Tahoe Pine Nuts: Satire – America’s concealed weapon
Satire, like mercury, is dangerous to handle, but when handled by an expert, satire can turn low born mettles into solid silver.
Satire is slippery stuff. It poses purposeful misstatements, as in the case of Huckleberry’s comment after he’s been beaten soundly in an argument with Jim, “You just can’t teach an African-American (my word) to argue.”
Taken out of text that statement is hurtful, but read in the context in which it is written, it is rendered harmless, and perceived as amusing to all who get it.
Mark Twain is the American master of satire. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn employs an elevated state of satire to expose and condemn the ignorance and hypocrisy of the Jim Crow society. But when one is not familiar with the social discourse to which the book is responding, that satire is lost.
Twain could land as large a fish as the American justice system with satire. “I have but one definite purpose in view: that is, to make enough money to insure me a fair trial, and then to go and kill Colonel Evans.”
Satire is most effective when it exposes shams and humbuggery, generally of the arrogant and supercilious. But when satire’s thrust turns downward, toward minorities, or the less fortunate, it often morphs into ridicule, and backfires. “Observe the ass. His character is about perfect, yet see what ridicule has brought him to. Instead of feeling complimented when we are called an ass, we are left in doubt.”
Where satire shows us the good natured side of the truth, and is looking for a nod of acknowledgment or the hint of a smile, ridicule is just plain mean-spirited and is hoping for a smirk. There is a fine line between the two, and when one crosses that line, he does so at his own peril.
In presenting Twain’s satire in the classroom for 27 years now, I’ve discovered satire is not easy for everyone to grasp. Grown people, who have formed their opinions and fossilized them, are effectively immunized against satire, and wouldn’t know it if it bit them on the ankle.
I cite today’s religious radicals who oftentimes mistake satire for ridicule and take offense. Satire is intended to awaken us to a truth in such a casual manner that we believe we discovered that truth ourselves. As Mark Twain taught us, a discriminating irreverence is the protector of human liberty, as against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.
Generally speaking, the more severely earnest a person is, the more injured that person is going to feel when stung by satire. Where satirists have a humorous outlook on life, grave people are not always willing or able to embrace satire.
Oftentimes, folks with the smallest sense of humor tell the most jokes, have you noticed that? Satirists don’t tell jokes, they relate anecdotes.
It saddens me to see talented satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert retire, or take more declarative jobs. Reading the news off a teleprompter can never be as rewarding or enlightening as lampooning the daily news.
I suppose when all is said and done, making the news, good news, is the ultimate platform upon which we should all aspire to stand and be heard.
Learn more about McAvoy Layne at http://www.ghostoftwain.com.