Does Satire Work?

Tony Reinke’s work at Desiring God has steadily drawn my attention over the last year. Here is an excerpt of his recent article on sarcasm, where he draws fruitfully from the late novelist David Foster Wallace:

Satire’s most potent work is in exposing phony facades. But it cannot accomplish anything more important, and there’s the problem, as Wallace explained in a 1997 radio interview: “Irony and sarcasm are fantastic for exploding hypocrisy and exposing what’s wrong in extant values. They are notably less good in erecting replacement values or coming close to the truth.”

Sarcasm is a free-swinging wrecking ball. It cannot construct.

So what happens when mocking sarcasm lives past its use and becomes the tone of a generation? Wallace explains. “What’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness, instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

Did the Simpsons Ruin a Generation?

So you might say satire works on one level, in its proper season. A sarcastic word fitly spoken is a delight to me. Reinke, however, (channeling Wallace) prophetically points to the moral possibilities of an entire generation steeped in parody, irony and sarcasm. There is also a time for earnestness and sincerity.

Rudyard Kipling on reading old books

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“If we pay no attention to words whatever, we may become like the isolated gentleman who invents a new perpetual-motion maching on old lines in ignorance of all previous plans, and then is surprised that it doesn’t work. If we confine our attention entirely to the slang of the day -that is to say , if we devote ourselves exclusively to modern literature- we get to think the world is progressing when it is only repeating itself…. [I]t is only when one reads what men wrote long ago that one realises how absolutely modern the best of the old things are.”

~ quoted in Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

I am not my own: a defense of children

I experienced one of the happiest moments of my life when I held my oldest child for the first time. The tears of joy and the dizzy raptures of that hour keenly remind me of a surrender I made that day. Like my wedding day, my identity and my vocation as a Christian man became linked to another. Seven years of parenting (four!) children has shaped in me an introspective sensitivity to an existential pressure point of the soul- a pressure point shared by many in our culture today.

The Ethics of Autonomy and Self Determinacy

Popular culture is awash with a wave generating from the twentieth-century sexual revolution and existentialist movements. A supreme value of this cultural milieu lies in the need for the individual to overcome any obstacles to authenticity. At all costs, I must be true to who I really am. We’re familiar with examples of communities that have taken up the Disneyesque challenge of pushing all peoples to self-determinacy and actualization. The recent cultural constructs of same sex marriage and transgenderism stand out as recent success stories.

More socially conservative communities are not immune to the existential quest to be true to oneself against all social constraints. In online college courses, I’ve interacted with a number of disillusioned ‘labor workers’ and retail clerks and accountants and stay at home moms- all who have left houses and lands to discover their true identities as counselors, physical therapists, and teachers.

Where are our Children?

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I alluded earlier to a pressure point that parenting has brought to my awareness.  Marriage and parenting have profoundly shaped my responses to my inner existentialist self. When faced with disillusionment about my life choices in this cultural narrative of self-determinacy, I need to be reminded that I simply do not have the authority to recreate myself. In many respects, core components of my identity are received, not created. My children serve as a steady reminder that I am not my own.

Perhaps this is one reason why children are valued so little today. Our culture’s story of complete autonomy will only work at the expense of others. We cannot all live as though we are the most important realities in our universe. Children will cramp your style. We cannot live our lives chasing, with abandon, our wildest ambitions while committing equally to being faithful spouses and parents. The family is an institution we submit to, not to lose our identity in a morass of diapers and grocery bills, but to help us find ourselves, truly.

The Culprit and the Remedy

The Romantics probably would have disagreed, but I think our culture’s assimilation of existentially minded Romanticism has pushed children to the margins of our cultural anthropology. Here’s my question for the middle-aged man looking to recreate himself in the merciless forge of the commercially driven university: how will your children actualize their dreams for what the good life looks like, when the best portions of your life are spent on you? Gone is the Pauline sentiment that the parents ought to store up for their children and not the children for the parents.

But the Romantics didn’t leave us without aid. What if we could find joy, meaning, and peace by pursuing the happiness and completion of those who have been entrusted to us? Wordsworth mused on the blessed pleasures that stem from a mature and sober realization that we can find life more beautiful and satisfying by experiencing it through the happiness of those we love. We can test this daily by searching to find our joy in the happiness of the beloved. The idea has some antiquity behind it. In all honesty, the children make it easy for us. No humans on earth are as willing to trust and as quick to forgive.

 

The Most Successful Tyranny: Allan Bloom, Bernie Sanders, and History

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

This paragraph points to what a liberal arts education is all about. Freedom of the mind does not equal intellectual obstinacy- it is a historical awareness that frees us to see our place in the history of ideas. Bloom’s point is easily seen in our political landscape. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proclaimed that his campaign signals the beginning of a political revolution. Revolution. Maybe our situation warrants this kind of change, but I doubt it.

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My guess is that his supporters (comprised mostly of my generation I’m told) don’t have the sense of historical backdrop with which to compare their own political ideology. ‘Radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ are terms that might excite a young movement looking for something to live for, but we need to be able to properly judge whether we’re trading one tyranny (whether real or imagined) for a worse. Bloom says that endeavor will require an education.