What is satire for?

The novelist Will Self, and cartoonist Martin Rossen debate, or rather seem to generally agree on, the limits and responsibilities of satire, who the easy targets might be, and critically, where the real scrutiny and ire should be aimed, but usually isn’t.

It made me wonder why not?  The Charlie Hebdo editors, artists and staff were victims of a brutal murder by lunatics. They were fully entitled to print and draw what they like,  in a free society, which includes the right to offend.  But why bother offending, for its own sake?  Rossen makes the excellent point that Charlie operate in the “Situationist” tradition, of Guy Debord etc, ie. they provoke for its own sake, then wait to see what happens.   But why bother (?) when Muslims living in the west are an easy, 99% innocent, yet tabloid-popular target?   Who in the west does the tough work and picks on the powerful?  Who targets the media barons,  on industrialists exploiting Chinese workers (and often poisoning the earth, rivers and soil), the financial billionaires who write their own laws, the moguls and the oligarchs?  Nobody, it appears.

That made me wonder in turn why this Paris story is so, not over-reported, the murders were disgusting and naturally created outrage and revulsion.  But who decides the news?  So is torture repulsive, (as well as useless, apparently) So is rendition, so is imprisonment without the possibility of trial.  Where’s the satire, outrage and comment there?   Interesting to see the right-wing press suddenly falling over themselves to emphasize with Paris.  Their empathy is conditional, convenient and suits their own agenda.  Where was the empathy for the local innocent Iraqi taxi drivers who was the victim of local tribal score-settling and who ended up being water-boarded to death?   Where are the satirists and novelists and cartoonists then?  Who picks on the powerful anymore?

10 thoughts on “What is satire for?

  1. The Charlie Hebdo murders weren’t carried out by ‘lunatics’ – the executioners were radical Islamists who knew exactly what they were doing and why. Calling them lunatics implies that what happened was an inexplicable one-off. If only…


    1. “Implies one-off”? That might be what you inferred but is clearly not what I meant. Lunatics aren’t necessarily one-off, alas. Far from it, as we both know. They may well have known “why” they did it and “what” they wanted, which is a international, global caliphate, run on Sharia law. But in western Europe, that is a total, (a lunatic) dream. It just isn’t going to happen. Did you watch the video? I’d recommend it. I barely ever post video of any sort, I put this up because the contributors and the content, are unusually, far above the usual din, original and thought-provoking. At one Cathy Newman, (the newscaster) asks -rhetorically- ..”f we in the west start self-censoring.. doesn’t that mean the extremists have won?” It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but its based on a cliche. And at which point Will Self disagrees. and makes the simple point, “But they’re not winning, they are loosing” And he’s right.
      Extremists can kill and terrify Innocent people in some in some regions and pockets of the middle east and Africa (eg northern Nigeria) But in the rest of the world, Europe & N America especially, all they can do is can pull off shocking, but very rare outrages like this. It is shocking, but it’s statistically tiny; plus they are not winning any argument and they are certainly not winning any war. On the contrary, as Self says. They are loosing the theoretical and PR battle too. You can be sure their actions disgust 99.99% of all Muslims, and will drive young, potentially-impressionable Muslims even further away from any possible sympathy with extremism in future. The solidarity evident in France all this week was proof of that. We have to be vigilant, yes. But we generally are. The real danger for the west, the ultimate danger is overreacting, and so turning our back on our own values. That’s the point of my piece above.


  2. Glad you highlighted this broadcast, and to read your clear-sighted opinion published here. It feels like genuine relief to at last find measured responses that I can relate to, among the outpourings. So, thanks. Regards, Matilda


    1. Yes, thank you Matilda, and i agree with you. It’s a confusing time. Both these awful murders, and the reactions to them, all bring up troubling and complex issues. I think we are all disgusted with the murders, which are the stuff of nightmares, and ended the lives of innocent people. But i think some of us are also troubled by, and are still processing, some of the reaction too. The public, official reactions, and the general media reactions.


  3. Well, certainly, they are losing the PR battle. The western media is basically one big propaganda machine. The problem, historically, is the west’s over-reaction. Every bomb, drone, rocket, and bullet employed in undeclared wars against largely civilian populations is a recruiting poster for radicalism. The only coherent ideology in the west is capitalism, everything else (Christianity, democracy, free speech) is shibboleth.


    1. I can”t agree the whole western press is a propaganda machine, there are still some fantastic journalists, writers, film-makers and thinkers out there, albeit I’d love to see them get more resources, distribution and exposure. But at least they are rarely killed, “disappeared”, or tortured, at least in the West. We often take the freedoms we have a bit for granted. People who haven’t lived in, say, a theocracy or a dictatorship or junta, or in a communist/fascist state, can’t imagine what its like, so we are probably a bit blase about our rights and privileges sometimes. However, with that caveat, having said all that, I entirely agree with you there’s a greedy elite with far too much power and influence, including they (some of them) control much of the media and push a hawkish, aggressive right-wing agenda, entirely for their own, vile, loathsome ends. It’s stomach-turning. One concern is that a, genuinely horrific, event like these Charlie Hebdo murders, could be hijacked for an ulterior right wing agenda.


      1. That’s rather what I suspect. And, like Cameron, most of the western states will likely use the event as an excuse to further invade privacy and restrict freedom of expression. There’s a lot of Newspeak. Thanks for opening a candid discussion.


        1. Yes indeed, like when they used the equally vile, (and far larger) 9/11 atrocities in NYC etc, perpetrated by 12-15 Saudi nationals, (with 3-4 from the UAE) as a pretext to invade… Iraq! They always hijack people’s real grief to whip up the atmosphere, either for ever greater invasions on freedom, of privacy, or for out-right war mongering. After all, what better time to ram through your own agenda, than when people are fearful or traumatized, or both?
          I put a link to the C4 news bulletin on my Facebook page as well yesterday, and a French friend of mine, (an art gallerist, curator, based here in Dublin) commented it was a worthwhile discussion, “although one (I) would have to understand, if some people don’t have the stomach for it right now.” -or words to that effect. I can take the reproach. He likely has good friends who live and work in the same business or same area, who shop in the same kosher butcher. So I can entirely understand why he isn’t interested in the niceties of a discussion about the western right-wing. But that’s just the point isn’t it? This is exactly the type of situation they know how to exploit.


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