Reality Goes Over the Top

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischReality Goes Over the Top

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Frank Bruni’s article for the New York Times about Stanford University’s decision to accept no students at all for next year’s freshman class was such a keen, accurate picture of the current process of application and admission to prestigious colleges that a great many people took it to be a true one.

This got me thinking about the fragility of satire. When reality overdoes itself, when it gets surreal, what’s left for the satirist?

I tried to think of a headline about Donald Trump that would be unbelievable.

Trump Apologizes For Everything He Ever Said.

Trump Declares Himself Next Dalai Lama.

Trump Relieves Himself on Fox TV Newscaster on Fox TV.

Trump Dumps Wife, Woos Mrs. Cruz.

These are implausible, but are they unbelievable? The last two aren’t even very implausible.

Is anything about the current behavior of the Republican Party satirisable, or has it entered the Trump Zone – you can’t make it weirder than it is?

The behavior of obstinately stupid people is merely boring, but most of us find pigheadedness funny now and then. Pure, silly craziness (Chaplin delicately eating his shoelaces, John Cleese walking) can be very funny. Stupid craziness (the Three Stooges) can be kind of funny. Some people, especially children, laugh at crazy behavior even when it does harm to others. But craziness persisted in to the point of self-destruction isn’t funny and offers very little ground for making fun of it, and the Republican Party is certainly busy destroying itself and as much of the Republic as possible with it.

There is the weird Republican verbal code — “conservative” for reactionary, “center” for far right, the various ways of not saying “black,” the “Welfare Queen,” the “Illegal Voter,” — endless misnomers, lies, and fantasms. The media have so generally accepted this misuse of language as valid that most of the words it degrades have become almost meaningless. Small room for irony there.

And no snarky little kid in the crowd can possibly deny the existence of the emperor’s new clothes as the Congressmen and the Militiamen strut past, shameless in their paunchy nakedness, safely wrapped in the sacred colors of the United and the Confederate States of America.

All the same, we shouldn’t give up. There were satirists behind the Iron Curtain who could be quite painfully entertaining about life under Stalin. I remember in the dark days of a long-ago war the relief of laughing at Spike Jones, “Und ve Heil! (fart) Heil! (fart) right in der Fuehrer’s face!” I admire any contemporary satirist who‘s been able to out-bizarre the bizarre political statements and behaviors encouraged by the Grand Old Party. There are still people among us who know what to do with a candidate who doesn’t know the difference between a presidential election and a farce: you laugh him all the way to defeat.

But that leaves Cruz. What’s scary about Cruz is that there’s nothing funny about him. Can we find anything in him to laugh at? Can anybody even smile at him? If Trump is the essentially harmless nut who thinks he’s Napoleon, Cruz seems to me more like the classic psychopath, the guy “who was kind of a loner but always just seemed like everybody else,” till he got the guns, or the power, and began acting out his unspeakable fantasies.



Der Fuehrer’s Face by Spike Jones – YouTube

Jun 21, 2010 – Uploaded by historycomestolife




Reality Goes Over the Top — 12 Comments

  1. Bruni’s trouble was that his column was published two days early.

    As for the Republican candidacy debacle, from the view of an outsider it almost seems as if it’s a surreptitious strategy: stun and distract everyone with the court jester so they’ll be relieved when the “serious” candidate prevails. Without, of course, realising that the serious one is the most dangerous.

    • I thought Bruni’s column was straight satire, not an April Fool’s joke. I also thought the satire was obvious, but I’ve talked with people who thought it was a real story.

      • The difficulty is that many people can’t recognise satire unless they’re given help (via April Fool’s Day, for example). I’ve always been amazed and disheartened by the number of literal-minded folk there are walking around who just, for whatever reason, do not “get” it. Their brains simply do not seem to be hard-wired to see the cues.

        As an aficionado of tongue-in-cheek wit, I’ve spent much of my life in the social dog house. Or at least, on the receiving end of quizzical looks when the gist of my comments falls flat…

  2. Decades ago, satirist Fran Lebowitz said “In a world that contains both Ronald Reagan and designer soap, it’s hard to be a satirist.”

    I have quoted her many times since, and I think it’s harder now than it was then.

  3. A while ago on of my favorite political satirists, Tom Lehrer, had this to say about political satire and, I believe, why he wasn’t actively doing it anymore:

    “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

    While that, in and of itself, is wonderful political satire, it also speaks volumes about the world we live in. Sometimes you just have to sit back and let the world satirize itself.

  4. I get the joke … but it is not as funny as it seems. Stanford awarded about 15% of its undergraduate degrees to African Americans, and about 25% to Latinos in 2014 (the last year for which the department of education has data). So the admissions officers at Stanford did take pains to plow through all of those applications to craft a cohort that would be successful and diverse. As a private institution, they are free to do that, and I applaud them for taking a 3.6 gpa student from the LA basin as opposed to a 4.0 student from Cupertino. That drives the “ultraselecticity” meme the piece plays on, particulalry for anglo parents.

    The real joke is the public institutions in CA are prevented by law from doing this kind of diversity selecticity … so UC Berkeley awarded just 2% of its undergraduate degrees to African Americans. It is a joke for sure, but just not that funny.

    • …but, if I wanted to reply in satirical kind, I would point out that a negative admission rate can be achieved by expelling the entire sophomore class…

  5. Just as history is not dead, just because someone says so, political satire will continue to exist in some form or other. In a world that’s out of balance and where there is no common sense of ground level, we need to keep our perspective by not listening or responding to all the details (i.e., information overload) provided by the media and our ability to search out details on the Internet.

  6. Cruz reminds me a lot of Canada’s last prime minister Stephen Harper: cunning, smug mendacity and a callousness that’s hard to tell from cruelty. Canadian cartoonists had ten years to work on satirizing Harper and they best they managed to do was have his nose get longer and longer and longer. But Cruz will have to have power before people see him for what he is.

  7. Off topic, but the Spike Jones clip & reference to Chaplin made me think of The Great Dictator – a masterwork of satire. What made Chaplin’s work extraordinary, I think, is the way he manages to shrink Hitler down to life-size. Yes, the movie is hilarious, but by inhabiting Hitler (not just impersonating him), Chaplin makes an even more powerful statement – that what’s really terrifying isn’t that Nazis are inhuman, but that they’re human. I’d like to see someone take down Cruz(ism) and Trump(ism) in that way.

  8. Cruz is scary (and he looks like Joe McCarthy, another scary demagogue). Trump is scary in a different way, and when my more liberal friends dismiss him as too ridiculous to get elected, I remind them that Hitler was elected, too, despite his own ridiculous appearance and over-the-top speechifyin’. Nowhere is far enough to move away if…