This week Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to literature. As the huge Dylan fans we are, we greeted this news with unironic enthusiasm. But Dylan blew us away with these characteristically elliptic remarks he made last night at his Albuquerque concert. For us, they just sum up our feelings on everything about 2016.
“Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted. Can’t help but wonder what’s happening to my companions. Are they lost or are they found? Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down all the earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon? There’s a slow, slow train comin.’ I been round the bend.
“I had a woman down in Alabama. She was a backwoods girl, but she sure was realistic. She said, “Boy, without a doubt, you have to quit your messin’, straighten out. You could die down here, be just another accident statistic.” There’s a slow, slow train comin’. I been round the bend.
“All that foreign oil controlling American soil. Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed—sheiks walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings, deciding America’s future from Amsterdam into Paris. And there’s a slow, slow train comin.’ I been round the bend.
“Man’s ego is inflated. His laws are outdated. They don’t apply no more, you can’t rely no more to be standin’ around waitin’. In the home of the brave, Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave, fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan. And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ round the bend.
“Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters, masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition. But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency—all non-believers and men-stealers, talkin’ in the name of religion. And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ round the bend.
“People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting. You know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it? They say lose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions. They talk about a life of brotherly love, but show me someone who knows how to live it! There’s a slow, slow train comin’ round the bend.
“Well, my baby went to Illinois with some bad-talkin’ boy she could destroy. A real suicide case, but there was nothin’ I could do to stop it. I don’t care about economy, I don’t care about astronomy, but it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets. There’s a slow, slow train comin’—I been round the bend.”
As an ancient Roman frog has so truly said, 2016 is the Flight 93 election, which calls for desperate measures. Here is The Hipster Conservative‘s audacious plan to salvage what’s left of this year and our republic.
Replace Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the Republican and Democratic tickets with their daughters, Ivanka and Chelsea. This way, we will be guaranteed our first female, Jewish, and Millennial president, no matter which way the election goes.
Liquidate the Clinton Foundation and distribute its assets to local branches of Catholic Charities.
Liquidate Donald Trump’s real estate assets. After settling with all creditors, use whatever remains to transform Guantanamo Bay into a gold-plated luxury golf resort with no cell phone or internet access.
Banish Donald and Hillary (and preferably Bill Clinton too) to Guantanamo Bay for life. Melania can choose whether to go or not. Offer President Obama lifetime visiting privileges with a dedicated residential suite and golf membership, on the condition that he abandon any future political career.
We all need to feel sorry for two men who, as Buzzfeed reports, nearly lost custody of the male human child they had bought and paid for, through the unreasonable malice of a rogue judge.
The male human child was the byproduct of an otherwise unrelated instance of artificial reproduction in the form of in vitro fertilization, and thus he is actually the biological offspring of another couple, friends of these men, who didn’t want him. The two men already have custody of two other human persons of the female variety, whose biological origin is apparently unimportant other than that they too were brought into the world through surrogates. (These women are always referred to in this type of journalism as “surrogates” — what precisely they are a surrogate for it is unfashionable to mention — or “gestational carriers.”)
Buzzfeed is of course at pains to detail how unspeakably bourgeois and in fact even wealthy these two men are. One, we read, is quite fetchingly the president of a lobbying group, the National Association of Manufacturers, which may explain why he believed that manufacturing a child in the womb of a paid surrogate was a reasonable thing to do. This man is also referred to as “a conservative Christian” for reasons that are unclear. His partner was “a federal lobbyist for Capital One” until he quit to care for their growing family pursue the couple’s litigation efforts full-time. Such wonderful, human people.
The rest of the Buzzfeed article centers on the controversy about whether paid surrogacy ought to be legal, because it’s 2016, and why shouldn’t two rich white gay men have the best children money can buy?
I of course take the view of the benighted Wisconsin judge who tried to frustrate their plans. Two human bodies were bought and sold in this transaction: one the surrogate whose womb is effectively rented; the other of course being the child. (To be fair to the child’s new proprietors, they were not responsible for his genesis in a lab; we can blame his biological progenitors and their medical collaborators for that.)
I hope this child and his putative siblings have a lovely childhood, and that in experiencing the joys and challenges of parenting these unique human beings who, despite their unusual origins, are unique persons made in the image of God, their “dads” will become better people.
The worst thing about this story is Buzzfeed‘s relentless spin, which I am trying, perhaps recklessly, to un-spin. Buzzfeed weasels its way past all kinds of problematic moral situations with the words it uses to frame the story. Surrogates, for instance, are always “used,” as providers of gestation-as-a-service. They are rented bodies who seemingly do not relate as mothers to the children they carry.
While refusing to dignify the surrogate with even a transient motherhood, Buzzfeed refers to her two clients as “dads” and “fathers,” even as their biological fatherhood is specifically disclaimed. Buzzfeed calls the boy “their son” even before they attain legal custody of him. What exactly makes them his parents? Presumably fatherhood is something that can be purchased once one achieves the appropriate socioeconomic status.
As usual, the early Christian church was on this issue before today’s sophisticated surrogacy techniques were ever contemplated. One might ask: Could not the Virgin Mary be seen in the same light, as a “gestational carrier” for the Son of God, who inhabited her womb through no human agency?
No, said the church at the third ecumenical council in 431. Mary was to be honored, not as one who merely provided the material for his human life, but one who, having carried and given birth to the incarnate Son of God, remains forever His mother, and not the mother of his humanity only, but mother of his undivided person, rightly to be called Theotokos, the Mother of God.
May she also be a true mother to the motherless, through the merits of her blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
LEXINGTON, KY—For the last several years, creation science mogul Ken Ham has been building Ark Encounter, a theme park of biblical proportions. Now, Ark Encounter’s wildly-successful launch has deluged the Australian entrepreneur with capital to fund his biggest dream yet: a zoo modeled on the Garden of Eden.
Ham is assembling a “crack team” of genetic scientists, who will use research methods and data drawn directly from the scientific accounts found in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. “It makes total sense when you consider that the author of all Creation is also the author of Genesis one through eleven,” Ham explained. “We just need to crack the code.”
The goal of the project will be to reconstruct the DNA of animal species as they existed at the time of their creation, with the hope to “resurrect” many of these species using state-of-the-art cloning technology.
These biblical beasts are hoped to become the centerpiece of a new theme park, which Ham says will be called the Gen2 Zoo, from Genesis 2 in which Adam names all the animals. Given the unprecedented scope of the project, the park is not projected to open before 2030.
Ham emphasized that while he hopes to resurrect many extinct dinosaur species, he does not envision a “Hollywood disaster movie scenario, although that would be great for business.” Dinosaurs, he explained, “mostly ranged [in size] from chickens to sheep. And don’t forget that they were all vegetarians.”
But while man may soon once again walk with dinosaurs, don’t expect to see genetic clones of Adam and Eve in the Gen2 Zoo. Ham and his team strictly refuse, for reasons of principle, to build on the findings of the Human Genome Project. “The human genome today is exactly what it was at Creation,” Ham averred. “Scripture assures us of this. Not to mention, it’s wrong to play God with human life.”
Ham reportedly abandoned plans to widen the project’s scope to all of the original plant species of the world, after it was pointed out to him that while it might be possible to recreate the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life is presently located in heaven according to Revelation 2:7, and everyone knows that it is impossible for something to be physically present in heaven and on earth at the same time.
In related news, science entertainers Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have announced plans to partner with Donald Trump to build a huge tower reaching unto the heavens.
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
This Valentine’s Day, Oliver Morrison wrote a self-congratulatory love note to his fellow liberals in the Atlantic, arguing that the Left presently dominates the world of political satire because liberals are more tolerant of irony and ambiguous humor than conservatives.
Despite Morrison’s overtures to neutrality, his argument amounts to little more than the latest in a long line of attempts to demonstrate that liberals are smarter, cleverer, funnier, and subtler than conservatives. Morrison cited a study which found conservatives often failed to recognize that Stephen Colbert is not actually conservative, as evidence that conservatives don’t understand ambiguity. But the study’s authors drew a more [cough] ambiguous conclusion—they wrote, “we have outlined a cognitive process in which individuals who consume ambiguous political messages from ambiguous sources in late-night comedy interpret the messages in ways that support or reinforce personally held political beliefs,” suggesting that their results don’t reflect some difference in liberal or conservative DNA, but rather the fact that people tend to see what they want to see in ambiguous situations. So, confirmation bias.
But Morrison and I could trade stories about clowns on both ends of the left-right spectrum all day without either of us convincing the other. It would be more useful to point out the irony of his argument about irony: in the age of the post-liberal Left, old-fashioned political snark, the kind he says is so dear to liberals, is in grave peril.
Morrison’s article reminded me of the well-publicized case of Justine Sacco, a corporate executive who tweeted a distasteful joke about AIDS, sparked a global wave of Twitter outrage, lost her job, faced death threats, and is now, as a recent New York Times Magazine article revealed, effectively in hiding. Sacco still insists, as she has all along, that the offending tweet (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) was intended as satire, a joke about Westerners who are oblivious to the problems that plague the continent in the vein of the beloved hashtag #firstworldproblems. And while Sacco’s satire comes off as more juvenile than Juvenalian, there’s no reason to doubt her intentions in retrospect, since by all accounts she’s a very committed liberal. Sacco’s infinitely more likely to mock Western privilege than to make the insensitive joke that this tweet would have been were it sincere. But she turned the snark up too high, and paid dearly for it.
Steven Colbert himself learned something about the perils of snark in the well-publicized #CancelColbert affair last March. The official Colbert Report Twitter account tweeted an offensive line about Asians, which Colbert had deployed to mock the racism of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, out of context. The Twitter activist Suey Park read the tweet, still out of context, and leveraged her considerable following to start what is commonly known as a “Twitter Firestorm” and demand retribution from Colbert and Comedy Central. Fortunately for Colbert, he’s a darling of the mainstream media, which quickly came to his rescue by pointing out that no, one of the most beloved liberals in America is not actually a flaming racist. But Colbert had stepped over the line. His snark was too snarky, too close to the sort of verbal violence and rhetorical repression progressives imagine they might hear from a gun-toting Harley-Davidson rider at a gas station in rural Alabama.
Liberals have learned from the cases of Sacco, Colbert, and others, which is why the satirical Twitter account Women Against Feminism, with 92,000 followers, clarifies its status as snark by making its tweets grammatically incoherent and rife with spelling errors. “I don’t need feimsis I like my men to be MASCULINE!! I will only date a man if he washes himself with shark blood and exfoliates with gravel.” Unfortunately, even these precautions are not enough, since most of its tweets still attract angry, deadly-serious replies accusing them of furthering the misogynist cause. At least so far there haven’t been any outraged hashtag campaigns against the account. Still, by qualifying itself so painfully, WAF’s snark loses its deadpan quality and ends up so obvious as to be mostly charmless and uninteresting.
No piece about the downfall of satire would be complete without the obligatory reference to “A Modest Proposal,” so here you go: if Jonathan Swift had published his legendary piece of snark today, the Twitter firestorm would probably have consumed several cloud computing storage centers.
The post-liberal Left, eternally vigilant for the least sign of ideological impurity, is now devouring its own parents, the jesters who made light of conservatism’s worst excesses back when liberals were in the minority.
Among the survivors of the purge is Jon Stewart, whose singularly straightforward brand of humor seems to be ideally suited to the post-snark age. Stewart excels at pointing out silly things that Fox News and Republican members of Congress do or say in clever ways, but his signature moments, which generally involve passionate shouting about the idiocy of X person or Y organization with the occasional self-deprecating joke thrown in, are not exactly ambiguous. And understandably so, because a little snark is a dangerous thing, and being misunderstood can cost you dearly in a world of angry young people with large Twitter followings, and a 24-hour news cycle that loves covering hashtag campaigns.
By the post-liberal Left’s standards, in fact, most snark, whatever its intentions, probably qualifies as the sort of verbal violence that must be eliminated at all costs. When statements are judged not by their meaning but by the internal state they produce in their hearers, and when we speak of being offended as suffering a kind of bodily violation, there is no room left for ambiguity in our discourse. Actually, by these standards isn’t snark—isn’t humor itself—a particularly insidious kind of privilege, afforded only to members of empowered groups who can afford to make jokes out of the cruel words that are even now ravaging the souls of the oppressed? (This particular problem surfaced in That Jonathan Chait Article’s anecdote about the feminist Facebook group.)
As a simple, unsubtle, and humorless conservative, I naturally cheer the decline of snark, but I offer a friendly warning to the liberals who are abandoning it. When, after a heroic struggle, the nameless baker of the original “Hunting of the Snark” finally killed the dread beast, he ran into unexpected consequences.
A major principle of being a hipster is that you want to be the trend-setter. You want to be ahead of whatever will be popular in the future. Once the bandwagon starts rolling, it’s too late to jump on.
After all “hipster” is mostly used as a term of derision for poseurs who are late to the cultural party. This is the hipster double bind: if you are a real hipster, you don’t want to be called a hipster. Your image must be new or ironically out of place. This eventually becomes impossible, which is why all hipsters tend to look alike.