The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick!

Don’t you just love Alec Baldwin’s oh-so-close to the knuckle portrayal of Donald Trump in Saturday Night Live? Last week’s show offered up a short-term (no-one mention multi-term) future in 2018 with the US facing an alien invasion force from the planet Zorblatt 9. The ‘skit’ featured Baldwin/Trump visiting a military base with the irrepressible ‘POTUS’ trumpeting (sorry couldn’t resist it) inspiration to the troops via a classic piece of tawdry trumpery (aka a speech). If that weren’t enough to keep us rolling in the aisles, guest host Scarlett Johanssen did a total number on ‘First Daughter’ Ivanka Trump in a spoof commercial promoting a new perfume, Complicit. Genius!

I read a report a while ago that laughing at other people is very good for us. Not WITH you understand, AT. Who knew? To be honest, I think we all did, but there’s nothing like a report to add legitimacy to what the world, his wife and dog already know! Anyway, turns out there is a fair body of scientific (and not-so-scientific) evidence that advocates the healing power of laughter. In fact, help is even available through the counseling services of ‘laughologists’ and ‘laugh therapists’ … yes really … try Googling them! That laughter is good for us is hard to argue with as a premise. Seems more like a statement of the bleeding obvious as it is, after all, “such fun” (thank you Miranda).

In terms of laughing at, rather than with, I’m thinking all those TV shows where people submit their home video ‘funnies’ in order to win what seems like a small amount of dollars in relation to the humiliation quotient involved. Then there are the formulaic Wipeouts and Fear Factors where we can voyeuristically enjoy other people making complete prats of themselves. And talking of prats, we do love our ‘prat falls’ don’t we? If you think you’re made of better stuff, cast your mind back to any episode of the above mentioned Miranda and consider whether you were able to keep a straight face as she literally went arse over tit in front of Gary, the man she so desperately wanted to impress.

Prat falls are a reminder that random shit happens, and to anyone. A queen can just as easily slide on a banana skin as a commoner, or a president trip on an uneven path and do a spectacular head plant in front of the world’s media. And the more celebrated the faller, the funnier it actually is. The Germans call it schadenfreude or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

But there’s a darker truth running through all this mirth. Since ancient times, writers have understood the potential for laughter to undermine authority and fuel regime change. The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or send up to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices —the medium known as satire — has long been used to shape opinion. At its best, it is extremely witty and often very funny, although the subject matter can be deadly serious. While making its point by entertaining, it holds human, societal or individual vices up to censure through ridicule. To succeed, its subject must be widely known.

For more than a decade between 1984 and 1996 Spitting Image, the hugely successful television programme starring latex puppets of celebrities and politicians, wowed people with the accuracy and malevolence of its send ups. No cow was sacred. Targets included the British Royal Family and Ronald and Nancy Reagan who starred in a spoof drama, The President’s Brain is Missing. Then there was Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet of Vegetables. Besotted, with Reagan she (the puppet) became progressively more demented as the series went on. Underlying the humour were hard-hitting social and political commentaries about what opponents saw as the harsh realities of Thatcherism. This portrayal may even have contributed to ‘The Iron Lady’s’ ultimate fall. Go Baldwin, McKinnon and the other Saturday Night Livers — on this basis, if you keep up the good work, you might achieve the same result with Trump!

Satire played an important role in the fight for the basic rights and freedoms that the Western world now takes for granted. But its golden age was the period from the end of the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, a time of enormous social change in Europe as industrialisation transformed how people lived and worked and how societies were organised. From the pens of the great novelists of the era came biting attacks on social wrongs, corruption and moral lassitude; Charles Dickens took on the atrocious conditions suffered by the growing urban working class; Jane Austen shone a spotlight on the plight of women; Jonathan Swift savaged the corruptness of the political establishment and William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope skewered the double whammies of class and privilege. Other leading satirists from this period include Moliere, Ben Johnson, John Dryden, Alexander Pope and George Meredith.

The title of this blog post is taken from the play School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816), the archetypal ‘comedy of manners’.  First staged in 1777 in London, School for Scandal is a social satire that portrays English high society as being mired in gossip, calumny and sexual intrigue. The intention of the piece was to highlight the lack of honor, lax morality, and superficiality of the idle rich, whose primary pastime is jockeying for advancement by destroying the reputations of their peers. Sheridan used exaggeration, clever language, rapier-smart dialogue and telling character names (Ladies Sneerwell and Candour for example) to send up their frailty and folly de grandeur.

During this golden period, cartoon and caricature also came into their own as compelling additions to the satirical toolbox. In eighteenth century England, the etchings of William Hogarth such as Gin Lane, showing the horrific effects of gin abuse by the urban poor, were a powerful protest against prevailing social conditions. In France in the following century, Honoré Daumier created some of the finest political caricatures for the magazine La Charivari during the 1830s. Henri Toulouse Lautrec, at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, continued this graphic tradition of social satire in his depictions of Parisian society.

While Daumier was creating for La Charivari until censorship drew its sting, in England Henry Mayhew established Punch Magazine in 1841. It began as a democratic weekly, regularly featuring harsh depictions of Queen Victoria and her family, particularly the foreign Prince Albert who was deeply unpopular with the British public. It later became an upper class weekly whose readers enjoyed seeing their own foibles, and those of their servants, tradesmen and recognizable types like social climbers, being exposed. Vanity Fair was launched in competition in 1868. Both publications aimed at a public “in the know”, people who enjoyed the send-up of famous figures and types in every strata of life. Publications of this sort sprang up throughout Western Europe and were forceful channels for molding public opinion. The editorial cartoons in all our current newspapers continue this tradition.

To achieve their goals, satirists often knowingly risk reprisals. The genius of good satire has always been in the cleverness of the disguise. In masking the individuals or issues in question and avoiding libel whilst still ensuring the audience is in no doubt who or what the subject is. Roman poets Horace (65 – 8 BC) and Juvenal (active in late 1st and ealy 2nd centuries AD) went to extreme lengths to stay on the right side of their political masters in their work. In Medieval times jesters or fools provided a mechanism to filter unpalatable issues and opinions to the monarch through the parody of court politics and personalities. They trod a very fine line between mockery and treason. Getting this balance wrong could result in a short, and very unfunny, step to the gallows. Voltaire, one of the greatest of the Enlightenment’s writers and philosophers, famous for his wit and advocacy of civil liberties including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and the separation of church and state, was an outspoken supporter of social reform. His work and ideas influenced the key movers behind both the American and French Revolutions. In an era of harsh penalties for the breaking of censorship laws, Voltaire was an occasional visitor to the Bastille prison in Paris, as was his compatriot Daumier.

That was an age when the entire fabric of society underwent the seismic shift from a predominantly rural agrarian economy to an urban, manufacturing one. The Industrial Revolution saw huge numbers migrating to cities where they — particularly women and children — lived and worked in shocking conditions. Without any effective legislation, abuses by employers went largely unchecked. Archaic laws, perpetuated by absolutist monarchies and aristocratic and ecclesiastic dominated governments, protected the interests of the old order and put a premium on property in preference to people. Growing disenchantment saw electoral reform become a burning issue at a time when the right to vote was extremely limited and based entirely on property ownership. War between the old elite and a rising new liberal order was inevitable. The bloody French Revolution that erupted in 1789 attempted to create a lasting republic based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity was the most extreme example of the winds of change moving throughout Europe at the time. Satire was a brutal weapon used by both sides in this struggle.

Our current Technological Revolution has opened up a new set of social challenges not least being the replacement of growing numbers of jobs with automation, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Many people feel disenfranchised and bewildered by the scale, scope and rapidity of change and how they can assimilate into this brave new world. The rich seemingly get richer while the poor get poorer. We liberals have been well intentioned in our struggle for gender and social equity. But the road to Hell is, of course, paved with good intentions. Our intellectual elitist approach to addressing social issues is at odds with the feelings of the people everywhere that Hilary Clinton disastrously dubbed ‘deplorables’ in the US, who feel patronised and misunderstood. All of this laid the foundations for the all the unthinkable ‘events’  last year — Brexit, Trump, the rise and rise of the ‘alt-right’, the future of European liberal democracy, Putin and his monumental megalomania. It feels as if political insanity is the new black, with Trump in the vanguard, seemingly intent on reversing all the incredible advances in global stability and basic human rights. That is not to say that that things don’t need to change. They do;  conventional thinking and mores are failing us. We need new social models and better ways to prepare our children to live happy, successful lives in a very different future to the one we (Boomers) inherited.

BUT, we can change without losing our humanity. Without trashing the aspirations enshrined in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which committed all member states to “promote universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. While this declaration is just that — aspirational — it’s language remains potent and it’s incredible that these aspirations have so suddenly come under fire. But every cloud has a silver lining. Maybe the current silver lining takes the form of a wake up call to identify and defend what we believe in. If that hasn’t yet extended to manning the barricades, people in droves have been grabbing the placards and marching to protest their indignation at the assault on these values and the lack of concern for our world and ALL its people.

Censorship of the press has been an all-too-frequent counter measure by which the establishment or ruling classes have historically gagged reformers and enforced control when pressure-valves looked like blowing. A disturbing parallel between Trump and his ‘fake news is the enemy of the people’ mantra wouldn’t you say? Satire is a powerful weapon that the liberal media is already using to great effect. In this strangest of strange times it is likely to again play a central role in keeping the metaphorical vandals from our gates. I count myself lucky to have lived in a time and place where I’ve been able to enjoy freedom of speech and expression. I’m unlikely to face any sanctions for writing this opinion piece. But it scares me to see the media, whose role is to serve up truth no matter how unpalatable, being vilified — it’s a slippery slope from this to censorship and repression. In the ‘post truth’ world of ‘alternative facts’ and outright lying, we risk that there won’t be actually any need for formal gagging orders and persecution that past writers face. We may simply lose the ability to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not and whoever shouts loudest will carry the day.

According to an article in NY Times this week, “traditional television, a medium considered so last century, has seen audiences drift away for the better part of a decade. Now, rattled liberals are surging back, seeking catharsis, solidarity and relief. The old analog favorites are in, with comfort-food franchises like “ Saturday Night Live” drawing its highest Nielsen numbers in 24 years. Despite a dizzying array of new media choices, viewers are opting for television’s mass gathering spots, seeking the kind of shared experience that can validate and reassure.”

The article argues that television offers people a sense that “we’re in this together” and that others are “equally outraged”. This bonding is not limited to the US. If the world is truly a global village, then we all bleed when the leader of  the Western alliance vents his spleen on Twitter and appears to believe, like Hitler, that if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. So I say to Baldwin, McKinnon, Johanssen and your ilk; I salute your activism. Keep it coming. Send up the sexism and stentorian stupidities. Ridicule the ridiculous. Make mockery of the monstrous. Lampoon the liars. Use your wit and your waggishness to protect us from the posturing, puffery and purile prattling. As Leonard Cohen so famously said, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Find the crack. Let the light in. Keep us honest, free, truthful and on the side of the angels.

What next — locusts?

Many Christians believe we’re careering towards The End of Days as defined by Revelations, and that Armageddon is bearing down on us at the speed … well … at the speed four apocalyptic horsemen can gallop.

At times last year, it certainly seemed like it here in New Zealand’s capital. What with the big quake in November, all those aftershocks and slips, followed by the sort of catclysmic floods that caused Noah to take to the Ark. “What next?” we Wellingtonians all thought. “Swarms of locusts?”

Actually all the seismic shifting and biblical-style tempests did seem to be incredibly portentous as Trump pulled his sleight of electioneering and got voted in as leader of the western world about a week later… after the earlier astonishment of BREXIT. Even worse, the very same week, the peerless Leonard Cohen left us for the great tower of song in the sky — presumably accompanied by celestial choruses singing the Hallelujah? By the way, anyone else remember his lyric about America being “the cradle of the best and of the worst” (Democracy is coming to the USA)? Even more prescient as things have turned out!

Anyway the catalogue of disasters and sorrows kept flowing through the year like Tattinger at a socialite’s wedding. Topping it all, my own life and times could only have been described as a comedy of errors … more on that in other posts.

Comes the New Year. Wellington had stopped shaking, there was that incredible last album Leonard left us for consolation. A heap of other stuff had resolved with the closing of the old year and a perplexity of good things rung in with the new. I’m starting to think that 2017, in spite of Trump, is going to be a good year. Life was feeling, if not like a bed of roses, at least close to a pot of pretty pink petunias. Then the curved ball from left field. Last week’s spoiler; the hands on the Doomsday Clock were moved forward 30 minutes!! Apparently, we’re now only two and a half minutes from midnight, the time at which humanity is considered likely becomes toast! Bummer.

If you haven’t caught up with this somewhat disturbing news, the Doomsday Clock is the brainchild of a group called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board (ASSSB) which includes 18 Nobel Laureates. It was established in 1947 by experts working on designing and building the first atomic bomb. They wanted a simple way of conveying their concerns about the potential for nuclear annihilation and came up with this chillingly simple solution — the hands of a clock moving towards or away from midnight, depending on how us humans are behaving towards each other. The closer we get to midnight, the more likely we are to annihilate ourselves.

Of course the clock is symbolic rather than scientific. Without getting bogged down in the matrices and algorithms involved (and I could), suffice to say our heroes in the ASSSB contemplate all the prevailing horrors of the world at any given time conjouring up the contents of a contemporary Pandora’s Box — nuclear weapons, climate change, political flash points, pandemics etc. If some later day Pandora opened the box and let loose any or all of these, we’d move forward to midnight and it would be all over Rover for humankind.

The clock was originally set at seven minutes to midnight in the dark days post war. The only time we’ve got closer than we are now was in 1953 at the time of the early US/Soviet nuclear standoff. In the interim there have been regular recalibrations. When the Cold War ended in 1991, greatly reducing the number of deployable nukes in the USA and the USSR, the world reached a comparatively super-safe 17 minutes to the hour. Fun times!

So what’s changed? Apparently, for the first time ever, a unique individual — Trump in case you were wondering — has been factored into the calculations. Think Trump’s pledges to impede progress in nuclear disarmament. His reluctance to discuss climate change mitigation and a cavalier (to say the very least) take on human rights. Quite honestly, I’m surprised they only moved the hands 30 seconds forward!

Despite it all, I’m going to run with my New Year spirit of optimism. Keep believing that the lid will stay on the box. That we will … as the old protest song goes … overcome. It may not be comfortable, but maybe everything that’s going on provides the catalyst we need to move beyond complacency and stand up for the things that matter. If we are indeed at a tipping point, every single one of us needs to push positive vibes out and do small things to ensure that we tip in the direction of the angels. Towards the paradise that this earth should and could be … for all. Not just complacently bitch and moan our way to The End of Days and then get pissed at suffering the ‘pains of the inferno” as a consequence. Our date with midnight is not yet a done deal — we still have two and a half minutes. I’m working out my game plan to do what I can to reverse symbolic time. What’s about you?

Trump l’oeil!

Well, the seemingly impossible has happened! THIS MAN is now the leader of the western world!

It seems ironic his name alone opens up so many negative word associations. I would like to think I’ve coined a new one — the Trump l’oeil art form. The better known trompe l’oeil is defined as something that misleads or deceives the eye or senses — an illusion. My version is just a little bit more specific referring to one particular person who misleads or deceives the eye. Sounds like our boy right? The master illusionist who conceals a lack of substance with a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t swirling mass of contradictions and a sickening spewage of self-indulgent and petulant Tweets from the  top of Trump Tower.

But wait there’s more! To trump this, we are invited to ignore the vitriolic verbiage and look into his heart to discern his truth. More illusion! Sad, as the man himself is so fond of saying. Impossible actually — it has yet to be shown that he has a heart.

Like some egocentric imperial conqueror of ancient times, he’s triumphantly flattened everything in his path on his way to the White House with a breath-taking display of bamboozlement —  Trump l’oeil – and tawdry trumpery.

Like many others, I’m trying not to fixate on the likely ramifications for us all in this brave new Trumpverse. But it’s almost impossible to have read his ‘One America’ inauguration transcript (couldn’t bear to watch the mouth speaking it) and not make some comment. I used the word ‘trumpery’ earlier intentionally and with malice aforethought and I’ll leave you the Mirriam Webster definition of this much underused little sucker for you to ponder:

Trumpery (adj)

  • Worthless nonsense
  • Trivial or useless articles i.e a wagon loaded with household trumpery (Washington Irvine).

Trumpery derives from the Middle English trompery and ultimately from the Middle French tromper, meaning “to deceive.” (You can see the meaning of this root reflected in the French phrase trompe-l’oeil-literally, “deceives the eye”-which in English refers to a style of painting with photographically realistic detail.) Trumpery first appeared in English in the mid-15th century with the meanings “deceit or fraud” (a sense that is now obsolete) and “worthless nonsense.” Less than 100 years later, it was being applied to material objects of little or no value. The verb phrase trump up means “to concoct with the intent to deceive,” but there is most likely no etymological connection between this phrase and trumpery.

What more can one say?  In his speech Trump said, “God will protect us.” Hopefully God (or any benevolent higher beings) will indeed protect us … from Trump!