The demise of satire in an Unlampoonable Age

Satire is nearly dead. Irony is roadkill. And sarcasm? Well, it decided to go drinking with  friends and found it had none. Common sense, by the way, is on life support and not expected to make it.

Such is life in a world diving headlong into shallow mockery as a standard. It’s impossible to tell the punchlines from the punch drunks these days. We have reached a level of absurdity that is impossible to satirize. The jokes on “Saturday Night Live” are interchangeable with White House press conferences. At least I can say of the latter, the Sean Spicer sketch with Melissa McCarthy was spot on and hilarious — to the point where it wasn’t completely disturbing.

Yes this is where we are in what has become our Unlampoonable Age.  America raised the curtain on this Theater of the Absurd several years ago but today it has reached an Orwellian level of “Alternate facts,” “fake news,” and the spreading of politically expedient surrealism by the newly installed leader of the free world and his cast of enablers, sycophants and cheerleaders.

Definition 1
Satire: a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc. : humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.

These are indeed perilous times for American ideals like freedom, liberty and justice – poker chips cashed in by political opportunists and hacks at what has become an unfathomable level. Trustworthy news outlets are wrongly besmirched in a nonstop patter of nonsense by people in leadership positions who should know better but seek a political wedge to further divide a nation that is already pulling itself apart.

Since President Trump took office a few weeks ago, a wave of misinformation has emerged from the White House in torrents. The administration stacks one tall tale upon another, topping itself on Monday with the bizarre claim that the national media failed to cover terrorist attacks and cited examples like the Florida nightclub shootings or the San Bernadino, Calif. attack – stories that were reported for weeks by nearly every news outlet in the U.S. in print, digitally or on TV. That politicians skirt the truth is one thing, that they tell outright whoppers – knowing full well these pieces of information are lies – should give us all pause.

This story is what pushed CBS News anchor Scott Pelley on Monday to take the unusual step of calling out the administration for its statements that are, “divorced from reality.” National news organizations are right to take this approach in what has become a constitutional showdown between a free press and a rogue reality TV host / politician. But I fear it may be too late. The administration has bedrock supporters who don’t trust the media in the least. Media inaccuracy in recent times caused by the rush to report in the digital age bears some responsibility. But longtime irresponsible demonizing of reporters and press for political gain has wrongly blurred the line for too many in American life. They simply don’t know the difference between what’s real, what’s satire and what’s, well, trumped up on Twitter.

Definition 2
Irony: the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny. A situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected

Satire, for example, has historically provided a window tinged with dark humor into issues, allowing many to see with greater clarity. It simply doesn’t anymore. Too many people don’t get it or refuse to see it. This happens on both ends of the political spectrum. For the past couple of years The Onion, a satirical news site, has been frequently misunderstood by thousands, even millions of people. After the recent women’s march protesting the Trump Administration, I saw a piece by the Onion about Vice President Mike Pence lamenting that men in America couldn’t keep their women in line. Critics of the Trump administration rushed to accept the piece as fact when Pence never said anything of the kind. It was an attempt at humor andsatire that didn’t get there because it was probably too close to the truth.

The most recent example occurred late last week when Trump administration counselor Kellyanne Conway made reference to something she called the Bowling Green massacre as an example of the lack of media attention into acts of terrorism. Here’s the thing: there was no Bowling Green massacre. It’s an event that simply didn’t exist. What did occur was a failed plot in Bowling Green in which two Iraqi nationals living in the Kentucky town were arrested in 2011 for plotting to send money and weapons to al-Qaida in Iraq. Conway immediately became a rich target for fresh ridicule by Trump critics – who are apparently ready to pounce on anything that moves since his election in November, sometimes too quickly.

But it was too easy a target to resist. And she deserved lampooning.

Definition 3
Sarcasm: the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny.

bowling-greenIn a matter of hours, millions of posts on social media jokingly made reference to the “Bowling Green massacre.” Hashtags like #bowlinggreenstrong cropped up. Thousands expressed false solidarity with the people of Bowling Green in wake of the fake massacre. Memes about Bowling Green showed up by the thousands. A victim’s fund was created with money going to the ACLU. A Wikipedia site was created. It was a stunning display of impromptu satire, irony and sarcasm that even 20 years ago might have redefined public opinion about something so clearly inaccurate.

But not anymore.

By Monday stories began to appear that many of the administration’s strongest supporters believe now that a Bowling Green massacre did happen and the media covered it up. And they also probably believe Trump’s claim on Monday that his recent negative poll numbers are “fake news,” too. This group isn’t a majority of Americans but it’s large enough for concern to those who actually pay attention.

Definition 4
Fact: something that truly exists or happens. Something that has actual existence. A true piece of information.

What seems clear is this: While Satire, irony and sarcasm still abound too many fail to grasp enough essential facts to determine what’s real and what’s simply political vapor in what has become an alternate universe.

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