Alex Massie

Can there be satire on the left?

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Reviewing Thomas Frank's new book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, last week, Michael Lind wrote:

But “The Wrecking Crew” is a polemic, not a dissertation. With rare exceptions like John Kenneth Galbraith, conservatives — from Juvenal and Alexander Pope to H. L. Mencken, Tom Wolfe and P. J. O’Rourke — have been the best satirists. In Thomas Frank, the American left has found its own Juvenal. Consider his update of a 1945 civics primer, “We Are the Government,” which followed the cheerful wanderings of a dime that paid for a variety of enlightened New Deal regulations. In Frank’s contemporary version, the dime travels from a private government contractor to a trade association, which “gives the dime to a Washington consultant who specializes in fighting federal agencies, and this man launches challenge after challenge to the studies that the agency is using. … It takes many years for the agency to make its way through the flak thrown up by this clever fellow. Meanwhile, with his well-earned dime, he buys himself a big house with nice white columns in front.”

To which Tyler Cowen responded that Lind:

...left out Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.  I doubt if Monty Python or Stephen Colbert would count as "conservative" in the political or partisan sense of that word, but still the emotional modes of how their material works are not inconsistent with this observation.  Do you agree?  And what is the underlying implication?  Are conservatives somehow more at ease with ridicule or do they have a clearer fixed point from which to proceed?

In one sense, I suppose it's true that conservatives have a more natural bent for satire. But the determining factor is - as Tyler suggests - sensibility, not policy. That is to say, much of the best satire - and Juvenal is a good example in this regard - rests upon the conviction that man is a fallen beast. The best days are long-gone, succeeded by an age of vulgarity, hucksterism and idiocy. The world is rattling along in a handcart; destination hell. One may rage against this or one may step aside and observe man's descent with a raised eyebrow and a half-amused, half-horrified grimace. See Evelyn Waugh for chapter and verse.

In that respect a Juvenal or an O'Rourke (or a Mencken) is conservative, even reactionary. And so too is Thomas Frank. He too believes that the wrong road was taken and that, if only the clock could be wound back, the people might be urged to prove themselves something other than witless boobies. In that sense, he's also a conservative in sensibility even if he'd reject the label in terms of practical policy. There was a time, he seems to think, when matters were more artfully and justly arranged. An Edenic paradise in which we romped before it all went so horribly wrong. O tempora, o mores indeed.

That belief is what distinguishes the angry - or sorrowful - satirist from a publication such as The Onion. The Onion, marvellous though it be, is essentially about humour, not satire. It aims to amuse, not to draw blood. It doesn't believe, the way the angry satirists do, that we live in uncommonly stupid times. This belief, of course, sits more comfortably with a conservative disposition. The left, after all, still remains more likely to believe in the possibility of progress, even of perfection, than the right. Raging satire tends to take the view that the people are fools, governed by knaves, that, in Mencken's famous phrase, "Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard." In other words, the satirist occupies the middle ground - kicking the ankles of those who govern and the heads of those who are (mis)-governed. I'd guess Frank fits into this scheme too, since rage and despair are the satirists' friends.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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