Given what they say every day, how would you tell the difference between solemn official announcements and mischievous satire?
A couple of years ago a colleague suggested the idea that a group of us attempt to counter the rising passion of anti-Russia propaganda by satirising it. My reaction was that that was probably going to be a waste of effort because – this was in Trump’s time with Rachel Maddow and the rest spewing ever more preposterous conspiracy notions 24/7 – they were already well past the point of even being capable of noticing satire.
Nothing has made me change my mind since. Read this, for example, from Australia’s most-read newspaper – it’s about China but the point stands.
In other words, to distract the West from noticing the millions of Uyghurs shackled together in chain gangs tearing down mosques while being force-fed pork sandwiches, the communist dictators in Beijing have unleashed stories of cute cuddly animals. How could anybody satirise that? And if someone tried, would anyone notice that it was satire? How would you tell the difference between satire and earnest pronouncements from “scholars” at “think” tanks? Cuddly elephants are believable but cuddly pandas are over the top?
Or how about the BBC solemnly explaining three years ago How Putin’s Russia turned humour into a weapon. What’s next? Putin weaponises cheese? Oops, Masha Gessen’s already done that with her unforgettable paean to
My little Gorgonzola. My little mozzarella. My little Gruyere, chevre and Brie. I held them all in my arms — I didn’t even want to share them with the shopping cart – – and headed for the cash register.
Putin weaponises your breakfast cereal! Falls rather flat after that, doesn’t it? All you’re left with is killer squids – nope, that’s been done too: Is 14-legged killer squid found TWO MILES beneath Antarctica being weaponised by Putin? (That cunning Putin has even managed to add six killer tentacles to the octopod – another breakthrough in Russian darkside science!) Beluga whales? No, too late!
In 2018 Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, which modestly describes itself as “the premier destination for in-depth analysis of daily headlines”, spent nearly three in-depth minutes explaining in depth that Russia had a border with North Korea which, somehow, showed that Putin’s stooge Trump was doing something horrible. Watch it yourself, unless you have a root canal appointment you’d rather go to. Again, satirise that! Now it is possible that she was performing an education service for those Americans who thought North Korea was in Australia or Oman. But, on the other hand, given that a court determined that
Maddow’s show is different than a typical news segment where anchors inform viewers about the dailynews. The point of Maddow’s show is for her to provide the news but also to offer her opinions as to that news.
perhaps it already was a sort of satire.
These “news” items above are, of course, themselves deflections. The Uyghur stories are mostly nonsense as this former believer explains. The torn-down mosques are selectively-used satellite pictures as this explains (and here’s the ever-ready Bellingcat selectively using the very same pictures). And the witnesses are always changing their stories as documented here. So it’s not actually Beijing that’s using stories about wandering elephants to distract attention, in fact: it’s just the other way around. Putin’s “weaponised humour” was directed at the ever-changing Skripal story – here is a short list of the preposterosities the officials expect us to swallow – so the BBC’s accusation is another deflection from reality. Weaponising cheese was anti-Putin nonsense that has already blown up now that Russia is basically self-sufficient in food – just another missed prediction from her ever-expanding list. As to Maddow, well she’s still weaving a Brownian movement of dots into webs of Russian conspiracies.
In the past I’ve done my own attempts at collecting the ever-churning nonsense about Russia and Putin that we’ve been subjected to: here in 2015 (Asperger’s syndrome, gunslinger walk), in 2019 at the height of the Trumputin insanity – remember this one?: Trump wanting to buy Greenland is yet another sign of Putin’s puppetry. How do you satirise that? Or this disgusting cartoon from the source of “All the News that’s Fit to Print“; that’s already been turned up so far past eleven that no satirist could turn the volume higher.
I challenge any satirist to do a skit on how four years of shrieking about Putin’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election came to a sudden slamming stop with the most secure election in history of 2020. Did Putin & his league of spooks suddenly forget how to rig foreign elections after, we were told, many many successful attempts? Was there a change of heart in the Kremlin and they tearfully realised it was wrong to swing foreign elections? Did they decide Biden would be better than Trump in their scheme to bring down the USA? Did Putin’s stooge Trump somehow so fortify the American election system that Putin was unable to put him back in? Has Rachel Maddow ever explained what happened? Or the WaPo? Or CNN? Four years of ranting about Putin’s control of US elections disappeared in an instant. Widespread knowledge of Why US Elections Are So Vulnerable to Russian Hacking turned, overnight, into a despicable conspiracy theory – Donald Trump’s Big Lie explained. And this at a time, mind you, when Russian hackers were supposedly hacking everything in the USA except its election. Satirise that, if you dare.
Of course the real answer is obvious: this time the “right guy” won and there was no need to invent a Russian collusion story to weaken the “wrong guy”.
So, when the need disappeared, so did the story and US elections became airtight again. But how do you satirise that? They knew what they were doing and telling the truth was the least part of it.
Which brings us to the real point and the reason why satire is a waste of time: you’re not supposed to remember the details; they don’t put details into their propaganda stories so you can remember them and compare them with other details. Not at all: the point is to leave an impression behind. In the foregoing case the object was to leave a bad smell around Trump’s victory – it was somehow – the details changed but the smell remained – wrong and illegitimate. Pee tapes came and went, Mueller rose and fell, Maddow found a map; always something new when the last thing rolled away. Satire can’t touch that – by the time the satirist has got his skit together about pussies, it’s time for the “all 17 intelligence agencies”; when the Mueller prayer candles burn out, Putin’s bribing Afghans to do what they happily do for free. But always Trump is somehow – can’t quite remember exactly how – suspiciously linked to an evil – forgotten the details there too, but undeniably evil – foreign bad guy. The show rolls along always with a new squirrel to distract you.
One of the delights of the Biden/Harris Administration is the return of old favourites, Here’s John Kirby explaining in 2014 why it’s Russia’s fault that it’s at NATO’s doorstep and, returned in 2021 as Pentagon spokesman, why Russia was “typically” disinforming us about firing warning shots at HMS Defender. I defy anyone to satirise that. Masters of BS – can’t say anything more than that, can you? Psaki and Kirby, together again. And where’s Harf, no mean practitioner herself? Prove them liars, they don’t care.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.
For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. (Harry G Frankfurt: On Bullshit)
For satire to be effective, there must be some connection to reality; but these people don’t care about reality so there can’t be any satire. Putin weaponises humour, children’s cartoons, vaccines and many more – here’s a list – but, O would-be satirist, anything you can imagine is probably already been solemnly discussed by the usual consortium of ex-security organ apparatchiks posing as objective experts.
And, given what they say every day, how would you tell the difference between solemn official announcements and mischievous satire anyway?