The Future of Satire

College evokes a lot of memories for me, but even in a world of easily traceable moments courtesy of Facebook and smartphones, my most potent memories are of conversations. Overriding the memories of pizza and movie nights and unceasing lust, conversations hold eternal.

One conversation that was pivotal for my relationship to comedy – how I think about it, how I do it, how I want to do it – was a brief discussion that I had with a peer who I had an immense crush on. We were sitting in my dorm room, flipping through channels on my roommate’s television and we stopped on Cartoon Network. The Boondocks was on and we decided to catch the tail-end of an episode before she headed back to her dorm (much to my silent distress).

I don’t know what episode we were watching, but in it, Uncle Ruckus gave one of his typical self-hating monologues, filled with innovative uses of racial slurs and alarmingly specific insults. My crush cracked up, doubling over, cackling, and grazing me on the shoulder with her soft , brown hand. The joke had touched a nerve, as she had touched me.

I was laughing too – the specificity of Uncle Ruckus’ comments has always been his main selling point for me. For someone who hates black people, he knows them incredibly well (which is how most self-hatred plays out, I think).

As our laughter subsided, with relief, she said, “So true, so true,” endorsing Uncle Ruckus’ deranged statements. I grimaced, but I didn’t think much of it because I had more primal things to think about it.

Those thoughts were short-lived because she continued, “The Boondocks is so on point sometimes.” “How so?” I asked, curious. “Uncle Ruckus is just so right,” she explained.

Willing my primal thoughts back to the fore, I conceded. “I know what you mean.” Minutes later, I escorted her out of the building.

Before that night Uncle Ruckus had been one of the most unambiguous characters I had ever come across in any work of fiction. He was black, his first name was Uncle, and nothing he said was even remotely salvageable. He was racist to the core, someone who could only be hated, objected to and mocked. Sure, his character had range, but his range was like the surface of a pool, expansive, but ultimately flat, infinite ripples of the same vile substance.

My crush’s endorsement of Uncle Ruckus broke me. How could a black person hear his lines and agree with anything he said? Was he actually an ambiguous character? Was I an idiot? Was I just bad at dating?

A recent essay at the Baffler wrestles with similarly perplexing questions, noting that satire has recently been used to obscure rather than illuminate the truth. Citing the CIA’s first tweet, Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns, the institutionalization of late night humor as a source of news, and the general ubiquity of humor in contemporary life (i.e. Twitter), Ben Schwartz makes a strong indictment of satire in 2015. The article has a twinge of nostalgia to it, seeming to long for some mythical past when all satire hit hard, but in terms of surveying the field, Schwartz is right on. Satire is definitely the lingua franca of the times and there is certainly something alarming about its widespread appropriation, especially by those in power.

But though satire’s recent incarnations are alarming (and often not funny), I don’t think that the problem Schwartz lays out – politicians, institutions and lame late-night comedy shows easily defanging satire through their appropriation of it – really has anything to do with the genre of satire.

My experience with my college crush is insightful. I was disappointed by the fact that she didn’t “get” Uncle Ruckus, that she didn’t see that he was the joke, not the things he said. But now I know that she absolutely got the joke. Satire doesn’t belong to anyone, even the people who make it and who they ostensibly make it for. Her seeing Uncle Ruckus as a truth-teller and the CIA tweeting self-referential jokes are of a different order, but the same dynamic is at play in both scenarios. In both instances satire is doing what satire does, serving as a palatable vehicle for observations and worldviews that are too taboo or too risky or too unthinkable to be uttered in their raw form.

This has to be understood. Though the history of satire suggests that satire itself does things like threaten people in power and mock society’s absurdity, satire as a medium, as a particular way of acting in the world, can ultimately be understood as humor + an agenda. And everyone – the CIA, President Obama, Comedy Central producers, bougie black folks – has an agenda.

Schwartz’ real observation isn’t that satire has changed; it’s that satirists have changed. The history of satire being used to challenge power and mock society is more a history of the challengers and the mockers than the history of the genre itself. Satire can be (and has been) wielded by anyone. It just so happens that it’s typically been favored by people who like mocking monarchs and presidents.

That reality might be disappointing for people who want to believe in the eternal power of satire, but for me it’s refreshing. Instead of attempting to redeem a genre that is doing what it has always done, or encouraging traditional satirists to be edgier, or crushing on someone who is toxically bougie, maybe the true satirical act is to not be a satirist. Everyone has an agenda but how many many people have the will to follow that agenda to its bitter end, giving up on their favorite art form in the process? I don’t know, but if the legacy of satire lies in the ambitions of satirists rather than in the genre itself, there’s already plenty of precedent.

Please Return to Sender (Dear White People Review)

Racism’s greatest power is its ability to drastically simplify the world. Through racism, literally all things – clothing, behaviors, desires, needs, potentials, friendships –  become ordered and recognizable, “obvious” and apparent. Racism provides answers by making the world unquestionable.

Given this alarming power, the fundamental task of all anti-racist work is to deny this contrived simplicity and undermine it, exposing the unrelenting complexity of the world and refusing to accept anything less, anything simple. There are many ways to oppose racism – after all, it does impact everything – but no matter the anti-racist technique or strategy, the goal is always to re-complicate the world. Thus, the rudimentary starting point for any fight against racism is to not accept its simplified, basic terms.

Dear White People, a movie about racism on a fictional college campus, does not do this. It is basic. Despite its expansive cast and bold ambitions, Dear White People wholeheartedly accepts the readymade conventions of racism. Both the main cast and the secondary characters are developed into overwhelmingly lame, straightforward caricatures. Sam is a biracial black woman struggling between two lovers, one black, the other white (ugh). Troy, a preppy black guy, is a pawn in his black father’s multi-generational conflict with his school’s president, a white man. Coco is an upwardly mobile black woman from the south side of Chicago who wants to rise above her background. Lionel is a gay black man who is ostracized by both the black and white communities on campus.

None of these characters are necessarily predisposed towards flatness. In fact, they are all potentially interesting, especially Lionel (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that cared about the college experiences of gay black dudes), but the film corrals each of them, and the secondary characters that they are connected to, onto either side of a very poorly-conceived racial divide: black vs white. There is nothing wrong with establishing factions and seeing how their ambitions collide, but the factions in Dear White People are never truly embroiled.

The characters each engage in their own racialized skirmish, but their actions are always predetermined by their position on the divide, their race. All the white characters are unrepentant or accidental racists; all of the black characters inevitably affirm their blackness. The only person who doesn’t get any resolution is Sam, but even her struggle is predictable: she is biracial so of course she cannot pick a side. (It was hard not to laugh when Sam decided to move off campus while the other black main characters all stayed at the black dorm)

The inevitability of all the characters’ outcomes and decisions is ultimately self-defeating. The film’s climax, a confrontation at a racist Halloween party, makes this most apparent. The white people are universally offensive and the black people are universally shocked and appalled. The outcome is so unsurprising that its narrative value is completely drained. Seeing the racist party after having already watched over an hour of dry conflict feels like walking around a haunted house with a copy of the floor plan. This isn’t to say that surprise is a necessary element of good filmmaking. Rather, it just felt strange for a movie that traffics in exploring inflexible racial destinies to treat an event it foresaw as something spectacular. It probably would have been more effective to highlight the banality of the party. For instance, I would have been much more horrified if I had seen two white students at the party using “nigger” in a conversation about Tolstoy.

The only particularly interesting thing about the scene is the presence of Asian and Latino students who allied with the black students to shut the party down. Their mere presence hints at more complex race relations on campus. Nevertheless, their presence also highlights their relative absence throughout the rest of the film. They appear only to advance the plot, which is kind of racist. Even within the film, it is not clear why they form this alliance. The film seems to imply that they ally with the black students simply because they are Asian and Latino. It was inevitable, I guess?

All in all, Dear White People is pretty weak. Though it is nice to see a movie that cares about black people and our experiences, mere care is a condescendingly weak threshold for a good movie or for a good perspective on race. Anybody can care, but what marginalized people need is people who care responsibly, intelligently, complexly. There are definitely sides in racial conflict, but they are absolutely not predetermined by race, and to think so is to buy directly into the simplifying logic of racism, no matter which side of the conflict you are on. Dear White People is clearly on the side of anti-racism, but it ultimately fails because it conflates allegiance, disposition, with action, decision. Anti-racism requires more than a sarcastically endearing address – “Dear White People.” More importantly, it requires acknowledging that those people and your relation to them, is much more complex than your sarcasm belies.

Give it Up

The following is an email I received from my school’s police department. It contains a host of problems, some of them grammatical. It is also slightly funny.

CRIME ALERT!

On Saturday morning  at approximately 1:24 a.m. two Mercer Law School students were walking home from downtown Macon.  At the intersection of Cherry and New Streets, they were approached by two black males.  One of the males pulled a gun, pointed it at the face of one student, and said “Give it up!”

The students were unharmed but they were robbed of personal belongings.

Mercer Police strongly advises everyone to avoid walking in off campus public areas late at night or in the early morning hours.
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Why the red and purple fonts? I don’t know. Nevertheless, we’re not here to address email aesthetics, so let’s talk business. The email begins with “Crime Alert!” Since when did one armed robbery warrant such a sensational declaration? This robbery is not the 5th armed robbery in the past month or the 40th armed  robbery within the past year. It is an isolated event. Part of me wants to believe that the email was given this heading just to make sure it was not overlooked like every other email sent out by my school’s police department, but my intuition tells me something else is at play.

I don’t like to rely on just intuition though, so let’s delve deeper. Why does the email give such an explicit account of the robbery? “Give it up!” said one of the allegedly black male assailants after “pulling his gun.” “Give it up” is not some special catchphrase. I imagine stick-ups around the country involve this phrase. Why wouldn’t they? It’s easy to say and easy to understand. My point is that this is an incredibly unnecessary detail that only serves to escalate the tone of the “alert.”

Furthermore, why are solely race and gender mentioned? No other descriptive details are offered. Height, age, hair color, clothing, eye color, skin tone, and any other potentially useful details are all elided. On one hand, perhaps the victims simply  did not notice these things. In moments of fear, certain things stand out and other are forgotten. On the other hand, as enforcers of the law, officers are trained to do as much as they can to ensure that the law is enforced. Ergo, these omitted details would have somehow been fleshed out.

All this email will do is increase [white] people’s fears and black people’s alienation. That email’s description is so goddamn vague that I could be a possible suspect. Even if students do not act wary when around me, the possibility that they could -solely because I’m black –  makes me feel distant, unwelcome, even guilty. Moreover, the details of the perpetrators are given just because. There is no call to help with identification or anything. Nevertheless, for some unknown reason, these guys’ race just had to be mentioned.

Mercer already has a tenuous relationship with the surrounding community. Admittedly, through the efforts of students, faculty, staff and members of  that community, this relationship is improving. Thus,  when emails like this are sent out, emails that explicitly say that the community is hostile and dangerous, these efforts are undermined. In reality the areas around campus are just as dangerous or as safe as the areas on campus.  It’s an open campus. Accordingly, I take steps – no matter where I am – to decrease the chance of something bad happening to me. Nevertheless, I am patently aware that at any given time, something awful can happen to me, in spite of my efforts at prevention. As a community, as people, we Mercer students need to accept that. You are never entirely safe. With that knowledge, you can choose to futilely enclose yourself in structures  [like racism] to “protect” yourself or you can cautiously venture out into the world and accept that you, like everyone else, are susceptible to the laws of probability.

In short, I ask that you take this notion of absolute security and give it up. It does nothing but cause you to retreat into questionable, ultimately harmful ways of dealing with the world, particularly other people. Undoubtedly, that email was sent with good intentions, but those intentions belie a skewed vision of the world. If college students, the supposed “future” of the nation are experiencing the world in such a distorted manner, we’re further away from a “post-racial” world than I thought.

By the way, is it just me or does “post-racial” sound like a really bad cereal?

Thoughts on College

I was sailing the Big Blue today when I came across this blog post . This post echoes concerns I’ve been hearing a lot recently. Although I think they are completely legitimate, I have something to say about them.

Fundamentally, college isn’t about getting a job. College is about getting an education. Taking courses in various disciplines is supposed to teach you how to think critically in different situations. For example, you would never approach a philosophy paper and a chemistry exam the same way, but if you are a good critical thinker, you should do reasonably well on both despite their differences.

That being said, even though college is essentially about self-enrichment, it is still a heavy investment, so expecting material returns is reasonable. Seeing graduates working at shitty jobs is a bit disconcerting. However, it is important to question why these people are working these bad jobs. If they had the same mentality that you have in which they saw college as “job training,” rather than education, they were probably narrowly focused throughout college, so when they graduated, their skills were really limited. Also, what did these people major in? Sometimes people just make bad decisions. For instance, majoring in military science during times of peace is probably not a good idea. Simplifying why graduates are unemployed is dangerous. Various reasons contribute to why people are unemployed.

Moreover, if all math majors only take math classes for 4 years, they will probably be brilliant mathematicians, but their skills are weakened, possibly even useless if they cannot write coherent papers or comprehend anything other than math. The story of Bill Gates is amazing, but using it to make future decisions is stupid. Yes, he dropped out of college and is super rich, but he’s a fucking genius. He is an exception. For every Bill Gates, there are 40 million Bob Johnson’s that dropped out of college and now manage a KFC (which is okay if they’re happy with it).

If you want to spend less money and jump straight into your career, go to trade school (no offense to my homies in trade school). You’ll get trained and start making money sooner than you would after graduating from college. I’m sorry you were misinformed about college, but that’s not really a good excuse in the age of the internet. Good luck!