On Writing Satire

Anthony Reale, Satire Editor

G.K. Chesterton once said “A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.” Chesterton, of course, wrote during the 19th century, a time when print culture had massive more amounts of readership and–through that–volatility than it might today.  Without getting too far deep into how I feel about video killing the radio star and radio killing the authorial star, I’d like to state plainly that writing does not hold the same strength that it previously held.  Writing is obviously neither dead nor dying; it has, however, taken a backseat to visual cultures.  Regardless of this, we see writers adapting to the tectonic shifts in their field, moving to write for television, publishing pieces online, and producing print media–almost spitefully, I might add.  Despite this fall from popularity, there definitely is a branch of the writing that will stay strong as long as politics exists: satire.  Making fun of public figures has been popular since the Egyptian hieroglyphic roast sessions, I assume.  Why is this style of writing safe from being phased out?  Merely due to Newton’s lesser-known Laws of Satire, satire will be popular because people will always be interested in making fun of political figures and, more generally, every aspect of life.

Satire struck me as any good style of writing will–difficult to master yet unbelievably worthy of the challenge.  I am in no way an expert in this style of writing, but I where I might lack in quality, I overflow with quantity.  I write something every week, facing no backlash from any person or group that I cover.  I am shocked that I haven’t received contact about my writing–not because I’m such a good writer, such a good critic of the college–merely because I never write with all the facts fueling the article.  If some aspect of my topic proves to be more interesting or funny, I hone in on that, blocking parts that I don’t see as mattering (i.e. a solution to a problem that I’m writing about.)  For example, when Reid basement flooded last year, I wrote about how the Outdoor Program set up kayaking classes and opportunities.  I omitted any solutions that were being implemented to fix the issue–merely because an article about how Barbara Maxwell plans to hire people to drain water from Reid basement wouldn’t be funny.  I don’t look for moments of success to cover.  That’s not part of my task as a satire writer.

In today’s world of confusion with the news, a satirist’s job is to delineate where seriousness lies in their publication and where the jokes reside.  Blending the line between these two things is not a productive task.  Humor should be used to point to the problematic aspects of life in our collective campus experience.  I don’t intend to conflate all experiences of campus life here–there are socioeconomic, ideological, and cultural divides that do not allow each person to experience Whitman in the same way.  But there is something to say about the issues we all face collectively.  Some problems transcend the lines arbitrarily drawn by our more openly-biased ancestors, affecting humans, not just specifically delineated demographic groups.

Of course, I am trapped in a certainly strange position.  As a student senator, I have chosen to censor my material, to avoid upsetting the balance I keep between the two buildings I frequent: Memorial and Reid.  This balance that I’ve worked on doesn’t distract me from the work I want to do in both realms.  I want to be able to say that I’ve worked successfully in both fields–both in criticizing the questionable practices the college might employ and helping write student legislation that works to fix or begin to change these same practices.  In theory, I have successfully occupied two opposing roles: the criticizer and the criticized.  For those of you that might be questioning which role is which, the senate seat is ‘the criticized.’  Surprise!  No one likes politicians.  The strange part about all this is that I can both occupy the role of politician and critic, allowing me to understand both sides of the relationship.  I get to see both sides of the aisle (though those sides might be liberal and extra liberal–it’s two sides nonetheless) and can report back the various strangeness that I witness.  Maybe this unique position allows me to have a knowledge of the right lines to cross, the boundaries that must be pushed instead of ignored.

A large portion of my time is spent wondering what lines I should and shouldn’t cross.  Some are crossed without a second thought; making fun of students’ weird quirks (i.e. Whitties never wearing shoes) always makes for a good article. Egos might be bruised, but nothing irreparable shatters.  Other lines, however, cannot be crossed without good reason.  Beginning a war with the administration over a few lines poking and prodding them towards the right direction–or at least my subjective idea of the ‘right’ direction–can start earthquakes.  There have been plenty of article ideas that I’ve shot down (both my own and my staff’s) due to the fear of rocking the boat to the point of The Wire falling out.  One might look back at the article I wrote last semester about the newly hired Dean Mooko and Juli Dunn dueling over the position that Dean Cleveland vacated.  I chose to literally censor myself, adding black bars over the jokes that seemed too acerbic to publish.  Although the censoring became a hilarious part of the issue, it removed the power behind the article, as it no longer looked at administrators in as critical of a way.

Where does the satire page go from here?  Does my staff have an obligation to be politically engaged in the way only satirists can be: aggressively critical and questioning?  My short answer is no.  We don’t have the same sort of presence as The New York Times, nor can I make my writers turn militant.  What I can do is ensure that we produce a good page regardless of critiques.  All I can promise is that the backpage will quietly keep producing content that prods our institution, in hopes that our words might show folks who have power on this campus that some things need to change.