O How Frightfully Clever and Witty

I can never quite make up my mind whether the spectacle of someone thinking he’s funny when he’s really not — but being encouraged by his bystanders who also don’t realize how not funny he’s being — is itself funny (call it meta-humor) or just uncomfortable.  I lean towards uncomfortable if only because a common thread in such situations is that the performer does not understand the subject of his would-be humor.  When you think about it, a central aspect of something we think of as funny is viewing a world in which the actors do not understand something about their own world which we, The Observers, do.  That’s true of a Three Stooges short; it’s true of an ethnic joke; it’s true of Lord Emsworth at his club simultaneously trying to order lunch and watch another member take enormous bites of his food; it’s true of a Monty Python sketch or movie.  We Know and They Don’t, and it’s the movement of the actors through a universe the rules for which they don’t know and the operation of which they cannot therefore predict which produces the humorous dramatic action.

Critical to the process is also that any intermediator — the author, teller of the joke, or director — is also in on the joke, in that he understands with us.  He’s one of us, and the set-up just doesn’t work if he buys into the subjects’ understanding rather than ours.

Which is why this The New Yorker piece fails so miserably as satire.  Satire of course is the straight-faced depiction of a world-state which the depictor does not believe valid, but which those depicted do.  Crucial to success is that the world-state ape, except for the point(s) of invalidity, a state of things that is True.  It’s the difference between a fly in the punch-bowl and a bowl of flies covered in punch.  Again, we are invited to partake of the mediator’s superior understanding that here’s this wonderful painting of a young woman by an open window reading a letter, and oh by the way, did you notice the tattoo on her neck? 

The linked piece is an attempt at satire of the argument that Government as such is not a desirable thing, and that less Government is, all else being equal, preferable than more.  The specific satirical device employed is one we can call Ironic Substitution.  One element is substituted for another; we are invited to conclude that the elements are equivalent and from highlighting the grotesque effects of the one we are to conclude that the other is likewise grotesque.  Ironic Substitution is of course a first cousin to Ironic Insertion.  In a thorough examination of the latter, Paul Fussell spends a great deal of time in The Great War and Modern Memory on the ironic use of the pastoral in World War I poetry to suggest the horror of the trenches, a horror so profound it cannot be Got At any other way.

The author of the piece in question sets about his goal by substituting in the argument something that, like Government, is as much a concept, a state of understanding, as a physical reality:  Texas.  He then, with an exaggeratedly straight face, descants on all the wonderful things to be accomplished by reducing Texas, by having less Texas rather than more.   The piece goes off the rails, however, in two respects:  First, the philosophical mind-set of the medium — The New Yorker — is profoundly in agreement with the alternate argument which we are supposed to conclude is invalid.  It would be like having Ernst Jünger as the narrator of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poems.  Doesn’t work, guys.  The element of We’re in the Know and They Aren’t fails in that set-up.

The second place this The New Yorker article gets off the reservation is that the substituted element is not, in fact, the equivalent of the original.  I’ll lay it out:  Texas has never required that the toilets in my house use so little water per flush that they do not function off a single flush.  Texas has never come knocking on my door to tell me I must part with even more of what little I can earn because . . . it knows better what to do with it than I do.  It wasn’t Texas who caused our firm’s health insurance carrier to send us a letter to the effect that our health plan, which worked well for the constellation of individuals in this office, no longer existed, but hey! your 78-year-old father now has maternity coverage.  Texas did not, in the wake of an economic crisis instigated by its own agencies, decide to destroy an entire industry which is a core constituent of our firm’s client base (community banking; Dodd-Frank is a slow-motion shot to the base of the skull to your locally owned bank, when 75% of all the toxic subprime mortgages out there were Fannie and Freddie).  Texas has not used its coercive power to shut down the participation of an entire segment of the political spectrum in the national argument.  Texas is not in possession of a single one of my e-mails.  Texas, as a place, actually creates wealth and opportunity (seriously: an enormous proportion of the total jobs created since 2009 are in . . . Texas), instead of expropriating it from some to hand over to others.  Texas did not steal General Motors and Chrysler from their respective secured creditors under personal threat of ruinous IRS and SEC audits.

In other words, the contrast between the alternate argument and the satired argument does not show what the author thinks it does.  The alternate argument can be shown to be idiotic, even on its own terms.  The argument we are invited to conclude is therefore likewise idiotic can be shown to be correct, or at least more correct than not and in more instances than not.  It’s why you cannot satire the Pythagorean Theorem or the periodic table.  Or The Federalist Papers.  The former can be proven correct by measurement and scientific method; the latter has been proven correct not only by the past 225-odd years of American history but by several centuries of world history.

Let’s nail this down as a Formal Proposition:  You cannot be funny about things you do not understand.  Our would-be o-so-sophisticated author does not understand his subject.


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