
You ain't never really got to worry.
And you don't need to check on how you feel.
Just keep repeating that none of this is real.
And if you're sensing, that something's wrong,
Well just remember, that it won't be too long
Before the director cuts the scene. Yeah."

"This ain't really your life,
Ain't really your life,
Ain't really ain't nothing but a movie."

[Refrain repeated about 25 times or more in an apocalyptic crescendo with a military cadence.]
Read all those lyrics or even better listen to the music itself.

The thought that in historical terms, Ronald Reagan might prove to be an A-list artist as compared to the B-movie of Geoge W. Bush, "the nuclear nightmare of diplomacy" that our man Gil speaks of, is spine-tingling to me. Hence I am all in favour of whimsy as a means of counteracting this awful prospect.

And this here piece on John Bolton is a case in point. Bolton is a serious person, to be sure, with an intense focus and likely sharpness of thought. The piece is about how to use one's powers of observation to cut down in 800 words or less a puffed up and self-important git used to running roughshod over all in his path. It's about illuminating the disdainful mindset of an administration. Ridicule, in short, in the service of journalism. No sharper dagger can be thrown. I only wish I had Givhan's economy of thought. I wouldn't be writing 10,000 word blog entries on the journalistic impulse.

Bolton's Hair: No Brush With Greatness
John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, desperately needs a haircut. It does not have to be a $600 Sally Hershberger cut. Bolton simply needs the basics. Tidy the curling, unruly locks at the nape of his neck, tame the volume at the crown, reel in the wings flapping above his ears, and broker a compromise between his sand-colored mop and his snow-colored mustache.

He needs to do this, not because he should be minding the recommendations of men's fashion magazines or grooming experts but because when he settled in before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week to answer questions about his record, his philosophy and his intentions at the U.N., he looked as though he did not even have enough respect for the proceedings to bother combing his hair -- or, for that matter, straightening his tie, or wearing a shirt that did not put his neck in a chokehold. Bolton was one wrinkled suit away from being an insolent mess.


A Hollywood costumer could not have ordered a more perfectly stern Washington insider. Bolton embraces with a flourish all of the cliches that afflict so many men in Washington. During this testimony, his hand was constantly reaching up to adjust his no-frills glasses. His attire was not merely bland but careless. His hair was so poorly cut, it bordered on rude. Bolton might well argue that appearance has nothing to do with capabilities. But it certainly can be a measure of one's respect for the job.
Emphases mine.

See also 3 days later: Is John Bolton Going Down?

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1 comment:

Roomy Naqvy said...

Dear Koranteng

I really admired your blog and found it fascinating. I liked the concept of toli and would like to know more about it.

I'm an English professor, investor and translator from India. You can connect with me on Facebook at and check my translator profile at

I am also writing satirical campus short stories at and I would to interact with you because I am sure I can learn a lot from you about how to write really biting satire.

Thanks a lot for your time,

Roomy Naqvy