Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) set the standard for satire with his Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels
SOME OF THOSE FOLKS UP AT WESTERN UNIVERSITY AREN'T VERY SWIFT
ARE WE LIVING IN AN AGE so hopelessly literal and credulous that satire has become, if not impossible, then too dangerous to allow? I fear it may be so, at least in one environment - a university campus - where you might like to think that satire really ought to have a fighting chance of being received for what it is. I mean are they still doing any sort of reading up at Western at all?
Wanting to see what all the fuss was about I scoured the interwebs to get my mitts on a copy of the vociferously denounced essay by Robert Nanni, So you want to date a teaching assistant? from the Frosh Special Issue of Western’s student newspaper, the Gazette. I grant you that it’s not a very elegantly written piece: “At the end of the day, TAs are there to guide you through the curriculum – so there’s a good chance you have to be okay with that and only that. They may not be giving you head, but at least they’re giving you brain.” Okay, it ain’t Voltaire but its callow infelicities hardly constitute the hateful thought crime that its denouncers are making it out to be.
In the few days before the poor besieged editor, Iain Boekhoff, was finally persuaded/bullied to suppress the edition altogether, he valiantly struggled to stand his ground; explaining the differences between an ordinary news story and a parody of this kind, hearkening to the Gazette’s history of running hoax pieces in the Frosh issue each year (think of it as a sort of literary initiation prank on the incoming newbies) and even pointing out (and this was when some of us sensed his capitulation was imminent) that Nanni’s satire was at least couched in gender neutral prose. Indeed, in his very first sentence he used that heart-sinking clunker of a word, ‘humankind’. (‘Oh boy,’ I always think when I hear it. ‘Here comes a brave and original thinker.’)
But I find nothing in Nanni’s sendup half so obnoxious as the disproportionate screed he inspired from the pen of one Mary Lou Jones: “So everyone is appalled and disgusted and is more knowledgeable regarding sexual harassment than the writer of this article. What I’d like to know is, what is going to be done about it? . . . How are authorities going to respond? Well, he’ll get his through shaming and be sorry he ever wrote it, but is it just going to fade away into the cultural cacophony of woman hating as a ‘norm’ or is there going to be a publicized demonstration of this student and all of his supporters being held to task and making amends?”
Do you think an hour in the stocks getting pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables would suffice? Or would Jones hold out for the full neck-slicing Mohammed . . . er . . . Monty? Jones takes the prize for barking, froth-spewing fury but she’s far from alone in the exorbitance of her anger. What a treat it then is to turn to another writer who identifies herself as ‘Hopefully not Robert’s TA’. She doesn’t go crying to the dean or demand that a lip-pursing committee of rebuke be formed. She swats the silly puppy making moves on her leg with a beautiful riposte more exquisitely tuned than anything in the original essay: “I believe I speak for my colleagues when I say we are so far outside your libidinal economy that you may as well consider us another species.”
The story of the Gazette’s catastrophic blunder got major media play, so whether you listened to the radio or picked up a newspaper we all had a chance to get lectured to by London’s favourite experts in the offense-taking industry. (“Come on down, Megan Walker!”) But the good news is that there’s an entirely new scold on the local scene (new to me, at least) – a “marketing professional and cartoonist,” Diana Tamblyn, who also fancies herself an authority on literature in all of its forms. Tamblyn told Metro News she was “appalled” by Nanni’s essay saying, “It’s a step by step breakdown about how you would get the attention of your teaching assistant if you have a crush on them in class, and it’s in the special frosh week edition of the Gazette. The editor-in-chief of the Gazette is apparently standing by the whole issue, saying it’s satire. To me, satire is if you’re Jonathan Swift and you’re talking about somebody eating babies which we know is not something that happens. You can recognize what it is. If you’re talking about sexual harassment on campus as a how-to list, this is a real problem that exists every day.”
So Tamblyn is saying that satire is only recognizable - satire is only satire - if it’s about something that doesn’t happen, that doesn’t exist every day? I beg to differ. Effective satire is very much a commentary about stuff that happens and exists in the day to day world. It happens so much we become blind to it. So satire takes some tendency or predicament that we’ve all become inured to and inflates it a little or a lot so that it becomes absurd or grotesque or blackly humorous and we see it anew. In the 1729 essay that Tamblyn alludes to, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public, Jonathan Swift was enraged by the indifference being shown to the starving Irish. And so he worked up this most politely worded proposal that peasants could generate some income for themselves by selling their children as food to rich people. The essay provoked an immediate response (and became a lasting example of satire at its most stingingly effective) because everyone knew precisely what Swift was talking about.
Students in their upper teens and lower 20s, just released from their parents’ homes and living and studying in close proximity with nubile peers for the first time in their lives, are - shall we say? - a little preoccupied with sex and imagine what it would be like to score with virtually everyone they see. The vast majority of students find a way to control their hyper-charged libidos but Nanni had some fun by exploring the thought processes of a not-very-bright schlub who doesn’t recognize the need for restraint at all. One sure way you can tell that satire works is when it ticks so many people off. Another law of satire is that you kill it if you have to explain it and for that offense, I apologize.
Herman Goodden / The London Yodeller / September 11, 2014