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Did globalisation kill satire? And is that for the best?

November 15, 2013 3 comments

How should we judge someone’s words? By intent, by effect, or what? How much does unintended offence matter? Also, LILY ALLEN and TWERKING and EATING IRISH BABIES.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

The quote above, of course, is from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, viscerally parodying the callousness of the British regime in 18th century Ireland in letting children starve, and the harrumphing letters to the newspaper that privileged scumbags would write about feckless over-reproducing “professed beggars”.

It’s an incisive pisstake of a very shitty trope, which is vile to the poorest in society, is reproduced by the middle- and upper-classes – and a trope which is being exposed and mocked here by one of the most privileged men in the country. As a result, it’s a textbook example of Satire Done Right but also Satire Done By Someone Privileged.

Scumbag Londoner Wants Our Babies Eaten

Now imagine a version of 18th century Ireland where, as they starved, Catholic peasants were somehow able to read those words as written [*]. As you prefer, this could be based on the knowledge that Swift was writing a parody targeting the British upper- and middle-classes, or it could be completely devoid of context as if this were a book by a wicked Englishman.

In either case, it’d be hard for someone to read those words, on how your children were to be singled out and taken and raised for food, without feeling at best uncomfortable. If you knew it was written as a satire, then perhaps it’d be forgiveable and you’d understand the points being made, but at the same time it’d be hard to disentangle from the sickening way in which people were talking about eating your children. If you didn’t know it was written as a satire, you’d be understandably tempted to find the person who wants your kids raised as an alternative to turkey at Christmas and kick the bastard to death.

Internetglobalisationtwitterbollocks means that we now live in a world where, assuming the piece that you write reaches more than a niche audience of you and your mates/regular readers, it will be viewed devoid of context. There’s a good chance it’ll reach someone who is in the group whose side you’re on, but whose side you’re pretending to eviscerate for the sake of the piece – so the example of the Irish peasant given a copy of Swift is no longer outlandish.

(By The Way, He Directed Major Lazer And Nobody Cared)

Given that the whole point of satire is to upset and confront the powerful, how does that affect the appropriate way to behave in the current environment? I’m really not sure on this. The controversy raging over Lily Allen’s latest video (the best bit is the rejoinder to the horrible Robin Thicke, in which new mum Allen gloriously spells out “Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy” in balloons) is a good example.

It’s aimed at savaging the music industry, as highlighted by the white male exec who tells everyone what to do, and most of the content. Allen is pressured into being toned-teenage-model-bodied despite just having had two kids, in front of a mob of dancing rent-a-girls in what have become standard R&B video clichéd moves and poses. If you’re a middle-class white female British artist and a middle-class white male British director, and you both have a fair amount of experience of how terrible MTV is, this is something that might seem like a reasonable, not-especially-clever, not-especially-controversial satire on the world in which you operate.

On the other hand, the video features twerking dancers who are mostly black (four out of six, because he hired the best twerking troupe and there were four of them of whom six are black, says the director), and a couple of lines where Allen disparages rap culture materialist aspirations. Add to that the fact that the USA still dominates online discourse, and is still a society featuring a terrifying racial divide and preponderance of full-on black-hating neo-slaving lunatics even on the allegedly left-leaning side, and you have a recipe for trouble.

Which duly occurs. Both of these are excellent well-written pieces, both worth reading. Both, crucially, come from priors that are very different than any priors that white-Brit-liberal types involved in either making or watching the video would be likely to have. From an African-American perspective, the video co-opts African-American culture, ridicules it, and positions Allen as better than it. Which is quite different from just being someone who escapes the creepy white male exec and his creepy demands.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; WHAT NEXT?

Anyway. Today on Twitter, I defended the video (which was a stretch, because I was pretty disappointed by the song), and I went way too far and ignored far too much of the above in doing so.

It’s easy, if the intention seems so obvious when you share the priors of the makers, to dismiss other people as ridiculous for not understanding – like the hypothetical Irish folk who read Swift’s book and believe that he’s even more evil than the average Englishman. In some cases, it’s warranted (various Stupid Onion Comments blogs testify); in others, the cultural context is far less clear, so it isn’t. There are many right-wing places, again particularly in the USA, that publish utterly despicable content; there are some sub-Onion satire blogs that publish pieces which appear more aimed at trolling for its own sake than humour; and Poe’s Law is a thing.

But it’s even easier, when someone else does understand but is still offended by the fact that they are being used instrumentally in that way, to assume they fall into the first category. Which I know I’ve done tonight, and which I regret.

This is the point that I’ve come to realise, and I’m not sure I’d thought about it properly before. When considering the second Swift In A Time Machine (hot tub not included) case, with a well-fed, Irish-born member of the English gentry trying to explain to the starving masses “no, look, the baby-eating thing was a joke to annoy the English. No, really, I’m on your side, that was the point” – I’m not sure that would cut it, even if they believed him. And I’m not sure they’d be all that unreasonable to take it in such a way.

So is there something inherently wrong with Swiftean satire and we were wrong to like it all along? Can that kind of ambiguity only be deployed by people in oppressed groups rather than by privileged people who dislike oppression? Is there something contingently wrong, which means it can only be deployed in a world that’s less connected than the world where we actually live? Or is it just that Lily Allen and Chris Sweeney are insufficiently good at it to be viewed as competent satirists, and actually our man Jonathan Swift would have done just fine?

I’m not sure. If it’s the final one, then I suspect that means everyone who isn’t Chris Morris or Jon Stewart probably needs to be a lot more careful about what they say satirically. And maybe that’s not a bad take-out.

[*] To be clear, I know Swift was a popular author among English-speaking literate Irishpeople, being one himself. Since Johnny questioned it, I should make clear that we’re using a hypothetical device that makes English-language works accessible to people who can neither read at all nor speak English.

An open letter to Roy Wood

December 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Dear Mr Wood -

For your information, in all known dialects of English, the phrase ‘snowman’ refers to a figure of a man which is made from snow (something like a statue, sculpture or perhaps golem), rather than a man who delivers snow.

I understand there is room for confusion here, when considering examples such as ‘milkman’, ‘postman’ and pizza boy’. However, ‘snowman’ is very much in the style of ‘wicker man’ (which is not a term for a gentleman who delivers baskets) or ‘iron man’ (which is not a term for either a gentleman who delivers ferrous metals, or a gentleman who works in a laundry).

Before seeking to write a song that seeks to summarise the Anglophone world’s Christmas traditions, one might have thought you would have done the most basic research into what these traditions actually were. I can promise you that none of them involve a snow delivery gentleman “bringing the snow”.

I look forward to this error being corrected in future releases of your popular chart hit.

Yours sincerely,
John B

PS Happy Christmas!

Shot by how many sides again?

March 7, 2012 1 comment

Everything is retro is coming round again, and so on. In that vein, I’ve dragged some offensive old blog or other from the depths of my spare hard drive. My foreword to the reprint may provide context. Dive in, if that’s your thing.

You’d probably do better just to watch this, though:

Socialist Tuesday viewing

December 8, 2010 1 comment

Rousing. Beautiful. Amazing. Correct:

Now reconcile this with restrictions on immigration. Please pay particular attention to “let no one build walls to divide us”, and “the international ideal unites the human race”.

Arrest this vile pervert now!

July 29, 2010 8 comments

I’m sure you remember Canadian freak-show queen Celine Dion, and her domination of the 1990s power ballad world. And you most likely remember her utterly ridiculous, pomp-musical-rock-tastic career pinnacle, It’s All Coming Back To Me Now:

It’s only just occurred to me, however, that a couple of lines from this song suggest deeply disturbing things about Ms Dion’s past [*]:

There were nights of endless pleasure
It was more than any laws allow

At the time the song came out, heterosexual anal sex had only just been legalised in the UK, so there was much ‘fnarr’-ing among the teenage boy community at this information.

On reflection, our speculations were altogether too tame. Ms Dion isn’t simply claiming that there were nights of endless pleasure that were banned by the laws of any specific jurisdiction – she’s claiming that whatever activities she engaged in were considered illegal by every single code of laws in force in the world at the time she first performed the song.

Anything that was legal in Germany at the time is ruled out, meaning that the activities referred to can’t solely concern consenting adults (unless they involved bodily injury leading to a concrete danger of death). Since bestiality was legal in the state of Washington at the time, that’s out too.

The only laws regulating sexual conduct that exist universally across all societies with codes of laws (much as they may not be applied consistently) are those prohibiting non-consensual sexual activity [**], sex with minors [**], and the consensual infliction of death or severe life-threatening injury.

So therefore, Ms Dion is admitting that the sexual ecstasy she found with her departed-and-possibly-returning partner was either rapey, paedophilic or murderous. Is this really the sort of behaviour we want celebrated in song?

[*] the song, of course, is written by Jim Steinman. I’m assuming in the absence of evidence to the contrary that it’s ghost-written for Ms Dion. Even if not, Ms Dion clearly identifies with and makes no attempt to criticise or distance herself from the character Mr Steinman has created.

[**] at least outside of marriage and subject to certain definitions.

Three Paul McCartney songs that are better than anything John Lennon ever did

April 25, 2010 6 comments

Whilst I’m not quite willing to go to dsquared’s levels of defence of unpopular bands, I can’t quite believe that in my last, trolly, incoherent post the only thing I’ve so far been picked up on is suggesting that Paul McCartney’s solo output is better than John Lennon’s. That wasn’t part of the trolly incoherence – it’s just an obvious truth. Even if you’re a Lennon-ist, you have to base that on the conjecture that he contributed more than Paul to the Beatles, because nobody could possibly class any solo track by John Lennon as anything other than “disappointment”.

Paul McCartney recorded this:

…and this:

…and this, which is also an alternative theme song for this blog:

Lennon recorded “Oh Yoko”. Fuck him.

Imaginary, err I mean intellectual, property

November 2, 2009 4 comments

This is a fine comment:

“I own a sofa. I can arrange the cushions on it in any pattern I like; if I couldn’t it would reduce my rights to my property. I also own a hard disk, and I can arrange the magnetic alignments on it in any pattern I like; if I couldn’t it would reduce my rights to my property. So to the extent that you believe in rights to real property, you cannot also believe in rights to imaginary property.”

The concept of IP-as-property (and hence, of copyright infringement as theft) is a ridiculous fiction: copyright is nothing more than a monopoly on the production of a particular product or service granted by the government to a particular individual or business, in theory because the government believes that the incentivising effect of granting the monopoly outweighs the loss of freedom and utility caused by granting the monopoly.

In other words, it’s as far from libertarianism as you can get: if you support IP laws [*], that shows that you think a) that there are areas where deliberate government planning produces better results than the free market; b) where this is the case, it’s right to reduce people’s freedom for the greater good; and c) the production of plans, inventions, blueprints and artworks is a situation where this is the case.

[*] As a believer in a mixed economy, I do support IP laws and have no intellectual difficulty with the argument above, although I’d prefer penalties for infringement to be smaller and solely civil, and for all copyrights and patents to expire 5-20 years after creation (depending on content type). Curiously though, many of the people who argue for tough IP laws generally argue against government interference in business.

See #15 for my judgement

August 11, 2009 6 comments

I gave you all an extra few days, but you still failed.

NRG got 1.5 and neither was the obvious Kinks example, so he wins a Babylon Zoo album. Email details and I’ll post it. Meanwhile, Anton gets the cash alternative to two Babylon Zoo albums, which is being hit round the head with a stick and having all his cash stolen. Email details and I’ll arrange.

And for his interesting explanation of quirks in how the translator works, Edmund wins nothing.

Those answers you’ve been waiting for:

1) “Do you love to love you?” is “Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?” – The Buzzcocks, Ever Fallen In Love?

2) “At the foot of the toy, he is like a mixture of stuttering children” is “No need to whine boy, like a wind-up toy you stutter at my feet” – Elastica, Stutter

3) “World, died at the western end of the city” is “In a West End town a dead-end world” – Pet Shop Boys, West End Girls

4) “I turn off the hazard lamps” is “With the lights out, this is dangerous” – Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

5) “Also, all girls, to take gold” is “Get your money for nothing and your chicks for free” – Dire Straits, Money For Nothing

6) “If the nitric acid, he knows the hearts of animals” is “Like his Dad you know that he’s had animal nitrate in mind” – Suede, Animal Nitrate

7) “Above, some other girl” is “Some girls are bigger than others” – The Smiths, Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others

8) “In this case, if you have difficulty walking” is “Walking back to you is the hardest thing that I could do” – Jesus And Mary Chain, Just Like Honey

9) “Honey, get a lock to lock, it will take time” – “Get your rocks off, get your rocks off honey” – Primal Scream, Rocks [*]

10) “We need to maintain the greenery of the village community” is “We are the Village Green Preservation Society” – The Kinks, Village Green Preservation Society

11) “I love his shows” is “When I say I love you, you say ‘you better” – The Who, You Better You Bet

12) “Line of credit for the toes” is “They have a way to make you pay And to make you toe the line” – Babyshambles, Fuck Forever

13) “This is a special fashion show is the result of his recent research on her head” is “He’s nothing special, she’s not too smart; he studies fashion, she studies art” – Sleeper, Inbetweener

14) “Courage, hard core, a little fun” is “It take courage to enjoy it, the hardcore and the gentle” – Bjork, Big Time Sensuality

15) “How many people, I can see the sense of shame” is “How can you show your face, when you’re a disgrace to the human race?” – Madness, Embarrassment

[*] this one will appeal to fans of jokes about Asian pronunciations of English. There are reasons why it works to do with foreign-imported words being rendered in phonetic alphabets, which Edmund could probably explain in more detail.

Lyric translation quiz – WIN BIG PRIZES

August 7, 2009 13 comments

Someone’s built a website that translates phrases repeatedly into Japanese and back until the phrase stays the same in both languages. So, for a Crazy Friday Competition, I fed in a bunch of lyrics – pretty much all indie/rock stuff from the 1960s through to the 2000s, if that helps – and you have to work out the original, the song and the artist.

Whoever gets the most wins a Babylon Zoo album; whoever gets the second-most wins two Babylon Zoo albums. I’ll post the right answers on Sunday. Post your answers in the comments, along with sarcastic jibes about how the blog has gone downhill.

1) Do you love to love you?
2) At the foot of the toy, he is like a mixture of stuttering children
3) World, died at the western end of the city
4) I turn off the hazard lamps.
5) Also, all girls, to take gold
6) If the nitric acid, he knows the hearts of animals
7) Above, some other girl
8) In this case, if you have difficulty walking
9) Honey, get a lock to lock, it will take time
10) We need to maintain the greenery of the village community
11) I love his shows
12) Line of credit for the toes
13) This is a special fashion show is the result of his recent research on her head
14) Courage, hard core, a little fun
15) How many people, I can see the sense of shame

If anyone gets number 11, I’ll be so in awe that I’ll do pretty much anything they ask of me. If anyone doesn’t get number 10, then the opposite (but I like the way it sounds, very Japanised…)

Top 5 Things That Have Made Me Happy Today

April 13, 2009 6 comments

Still mblogging, so can’t face messing about with links. If anything intrigues and confuses you, google is your friend.

1) Stephen Frears’s High Fidelity. Best geeky boy film ever, one of best love stories ever, terrifyingly accurate insight into my past relationships ever, etc. I know Nick Hornby also relevant but I’ve boycotted praising him after the embarrassing nonsense that was How To Be Good.

2) Man skills. The power went off. I made it come back on. Woo!

3) My excellent flatmate. For being impressed by both 1 and 2, for making me move to the official Best Part Of World Ever, for general aceness, etc.

4) Getting messages from my 80something grandparents written in txtspeak. U R BTH DOIN IT RITE. I hope in 55 years time I’m equally able to use Direct Mindreading 4D Lasers as well as the average 15-year-old.

5) Being right about #amazonfail being nonsense. Come on people, corporations aren’t just evil for fun, and society has thankfully reached the point where hating t3h gayz is pretty much as mainstream-unacceptable as hating the Jews. If a big, mainstream, plc-not-fanatic-owned company appears to be banning all gay books of course it’s because they’ve been hacked/trolled/troll-hacked rather than because they’ve decided Do Be Evil is their new maxim.

(in a rare example of positivity, I’m not compiling a detailed ‘things that have made me unhappy’ list. This was made easier by the fact that #amazonfail, emailgate and the worst of my Holiday Weekend Hangover all happened yesterday.

Although grumpy new neighbour whose idea of a greeting was to say “all of this (apparently shared) terrace is mine, only the door and doorway is yours, go away” and slam terrace door is today’s main fail. What the hell need is there to be such a tool? Even if the estate agent lied and the neighbour is actually right, anyone who isn’t a ‘needs electric drill in head’ tosswit would surely go for something more like “Nice to meet you too. I’m sorry, this area is part of our flat and that’s in the deeds, but welcome to the building and would you like a cup of tea?”. Fuckmonkey.