The indefatigable Charles Green delivered a tough critique of Connor Poole’s essay fulfilling the requirement of an assignment asking high school students to emulate the satire in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and similarly propose an outrageous solution to a contemporary social problem. There are really two issues here, and Charles only deals with one: I believe Connor’s paper was an excellent attempt at Swiftian satire, especially for a high school student, and this is Charles counterpoint to that position. He does not, as far as I can perceive, try to justify the school, North County High School, turning the essay into a controversy and Connor into a pariah.
Good. That, which is the primary ethics issue, is beyond rational dispute. What the school and community are doing to Connor is the equivalent of ordering a kid to juggle flaming torches, and then attacking him when something gets scorched.
Here is Charles’ Comment of the Day on the post, Update: This Is The Student’s Controversial Essay Emulating The Satire Of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.
I’ll be back at the end.
Here is what I think Poole’s teacher should have written to him in response to his essay:
Connor, I’m giving you a grade of C+ on this paper. Here’s why.
On the plus side, you clearly ‘get’ the core idea of satire – that it should be a combination of ‘over the top’ and ‘tongue in cheek.’ On the minus side, while you get the idea, your execution was flawed. Let me be more specific.
First, as we discussed in class, Swift was Irish, writing satirically about what the condescending English were thinking about the Irish, and exaggerating those thoughts. It makes a huge difference who the author is: if you were to parallel Swift – had he been known as an Englishman critiquing the Irish, he would have received a far more critical reception.
Since you’re [presumably] not black, you had two choices: either choose another part of your own personal identity (e.g. being a teenager, or a male, or a heterosexual) to write about satirically, or make the author a “first person once removed,” i.e. you obviously wrote it, but to make it “as if” a black person were the author.
You of course chose neither, which raises the bar for people to distinguish what you wrote as satire as opposed to over-the-top hate literature.
That raises the second issue: to write effective satire, you have to be so far over the top that people can recognize parody. You HAVE to pull the trigger at the end, go over the edge, be so far out there that there is no doubt. You needed to especially do this, given your author’s persona of a young white person.
How did Swift do it? By suggesting that Irish parents themselves would benefit by selling off their youngsters – tongue firmly in check, he points out the economic benefits of the many from killing off the few.
But in your case, you advocate killing off an entire ‘race,’ save three people. Where’s the parody? Where’s the satire? Who’s left to appreciate the gesture (yes yes three people; not funny). We’ve seen genocide before, and it’s not funny, it’s ugly.
Here’s a quick guide:
SATIRE: you should offer your children to be eaten – you as parents and your whole race will benefit from having them on the menu at fine restaurants.
NOT SATIRE: all y’all should go to Africa, where we’ll nuke y’all. No more race. Problem solved.
Basically, you did not go FAR ENOUGH over the top. We’ve already got a real world presidential candidate talking about whether or not he’d nuke Europe. We’ve already experienced a “final solution” in the real world applied to an entire race. And in the case of black people, your ‘satire’ is far from the first to suggest mass deportation of blacks ‘back to Africa.’ That thinking even came from some blacks, though it’s usually associated with backward racist white people.
Next, “over the top” means considering minute details, richly evoked. You can’t do that in a short piece like you wrote.
I asked you to emulate Swift. His piece was 3300 words; yours was 400. Since you already lost the advantage of identity (Swift as Irish, you as putatively white), and you failed to go over the top nearly as much as Swift did, you left yourself not nearly enough room to be satirical. It is as if you told a joke by including only the opening line and the punch line – and still expect people to laugh.
So the reason I’m giving you a low grade, despite getting the ‘basic’ idea of satire, is because you have yet to learn a critical lesson. The power of satire rests on creating a tension in the reader about the true intent of the narrator.
The reader must start by believing the sincerity of the narrator. Things must progress in the piece, becoming more and more outrageous, until a point is arrived at by the reader (usually the same point, but it might differ across readers) where the reader finally says, in one moment, “Omigod, that is absolutely outrageous!” and in the next moment says, “Oh, jeez, you got me, it’s an April fool’s joke, it’s satire – wow, it’s so close to what some people actually believe, it’s scary”
That second moment never happens in your piece, Connor. You have not managed to distinguish your solution from the rantings of seriously racist people. And that is the biggest lesson of satire you need to learn: what you may think is satirical and funny will not necessarily be seen that way by others.
It’s a tricky line to draw, because satire depends on creating that tension within the reader, and the reader bears some responsibility. But if you don’t make it clear enough that the narrator himself is a wack job, then you as a writer have not lived up to your responsibility.
When it comes to satire, the devil is in the details. You should use the tool of identity in your narrator. You should use enough words to make the case in great detail. And you need to overshoot the mark of absurdity – not just come sort of close to it.
As I said, C- for good intention, but (potentially fatally) flawed execution.
I note at the outset that the teacher assumes “good intention.” Since that was assumed, as it should have been, I see no reason why Charles’ fictional teacher should simultaneously complain that there was doubt whether this is satire. Ethics Alarms has explored this feature in satire many times, in the context of web hoaxes. When a story appears in The Onion, it begins with the assumption that it is satire. If the same story appears, say, in the Boston Globe, readers may get confused. Connor Poole was writing in the context of an assignment asking for satire, and the Charles’s criticism, which is wrong anyway, that it was unclear whether it was satire makes no sense in that context.
Similarly, it made no difference that Swift was Irish and not English, because he was already well-known satirist when “A Modest Proposal” was published. P.G. Wodehouse was captured by the Nazis during WWII and forced to make propaganda broadcasts. Unlike fellow Brit “Lord Haw Haw,” Wodehouse successfully defended himself against accusations that he was a collaborator, saying that as a famous humorist, he knew nobody would take him seriously. Swift had this benefit too, and it had nothing to do with being Irish. As the assignment was to write like a 21st Century Swift, Connor should have been operating under the same assumptions and protection as Swift. Unlike Charles, I see no reason to think that an English-born Swift’s suggestion of child-eating would have been taken as a serious, hateful suggestion. The Irish were and are smarter than that, even if administrators at Connor Poole’s high school are not.
This is, again, the double standard that Charles, I have learned from past discussions, endorses and that I reject. On the school’s Facebook page, one commenter writes that if Chris Rock had delivered Connor’s essay as a routine, it would have been accepted without offense. Exactly. And there is no more reason to assume that a white Maryland high school student–responding appropriately to an assignment– is endorsing anti-black racism than to think that of Chris Rock. This is the presumption of white racial animus underlying so much race-bullying and black activist posturing now, and it is disappointing to see Charles embracing it. I assume that Connor is an ethical and patriotic American who has regard for all fellow citizens regardless of color or creed, and not, as Charles’s false English-Irish comparison unfairly suggests, a presumptive enemy of black Americans.
Charles’s next criticism is that the essay was not sufficiently “over the top that people can recognize parody.” Well, this is satire, not parody, but never mind: I don’t know what more Connor could have done to signal his intent at the outset:
- He used “Negro,” which is now used almost exclusively as an intentionally archaic term signalling someone who is out of touch. Laugh line from Flounder in “Animal House”: “The Negroes took our dates!”
- He referred to the U.S. as an “otherwise utopian society”
- He framed his “proposal” as “a final solution, as you will.” Intentionally invoking the shadow of Nazi genocide as if the writer had never heard of the Holocaust is a deft signal.
That should have been plenty to show where the writer’s tongue was.
Then Charles says,
“Things must progress in the piece, becoming more and more outrageous, until a point is arrived at by the reader (usually the same point, but it might differ across readers) where the reader finally says, in one moment, “Omigod, that is absolutely outrageous!” and in the next moment says, “Oh, jeez, you got me, it’s an April fool’s joke, it’s satire – wow, it’s so close to what some people actually believe, it’s scary.”
Doesn’t this section, right at the end (as Charles proscribes) accomplish exactly that?
The requirements to avoid nuclear destruction become progressively sillier and more obviously derived from popular culture stereotypes: “no pants below the waist, no gold teeth, and no use of ebonics,” capped by the obviously facetious “all three of the Negroes who met the aforementioned criteria will keep each other company.”
My test for whether a satirical rant is well constructed is whether I can picture John Belushi delivering it and hurling himself to the floor at the end, as he implodes in irrational fury, like here. Belushi could have used Connor’s riff, I think.
Charles inexplicably doesn’t find the ending funny, and I must wonder whether his own sensitivity on the issue precludes any hope of Connor’s satire working for him.
Finally, I’m a bit puzzled that Charles’s teacher would penalize Connor for not being able to accomplish in 400 words what it took a famed and master satirist to achieve in over 3000. Well, maybe not puzzled, exactly: I had a few teachers like that. They were known as bad teachers.