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1,339 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Averting the Snide Effects: Satire

by Skip Eisiminger

Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.
Salman Rushdie
A discriminating irreverence is the creator and protector of human liberty.
Mark Twain

In 1989, “Steve,” I’ll call him, discovered a photograph taken when he was a boy of about thirteen. It was noteworthy because the picture had been made by the WPA photographer and Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Eudora Welty. Standing on a boxcar in a Mississippi rail yard, Steve was dressed in a suit while several others were dressed in more casual attire. All were staring intently at something unknown beyond the picture frame. Despite the informality of the setting, the triangular composition reminded some of pedimental sculpture. Indeed, “monumentally stiff” is a phrase many would still use to describe Steve, a recognized scholar who smote many as self-important. When a former colleague returned to Clemson and heard that Steve was still living, she said, “I thought he would have died of concern.”

For days, Steve carried Welty’s volume of photographs with him in his briefcase. Spotting the unwary, he would sometimes intrude on a conversation to show them his picture. Some began avoiding the college’s second-floor lounge just because Steve might be lurking.

One day, on the departmental bulletin board, another photograph, circa 1940, appeared. This one showed a young man in a suit eagerly greeting a Good Humor man. Typed at the bottom was the caption: “Another old photograph of Steve.” He soon got the message.

Some twenty-five years later, long after Steve had died, I found the notes I’d taken in 1989 in my satire file, typed them up, and sent them to several former colleagues. One, who was much closer to Steve than I had been, was not amused, and wrote, “Skip, I’m not sure I like that story. I may not understand it, but it strikes me as petty.”

I was stung, but I replied, “ the messenger in this story, I apologize if I hurt your feelings. Of course, many still feel that while Steve could be a good colleague, he was often the sand in the departmental oyster. You may recall that he asked one new hire, ‘Why did you go to Wake Forest [an inferior school in Steve’s view] for your B. A.? There’s no one there.’ The captioned but unsigned picture, however, that appeared on the bulletin board effectively lubricated the irritant. All in all, it’s a good example of how satire should work—namely, by not descending into libel or slander. Thus, the stray oyster is brought back into the fold. As Jonathan Swift said, ‘My satire’s not for my target’s approval but for his reform.’ Though in the process of reforming, the satirist may appear self-righteous and even petty, as you say, the target was reformed....”

It should come as no surprise that people are hurt when they take joking matters too seriously. My friend Kurt Schneider, who flew for the Luftwaffe in WWII, illustrated this for me just a few weeks before he died. For reasons no doctor ever explained or perhaps understood, Kurt was congenitally susceptible to jaundice and was sent on multiple occasions to the infirmary where he lay for a few days before being ordered back to the front. During one hospital stay near the war’s end, some of his friends paid him a visit, and in a solemn but ironic ceremony, they presented him with an Iron Cross, crudely cut from a tin can. A short while later, and despite Kurt’s obvious symptoms, an SS officer also paid Kurt a visit to investigate the rumor of his malingering. A nurse assured the officer he wasn’t, which so angered him, he tried ripping the decoration from Kurt’s neck. The string, however, was stronger than he reckoned, and he shredded his hand in the attempt. Off he went to have it sewn up, and fortunately Kurt never saw him or combat again.

My mentor James Dickey, a master of the verbal razor himself, told students that the best satire severs an ear from the body so deftly with one hand, it leaves the appendage in place while offering bandages with the other. When Joan Rivers called Michelle Obama a “tranny” (a transgendered individual) on CNN, she was not satirizing the First Lady, just slandering her. Raw defamation like Hitler’s use of “vermin” for Jews implies no corrective, issuing as it does from the reptilian core.

One of the best examples of the satirical style I favor was a sign held up for television cameras at the 1974 Oscars. The neatly lettered sign urged members of the Academy to honor Richard Nixon with the prize for “best editing of a sound recording.” Deserving as he was, the disgraced president didn’t win, but he did resign. The same year, Gary Trudeau won a Pulitzer Prize for his strip showing a massive brick wall going up around the White House. To fully appreciate the strip, one must know that Nixon popularizing the infinitive “to stonewall.” Given the later confessions of Nixon and Bill Clinton, I’d say the satires above were effective, for the implied correctives were adopted.

Dickey’s description, however, while useful, skirts the issue of limits. To satirists like Salman Rushdie, quoted at the top of this essay, whether they use brickbats or razors, there are few if any limits. For them, free speech is near or at absolute. The more discriminating Mark Twain, however, also quoted above, hints at the dangers of roasting over an open flame.

Over several years, eleven cartoonists, writers, and editors at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, taunted Islam so they could, as one editor put it, “die standing [rather] than living on [their] knees.” On January 7, 2015, they were murdered by two angry Muslims. These eleven had been duly warned about the dangers of “standing” by hundreds of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and the French police, for any visual representation of Allah or Mohammed is considered idolatry and worthy of punishment. Charlie not only published images of Mohammed, he pictured him naked and bent over. Among the twenty dead that tragic day in Paris were four French-Jewish citizens and two gendarmes. By my accounting, some of the blame for those six deaths must be attributed to Charlie Hebdo’s insistence on “standing.” It would not have hurt to bend the knee.

Marching under the banner “Nothing Is Sacred,” of course, invites an attack from those who find much that is sacred. Charlie Hebdo’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier boasted that after decades of satirizing Roman Catholicism he could now “show the pope sodomizing a mole and get no reaction” because the banalization of Catholicism was complete. As parents who have survived their children’s adolescence know, the immature love to pull the tail of a horse’s ass. Rarely, however, is the horse reformed, and often it will kick.

Unless I’m discussing Huckleberry Finn, I have no reason to use the n- word. My black fellows may use it but should not. The line for either race, however, is difficult to define. To help, I suggest the “Three-Voter Test”: if two of three reasonable people randomly chosen find something offensive, rethink it. Like child pornography, hate speech is an exception to America’s cherished freedoms, and the rights of one should not intrude on the rights of another.


Moliere made his name on the French stage in part by satirizing the church and the medical profession. Much of the criticism was deserved given the many pedophiles and quacks lurking under the collar and cloak of respectability. On February 17, 1673, however, Moliere and his cast may have expected too much from their target audience. While acting in the title role of The Imaginary Invalid, the tubercular playwright collapsed on stage. When the call went out for a doctor in the house, no one came. When last rites were requested, no priest would answer the call.

As his son, I’d defend Moliere’s right to use satire, but as his father, I’d warn him of its dangers.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury