Get Your Facts First, and Then You Can Distort Them as Much as You Please. (Mark Twain)
WordPress recently sent me a very nice message congratulating me on my one year anniversary of blogging. For those of you unfamiliar with the term WordPress – a year ago I would have headed that list – WordPress is a “blogging and website management system.” Translated into plain English, it is the platform or the server which hosts my blog. They are a decent lot who are more than eager to provide me with all kinds of interesting and useful data about my site. I get a kick out of knowing that my readership hails from some 37 different countries. These include some curious viewers from Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Malaysia, who have dared to sneak the occasional peek, to some very loyal followers from Brazil, Portugal, India and Korea – presumably from the South.
Reflecting upon this past year, I can’t help but wonder if my scribbling has made any kind of an impact on, say, the human condition. Judging from the general state of affairs these days my guess would be, a resounding and emphatic, no. Fortunately, I take no credit for the wave of infantile gibberish that besieges our media outlets as of late. In particular, the upcoming American election has produced a bonanza of discordant, offensive, and at times, simply bizarre rhetoric. I believe that one of the leading presidential candidates is actually proud that he has mastered the technique of speaking publicly at a grade four level. Unfortunately, many of the so-called pundits who are tracking this three-ring circus are just as much to blame for perpetuating this brand of nonsensical political discourse.
It wasn’t always this way; not by a long shot. There was a time, in the not so distant past, that political humour and satire was considered a craft and not simply a means for getting even. Art Buchwald was a longtime syndicated columnist for the Washington Post who “delighted in popping the hot air balloons of the powerful and the pompous (New York Times, The Last Word, 18/01/07).” His barbs were stinging but not mean-spirited or hateful. “You can’t make up anything anymore,” he once quipped, “the world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.”
That’s not a bad motto to write by if you want your voice to be heard above the prevailing din. Personally, I would never have had the gumption to put my pen to paper if ages ago I had not stumbled across the writings of Russell Baker, the Pulitzer Prize winning political commentator and satirist for the New York Times. A keen observer of human foibles, Baker is the kind of humorist whose elegant prose shifts effortlessly between scathing satire and genteel derision. Yet, he is always quick to point out his own personal shortcomings. At the ripe old age of eleven, Baker discovered his calling in life. “The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.” A master of the perfect turn of phrase, Baker constantly reminds his readers that “serious journalism need not be solemn.”
I fear that it will be a long time coming before we witness a new generation of sharp, incisive satirists; certainly not while the guardians of political correctness run amok on today’s university campuses. Satire? First, we need to relearn the art of civilized conversation. Not that there is a shortage of talking; it’s listening that seems to be an endangered skill.
Apparently, during the Depression years, most households, the poor included, possessed a large dictionary because conversation was one of the more popular and affordable of pastimes. As a youngster, I can’t vouch for the dictionary, but I certainly remember my own parents doing an awful lot of talking. That’s what people did on Sundays and holidays; they got together to shoot the breeze and catch up on each other’s lives. During the warmer months, evenings walks with friends were something of a ritual, presumably to help with the digestion. Only they didn’t call them walks, they went shpatsirn – a leisurely stroll with no fixed destination in mind, just plenty of shmoozen. No fancy track suits or specially designed walking shoes. Usually the husbands walked a few paces ahead and complained about the shmatteh trade, while the wives pulled up the rear and probably complained about the husbands. The evening would end up in somebody’s kitchen for a tea and a slice of something, and yet, even more conversation.
A year ago, I opened my first blog with a quote from Mark Twain, arguably the preeminent American humourist and satirist. It seems only fitting to evoke the Bard once again on this, my anniversary piece, considering that little has changed from the time he began pillorying the hypocrisies of human nature. “It’s no wonder,” he wrote, “that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Now, ain’t that the truth!