A self-styled “evangelist” vlogger in Nevada was able to gin up yet another silly media frenzy with a video criticizing Starbucks for their red holiday-themed cup. This time it’s not old Pat Robertson on TBN, folks. It’s an idiot with an iPhone.
Now, the media is gleefully reporting this as if there is a massive Christian outrage campaign against Starbucks.
Since zero respectable Christians actually give a crap about Starbucks’ red cups, this to me suggests one more reason we need strong denominations and church authority structures—so idiots like this can be plausibly disclaimed and shut up. Christianity doesn’t have an image problem, it has an authority problem.
Also, Starbucks coffee is burnt and nasty. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it.
If there is really a such thing as “Cultural Marxism,” it is no doubt represented in the person of American socialist sociologist Norman Birnbaum, who has taught for a long time at Georgetown University. I happened to pick up his book The Radical Renewal: The Politics of Ideas in Modern America because it was either free or quite cheap. Also, it had a back-cover blurb by Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, which I enjoyed in my undergraduate political theory studies.
Recently I’ve been exchanging pleasantries on Twitter with a professed Marxist who is distressed by the lack of political solutions advanced by Marxists. I thought I would read this book on his behalf, since, if any discipline is likely to to advance political recommendations worth heeding, it is certainly sociology and not economics.
So I’ll be reading and blogging about this book with no particular program other than to explore and engage with Birnbaum’s ideas.
Acknowledgements & Preface
It is nice to encounter an academic with a realistic sense of his own dignity. Birnbaum in the acknowledgements thanks the people and institutions who at various times harbored him or otherwise offered aid and comfort. He mentions two professors at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin who “were good enough to extend a welcome despite the inability of their administration, for the better part of a year, to settle on a title for me. Was I a guest fellow, a guest scholar, or something else . . . ? Their unfailing courtesy despite this severe trial demonstrates that minor triumphs of scholarly content over bureaucratic form are possible.”
One must note that this book represents, certainly, the triumph of something over form. The editors of this book would have done well to eliminate all uses of the word “of,” because the whole preface is written in the most aggressively passive—nay, passive-aggressive style. If you would like to write for The Hipster Conservative, please understand that we have low standards, but not this low.
Birnbaum also thanks two institutions from which he took fellowships without ultimately producing any scholarly work. “They also serve who sit and think,” he avers:
Years ago, I had a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a book on the Marxist legacy. My Marxist legacy, in the event, was exhausted: the book was never written.
From which shameless but characteristic admission I take the title of this post. So imagine my disappointment only a few pages into this book, which rapidly promises to become a tedious slog, not at all the inspired radical leftism I was led to believe it would be. Birnbaum establishes his bona fides, which in his case consist in dismissive statements about the neoconservatives and explaining that he is really a real, Trotsky-admiring Marxist, although he has never belonged to a Communist party or Trotskyite group.
Chapter 1: Social Theory in the United States: The Legacy of the Recent Past
“Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theorists often name the Frankfurt School of German Marxist intellectuals (Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm, Marceuse, etc.) as the root of all that is odious in our politics today. Significant, then, that Birnbaum begins his discussion with a history of the Frankfurt School and their reception in America.
Adorno and his friends might not have deigned to recognize Birnbaum’s work as scholarship (They also work who sit and drink). Nevertheless, Birnbaum is somewhat enamored of them and the leftist following they perhaps unwittingly and indirectly inspired.
The author may be trying to ingratiate a particular audience, because he keeps dropping certain quite unnecessary phrases and comments which probably have some kind of meaning to the initiated; for instance:
“. . . those irrepressible generalists, the New York intellectuals.”
“It is now difficult to imagine, but in 1946 a Luce weekly, Life, could still print an attack on the art of Jean Dubuffet as subversive of Western culture . . .”
Not sure who Dubuffet is or why a critical article in Life gives Birnbaum the vapors. Or perhaps he yearns for the simplicity of 1946, when national periodicals had the moral wherewithal to criticize the avant-garde? Anyway, his main point seems to be that the Frankfurt School brought a different kind of Marxist critical theory to America: one more concerned with cultural critique than the pragmatic American leftism that predominated in the New Deal era. Birnbaum suggests that the Frankfurt school’s approach and insights were largely ignored by postwar liberals, who, while even embracing the avant-garde, again put a gauche, pragmatic American spin on everything.
Aside, while it is true that the American left in the 1960s was super lame, Birnbaum’s arch attitude and catty side comments are a bit rich coming from someone who did literally nothing for the cause of socialism in America while it was all going down–who has never “occupied” anything except well-endowed academic chairs.
I’m hoping that once we get into the meat of this book it will get more specific and interesting. Right now, it’s a bit of a dreary slog. Au revoir.
A writer for the alchemic Buzzfeed (a philosopher’s stone which turns all it touches into virulent internet content) explains “why we actually hate all things pumpkin spice.” Turns out, we don’t hate syrupy venti Starbucks lattes, glottal fry, or Ugg boots for their own sake, but for what they represent, which is a certain class identity characterized by
a banal existence, obsessed with Instagramming photos of things that themselves betray their basicness (other basic friends, pumpkin patches, falling leaves), tagging them #blessed and #thankful, and then reposting them to the basic breeding grounds of Facebook and Pinterest.
In other words, the conspicuous consumption of products which show the consumer to have uncultivated taste and lack of individuality. The writer suggests that our position of judging said consumer to be “basic” is rooted in class insecurity—the need to separate one’s own more discriminating tastes from those of the petit bourgeois mob.
One must give the writer some credit for seemingly having discovered the existence of class consciousness without the benefit of a liberal-arts education. However, her attempt at diagnosing our snobbery falls short.
“‘Basic,’” she gropes, “is, at bottom, a stereotype.” (And we all know that stereotypes are, ipso facto, bad.) But it’s also sort of racist because it turns out that the idea of “basicness” which is now used almost exclusively among the Buzzfeed set to refer to déclassé white females, is originally stolen from “black” pop culture, so white people using it is cultural appropriation, which is also bad (and inauthentic).
Nevertheless, buried in this essay’s silt are some nuggets of partial wisdom.
Calling other people “basic,” the author suggests, reflects one’s own anxiety about living in a homogenous world of meaningless choices. It is an attempt to distance oneself from middle-class consumer identity.
We say, this is a good thing. Not that we should call people unkind names, but that it is a good thing to question the advertising-driven preferences of consumer culture. Is “class anxiety” of this sort really a problem?
I mean, what are the alternatives? One is to refuse to make aesthetic judgments at all–which is how we got modern art, McMansions, reality television, and basically any public edifice of the 1970s.
The other alternative is to sublimate one’s “class anxiety” into some kind of basic warmed-over “cultural marxism” (Check your #privilege, etc). Which is also gross and unattractive.
Elitism is often a pose, but it at least aims at a higher aesthetic standard not only in what one wears and eats, but in how one orders one’s life. Eschewing banality is a good thing. Developing a conservative taste for simple, elegant food and apparel is one way of improving yourself and those around you.
Evangelical college president Greg Thornbury and libertarian biographer Amity Shlaes have written an editorial to explain why a flat tax is better for families than the present regime of child tax credits. (The article said “religious families,” although I don’t see what religion has to do with it other than the fact that my wife and I are married, and our habit of giving 10% of our income to a religious institution.)
A flat tax means everyone’s income is taxed at the same rate, presumably a lower rate than the current average tax rate. The wealthy still end up paying more in taxes as a function of their greater income; the poor pay in proportion to their poverty. It is certainly more fair than a system in which people are taxed both directly and indirectly—a system in which one’s ability to avoid excessive taxes depends on one’s facility with the byzantine complex of exemptions and loopholes built willy-nilly into the tax code.
However, federal income tax is just a fraction of the taxes we all pay. States tax goods and services transactions at the point of sale, while the federal government tends to focus on taxing income. There are state income taxes too, and all kinds of fees. In general, we are all taxed way too much. Local municipalities tax real (land) and other property (cars, etc.) to fund local services, principally schools. At least 2/3 of my personal property tax goes to fund either the schools themselves or debt service on school buildings. And the Federal government takes a double dip with Social Security and Medicare entitlement taxes, which, unlike the income tax, are not imposed on a progressive scale. Oh, and let’s not forget the ‘Affordable’ Care Act healthcare tax. What this means is that a lower-earning person will likely pay significantly more in entitlement and other taxes than in income tax, especially after deductions.
A just tax system would have to reform, not only the Federal income tax, but also all of the other, more regressive forms of taxation which consume the wealth of the lower and middle classes.
I stress that I am not an economist and hesitate to approach this subject from a layman’s perspective. The current tax system is not only financially burdensome, but very difficult to understand, even for a college-educated person who arranges words for a living, like me. I gratefully buy TurboTax every year to sort out my relatively simple tax filing. How do people, especially people who are not as intelligent or detail-oriented as I am, manage to navigate the tax code at all?
But Greg Thornbury and Amity Shlaes fail to convince me of the benefits of a flat tax.
To begin with, the fundamental problem with the current tax system is simply this: the government takes too much of our money. The tax structure is not at fault for this; it’s the tax rates that are the problem. So when Thornbury and Schlaes lament the stifling effect of the top tax bracket on innovation and job creation, the real answer is simple: eliminate the top tax bracket and simply collect less revenue. According to Thornbury and Schlaes’ free market economic beliefs, which I share, this will result in economic growth and be better for everyone.
What Thornbury and Shlaes actually defend, however, is far worse. Eliminating the child tax credit while keeping tax rates at a level similar to the present tax rates takes away one of the best forms of tax relief available to lower-earning families.
And then, because Thornbury and Shlaes apparently don’t know anyone who makes less than $150,000 a year, they advance as their hypothetical scenario a courageous female orthodontist, who is charmingly also an innovator in her field. This tragic genius has the chance to develop a great new product which might become the next Invisalign. But no—her work on the project would increase her income just enough to bump her into the top tax bracket, which starts at $464,850 and is taxed an additional 4.5%. It’s not worth it, and she chooses to go Galt and “tinker in her garage” instead.
Alas, who are these people who refuse to make money, lest they jump a tax bracket? I know some relatively high-earning people, including a father of 8 whose senior engineer’s salary puts his family at the mercy of the Alternative Minimum Tax, meaning they are ineligible for many common tax deductions. Strangely, he has not attempted to renegotiate a lower salary. Of course, he’s better at math than most people.
What Thornbury and Shlaes are really doing, which as teachers at a Christian liberal arts college they should know better than to do, is political propaganda. They play on out-of-date ‘culture war’ tropes (Ralph Reed? the Christian Coalition?), give bogus examples, and ignore the economic concerns of the supposed target audience, which is lower-earning married couples with children. Most conservative, religious Millennials probably belong to this demographic. Economic and societal pressures on young families are frightening. As much as I would like to be able to contribute my fair share to Uncle Sam, I confess I won’t regret being able to file for a child tax credit this year. It may help—a little—to offset the burden of our family’s reduced income and increased expenses as a result of, you know, having a child.
Recently I read a story written by Jeremy, a young man about my age who, like me, was raised in beautiful Maryland, in a conservative evangelical subculture. We both later came to abandon some, but not all, of the beliefs we were raised with. For me, this involved questioning fundamentalism, trying on Calvinism, and finding a home in the Anglican Way. For Jeremy, it involved being kicked out of the house by his Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventist parents, rejecting Christianity but realizing he still believed in God, trying out other religions, and finally settling on Islam.
In many ways, the teachings and practices of Islam were in accord with Jeremy’s most sincerely-held convictions. For instance, he was struck by its emphasis on equality before God. “Nearly everything I believed and actively tried to practice in my life,” he writes, “was present, to my great surprise, in Islam.” He appreciated that Islam requires its adherents to study its beliefs to become better people, and that it recognizes that sometimes people must take up arms for what they believe in.
After explaining why he converted to Islam, Jeremy remarks, “Ever since my wife and I converted, she has worn a hijab . . .”
Wait a minute. His wife? She never entered the story until this moment. Presumably they were married during at least part of the faith journey Jeremy describes, and was involved in Jeremy’s decision to embrace Islam–especially since she, too, decided to convert. But what were her reasons for doing this?
Where is her story?
Elsewhere Jeremy has written, “men and women in the eyes of Allah are equal, neither is better than the other.” But then he says, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has made one of them excel over the other, and because they spend out of their possessions (to support them).”
This formula doesn’t sound like equality, and it is actually very similar to patriarchy, an ideology that has drawn adherents among conservative Christian fundamentalists. I wonder what were the deeply-held beliefs Jeremy carried over from Christian fundamentalism into Islam.
Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.
The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.
No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect.
In a sense, Dmitri’s nasty and vengeful actions led to the death of Ilyusha. In the same sense, Smerdyakov was not the only person whose immoral hatred led to the death of Fyodor Karamazov. Smerdyakov’s childhood tutor Grigory frequently punished the young boy, resulting in his psychological disfigurement; Grushenka, a local woman, had dalliances with both Fyodor and Dmitri that caused resentment among the whole family and left Fyodor all the more contemptible a figure; additionally, the cold and logical atheist Ivan advised Smerdyakov before the murder that “if God does not exist, everything is permitted.” The Karamazovs and their acquaintances dwelt in a moral thicket of ill will and indignation, jealousy and jaundice. The ultimate result was Fyodor’s murder and intense suffering besides. Woven through the pages of the novel are the unmistakably prophetic words of Father Zosima: “Each of us is guilty in everything before everyone.”
So much of our political and social thought ignores the latent ways that our actions affect those around us. In our public culture, the standard test for condemning or allowing something is whether or not it directly harms other people. Often, as essayist Helen Andrews observes:
Bad behavior can be condemned only if it is shown to correlate with some quantifiable negative outcome like a greater likelihood of receiving a free or reduced-price lunch among grade-schoolers, a higher incidence of antidepressant use among adults, or a measurable decline in the national GDP. Moral questions are treated as if they were, at the end of the day, merely empirical.
It’s of only peripheral importance to plumb our human and emotional depths, or to ponder the direction and misdirection of our interwoven fates. Life expectancy and the Dow are up, so all is well—so goes our contemporary wisdom.
This “atomic” view of humanity, the idea that we exert little to no causal force upon others unless by direct or semi-direct action, lies implicitly at the root of the progressive ethos. It is understandably attractive, especially in light of the American conversation surrounding same-sex marriage in the last decade. This issue has enjoyed such dominance as the social issue of our age that entire worldviews have formed around it. It was and is plainly obvious to a sizeable portion of America that a loving union between two gay people yields no harm; in the end, they were right about the issue itself.
Conservatives should not have been so trenchant on the issue of gay marriage. Progressives should be proud of the work they’ve done on this issue and so many others. But every conscientious American, at this important point in our social history, should think carefully about the lesson we take away. Have we made progress, as some argue, by seeking the highest degree of individual autonomy and freedom from others, shrugging off seemingly outmoded practices, and allowing ourselves to do anything that does not visibly harm other people? Or, will lasting progress result when we learn to love others rather than just ourselves, seeking prudent reform with the recognition that we are all bound together?
Today’s progressivism proliferated in the 1960s and 70s. By 2015 it has become enmeshed in the basic assumptions of multiple generations. There is much to admire in progressive philosophy and its results. Previous progressive movements—the civil rights movement, the temperance and women’s movement—held strong communitarian beliefs and goals. But today’s progressivism is built on a founding creed of radical individualism, one whose tendency is to divide. This atomistic creed, lodged somewhere deep in the American consciousness, impels many of us to seek liberation by flouting tradition and community.
But liberating ourselves from the seemingly irrational bonds of sentiment and ceremony sets us on a dangerous path. As we cleave ourselves from custom, we risk cleaving ourselves from one another.
The research on American loneliness is bleak. We feel, despite the unprecedented material bounty of our society, less connected now than at any previous time since 1960, the first year statistics were available. The catchphrases of the radical decades—“doing your own thing,” “free love”—have inculcated in the American imagination a faulty sense of freedom, a notion of human rights severed from human nature. Family and meaningful relationships are increasingly of secondary importance to the individualist aspirations of career climbing and instant gratification. Our indifference – if not hostility – to all beyond self yields a disregard for our traditions and an ignorance of our past. We are a generation of radically private historical orphans with little comprehension of a context in which to understand ourselves. Our worlds are shrinking inwards: we seek knowledge only of the immediately relevant; we deign less and less to empathize with others.
It may seem cranky and sentimental to lament the decline of the family dinner or the rise of phony celebrity culture. But these trends come at the cost of family and culture themselves. Progressivism’s strength is also its great danger: we seek liberation from each other, and in a sense, from the past. But human beings do not thrive in a condition of maximal autonomous choice. We need the attachments of community. We must find a way to remove chains without breaking the ties that bind.
The ideas of contemporary American progressivism, for all of the good that they do, cannot stand by themselves. Progressivism is not wrong in seeking progress, but its tendency to shrug away the ties of tradition, no matter their longevity, its tendency to estrange and atomize, leaves a void that conservatism can fill. Many conservatives, notably David Brooks, are calling for a post-Obergefell conservatism, one that sets aside its moral opposition to sexual orientation and addresses the cultural effects of radical individualism with love and warmth. “Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society,” Brooks points out. “They already subscribe to . . . selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.”
Brooks is not so much formulating a new conservatism, as underlining a conservative disposition that has been around for centuries, nursed variously by David Hume, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Wendell Berry, and many others. We need not form a new conservative canon. We need to read the one we have and apply it to our times.
Conservatism in this sense is no enemy of progress—so long as progress is humane. Conservatives seek to tie up the loose ends of our rapidly changing sociality, to give shape and substance to our congealed culture. Every social ideology has its bad side effects; conservatism, with its insistence on familial love and human connection, can be used to negate progressivism’s tendency to isolate and estrange.
As Brooks points out, conservatives must preach community as an antidote to impoverished despair, quiet desperation, and broken homes. But conservatism cannot yield to the dominant culture and overlook the realities of hedonistic life. The unbridled pursuit of self-gratification, the psychologically, socially, and sexually risky behavior of the younger generations, shears at our moral fabric and damages human beings. Conservatives must be willing to point out that the cultural dominance of these immoderations is tearing us apart. The mean but seemingly disconnected action of a Grigory may result in soul-shattering pain and anguish for a Grushenka.
Smerdyakov commits suicide at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, on the eve of Dmitri’s trial. The symbolism must not be overlooked. He hangs himself from a nail on the wall, where in a traditional Russian home a cross or icon would be mounted. Here, Dostoevsky forcefully shows what is so easy for us to overlook: that isolation and despair are inevitable in a world that glorifies individualism; a world where atomized people have only themselves to worship; a world where “everything is permitted” without thought for the effects of our actions can have upon others.
Father Zosima saw the impending tragedy for which Smerdyakov and the Karamazovs were destined, though he knew that he was helpless to avert it. Yet what he preached is the very thing with which conservatives can heal the fissions attendant to our contemporary hedonistic culture. Genuine love for mankind transcends everything, even tradition. Zosima prays for Smerdyakov, although it was not the Church’s practice to bestow such grace on suicides. The most broken among us deserve the most compassion.
Dostoevsky had an ability matched by few other authors in history to touch the core of humanity and expose it. The Brothers Karamazov is an exercise in lamentation over the profound if subtle ways we affect each other, too often pushing one another toward brokenness. But occasionally he shows us the way out. A human life, as Dostoevsky sees it, is a “moment of acting and living love,” a moment in which each of us has a chance to counteract the pain and suffering of our fellow men. If the dark-spirited actions of Dostoevsky’s characters send ripples of hate and despondency across the sea of human relations, deep, neighborly love can calm the troubled waters.
If the conservative movement is to have a serious future, it must take up this task. The message of the basic moral interconnectedness of mankind and the importance of love cannot be abandoned. The ills of modernity are simply not going to cure themselves.
WILL SHIREY is a junior at Penn, from Waterloo, Iowa. His hobbies include reading, swimming, and having occasional medical emergencies. He owns three flannel shirts and is working on cultivating other hipster affectations. Not yet brave enough to stand athwart history yelling “stop,” he enjoys standing idly by the leftist consensus of his campus and whispering “you are way too mainstream for me.”
Conservatives: we don’t have to freak out about National Review. They haven’t “sold out,” and they haven’t endorsed same-sex marriage, as you can see fromarticleslikethese. Their only error is that they continue to employ a managing editor who suffers from intellectual and moral imbecility.
But we must offer them sympathy in this. One wouldn’t, after all, want to cast such a person out on his own resources. He might be driven into prostitutionsex work (not that there’s anything wrong with that, by his reasoning).
Joseph Bottum had at least the decency to be wrong in a literary and interesting way. Not so Jason Lee Stearts, whose entire argument—all five thousand, four hundred gassy words of it—rests on an inability to define or use the word “fulfillment” properly. I’m not kidding—there is literally nothing of substance there.
Karl Marx quipped that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Unfortunately, Stearts’s article doesn’t even rise to the level of farce. It’s just flatulence, and not even of the kind that’s likely to provoke intellectual climate change.
I’ve been too busy with other things to write much lately. My wife and I welcomed our first child, and on top of that I have been pleasantly busy in my day job. I hope to gather some interesting thoughts and return to this website soon. In the mean time, you may appreciate—if you have not already read it—something I wrote at Jordan Bloom’s invitation for Front Porch Republic. (You should read and support FPR.) This expresses some of the primary reasons I’m skeptical of the “social contract” as an adequate explanation for how our social order is put together, especially when it comes to the institution of the family. This skepticism also applies to civil government although I didn’t cover that as much.
“. . . order evolves not as a simple compact among equals but as the complex human response to the inescapable fact of our biological and social inequality.”
Speaking of social contract and the family, Michael Brendan Dougherty has written a brilliant and lucid explanation of the two modes of family—natural or contractual—which are in conflict in Western society right now. To me, this appears to be the most important political and social justice issue of our time. Dougherty writes:
“In fact, guaranteeing the right to procreate to same-sex couples practically demands the erasure of biological parenthood, as same-sex couples cannot have children without involving a member of the opposite sex, somehow. And equality demands even more. To create the equal experience of full parenthood for both, the child’s curiosity (or claims) on his or her biological parents must be obviated and denied, whatever the heartbreak.”
Although people like Mr. Dougherty and I are accused of being on the “wrong side of history” for taking the side of children and the natural order, the truth of the matter is that the liberal experiment is falling apart and we need to preserve these natural institutions so that civilization can be sustained while we look for a humane political consensus.
I hope that the Irish, of all people, recognize this, and that they will once more save civilization for future generations.
Consider the well-worn saying that “God has a sense of humor.” This is usually meant to refer generally to the unexplained ironies and lucky chances we encounter in life. What I mean, though, is that God as a person, or rather, as three persons in undivided unity, has a personal style of humor which he employs in speech, often through the literary device of satire.
What is satire?
Satire is a genre that, while broad, has certain definite characteristics. The literary distinction between friendly Horatian satire and splenetic Juvenalian satire illustrates two poles of the satirical genre. Any particular satire can fall anywhere in between, and may retain characteristics of other literary genres. The following summarizes the essential character of satire:
In his classic The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye claims that “there are two halves to literary experience. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with.” Satire is the preeminent genre used by writers who want to show a world gone awry. . . .
Even though all satire targets something foolish or evil, there is always a stated or implied satiric norm by which the object of attack is satirized. In the Bible, satiric norms include the character of God, the moral law of the writer’s religious community, basic virtues like love, generosity, or humility, and the golden rule (behaving toward others as one wants to be treated by others). [source]
This “better world” of normal ideals is an essential element of satire, and may either be explicitly referenced or left unspoken. This often depends on whether the intended audience is aware of or in agreement with the “norms.”
Satire is not always in keeping with the taboos of polite society. Many find it low and offensive. Ambrose Bierce observes this tendency in his satiric definition of satire:
An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are ‘endowed by their Creator’ with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a sour-spirited knave, and his every victim’s outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent. [source]
Although Bierce is right that Americans do not care for ‘negativity,’ the act of ‘tearing down’ has its right place, if not in the American psyche, at least in the pages of Scripture, associated with the destruction of physical and theological idols—as in this verse from Deuteronomy:
You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. (Deut. 12:3 ESV)
The purpose of satire is the destruction of false idols and the restoration of true norms.
Satire in the Old Testament
God often uses satire in the Old Testament. The book of 1 Samuel tells an incident in which the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines and carried as a prize into the temple of their fish-god Dagon, whose image had a man’s upper body and a fish’s tail. After the first night, the priests of Dagon return to find their god doing obeisance to the Ark. They set him up again only to return the next morning to find him again fallen down in front of the Ark, but this time his head and hands are broken off and sitting on the threshold of the temple. The Philistines are also afflicted by painful boils and mice. But rather than worship the true God, they have his Ark sent away—with offerings of golden boils and mice—to propitiate themselves and their own impotent god.
In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah calls the people of Israel together along with the priests of Baal and presents a sharp-edged object lesson. After the people fail to choose between Baal and Jehovah, Elijah proposes a test: although the prophets of Baal outnumber him 450 to one, the question will be determined objectively: the God to provide fire for his sacrifice will be acknowledged as the true one. Elijah allows his adversaries the first try, taunting them as they attempt to invoke their god.
And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Elijah then proves Jehovah’s power through significant actions. He first builds his altar with uncut stones, calling them after the tribes of Israel:
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name…” (1 Kings 18:27–31)
The satirist is not only concerned with tearing down but also builds up what is true. Elijah’s construction of the altar symbolically reminds the people of Israel of their sacred calling. He then drenches the sacrifice, fuel, and altar with water, the element opposite to fire, in an act of absurd contradiction, to show that Israel’s devotion to God has been quenched. God answers with overwhelming certainty. His fire consumes the water, fuel, sacrifice, the altar itself, the trench around the altar, and even the dust. In a return to right norms, the priests of Baal are driven out and slaughtered.
Idols are a frequent target of satire. In various places, the prophets point out the folly of idol worship in ironic juxtapositions.
He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14–17)
The book of Jonah is the most overtly satirical book of the Bible. God sends the prophet Jonah to warn Nineveh, a wicked enemy city, of impending judgment. However, no character in the story is less devout than Jonah himself. Attempting to flee God’s calling, he boards a ship to Tarsus. When God sends a dreadful storm after him, the superstitious sailors recognize that someone aboard must have angered God to have elicited such disaster. They save their own lives by throwing Jonah overboard. The reluctant prophet is then swallowed by a fish for three days while he prays very piously for God’s deliverance.
After the fish vomits him out on shore, Jonah undertakes his commission, traveling through Nineveh proclaiming “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” The entire city responds in fear and repentance. The king issues a proclamation: “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” But when God actually does relent and spare Nineveh, Jonah becomes angry and complains, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah is not really interested in God’s will unless it aligns with his own prejudices.
God has the last word, reestablishing the true “norm” of his divine mercy: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Satire in the New Testament
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel are obdurately forgetful of even the most fundamental principles of God’s law, so they must be constantly harangued by the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus encounters an entirely different situation. The Jews have finally adopted the Law as a way of life, but are failing to understand its deeper significance. Jesus uses a much more subtle sort of satire in his parables and deeds. For instance, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man in hell asks Abraham to send a beggar named Lazarus to warn his brothers so that they may avoid his torment. Abraham however observes that “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” In John’s gospel, Jesus actually raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. The religious leaders, far from being convinced by either the proofs of Jesus’ divinity in the Law and the Prophets, or by his miraculous actions, plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.
Similarly, Jesus claims he will give no “signs” of his divinity—miracles—for the religious leaders and instead recommends to them the “sign of Jonah.” Like Jonah, the religious leaders ignore all the “signs” in Moses and the Prophets that God’s will is to extend His merciful kingdom to the whole world. They look exclusively for a Messiah who will restore their nation’s earthly glory, and so they reject Jesus.
Christ’s bitterest, most “Juvenalian” speech, is in Matthew 23. He tells his disciples and the people who are gathered around:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.
Jesus begins by invoking the “norm”—Moses’ law—and ironically exhorting his listeners to obey the scribes and Pharisees out of respect for Moses—but not to imitate their behavior. After his initial catalog of their social hypocrisy, Jesus turns to direct, caustic accusations in high satirical style. The Pharisees and scribes “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” with their arcane distinctions that obscure rather than illuminate the law. Jesus repeatedly employs hyperbolic imagery, exaggerating their actions to match the sin in their hearts:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
These characterizations are harsh enough, but Jesus is not done with the Pharisees. He relates their present-day hypocrisy to the disobedience of their ancestors.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.”
“Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers,” Jesus taunts them, knowing they soon will.
Let’s buy another round! Let’s buy another round!
We’ll pass no bar in town until our fears are drowned!
Show Congress we are wild!
Ignore appeals they filed!
Who cares what precedents they found?
Let’s buy another round!
We’ll pass no bar in town until our fears are drowned! Continue reading Supreme Court Drinking Song