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September 09, 2005


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» Satire or Deception from Lying in Ponds
Brendan Nyhan and Matthew Yglesias had an interesting discussion yesterday on Brendans blog about the limits of political satire. Heres Mr. Nyhan: What Yglesias wrote is not particularly funny, and it uses a jargon tactic Ive f... [Read More]


I think this is unfair. The suggestion "that the administration is intentionally harming the nation's interests" clearly came in the context of a satirization of the White House p.o.v. not a literal effort to characterize it. It's fair to say that satire -- Onion headlines, etc. -- are not contributions to rational debate in the same way that straight political analysis is, but unless you want to deem satire out of bounds per se it's clearly wrong to apply the standards of straight debate to satire. The anti-satire view, meanwhile, would be pretty radically at odds with the western tradition which has always maintained a role for political satire as an element of the broader discourse. The Alterman case, I would maintain, is different.

On Nuremberg and totalitarianism, meanwhile, I'm not just invoking these at random. I explicitly disavow a global Bush-Nazi comparison and instead cite Milan Kundera's specific point about kitsch, complete with the best link I could find on the web. I have in mind what he says about "The Grand March" in chapter 6 of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and I think it's apropos.

Well, if you're not familiar with Kundera I guess we'll just leave it at that. I wonder, though, if you're trying to say that it's always illegitimate to make a comparison involving Nazis? It's irresponsible, of course, to suggest that the Bush administration (or any other actor in contemporary American politics) is just like Hitler but I think it's often fair to raise more limited comparisons in order to make a point. Jon Chait did a column defending my view of this subject.

On satire, I don't really know what to say. "[W]hy is it that statement any more 'satire' than what, say, Ann Coulter does when she falsely suggests that liberals want to do various awful things?" There's a clear difference between a false statement intended to deceive and a false statement intended as satire. Whether or not the satire is successful -- i.e., "funny" -- isn't the relevant metric. This from Ms. Coulter, for example, doesn't seem funny to me, but it's clearly satire. By contrast, when she wrote "Liberals become indignant when you question their patriotism, but simultaneously work overtime to give terrorists a cushion for the next attack and laugh at dumb Americans who love their country and hate the enemy" she was writing falsely in a non-satirical vein.

It seems to me that in my post, satiric intent was made clear by the fact that the assertion "loving America means ..." was put in my voice when the audience clearly recognizes that what follows are not my true beliefs. I didn't say, "George W. Bush thinks..." and then follow with some things he didn't think.


Believe me, that was Yglesias satire.

Matthew Yglesias possesses a number of virtues as a writer, but the ability to write good satire has never been among them. A constant awareness of this when reading his work will keep you criticizing him unfairly in the future.

As regards to your complaint about Matt's violation of Godwin's law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law), a few quick observations.

One big problem with using the Nazis is the endpoint: 6 million death camp victims and near-conquest of the entire European continent. Of course we aren't on that road now, and it would be ridiculously histrionic to suggest that we are. Or that the shortcomings of our government have a moral equivilence to the end result of the Nazi regime.

However, just as you point out the extremity of a forced binary choice between Nazi or US political analogies, complaining about Nazi comparisons assumes that in doing so we are forced to mean the totality of what the Nazis became in the end. There is a Nazi movement from 1923 to 1935 that the majority of both German citizens and outside observers would have seen as within the realm of legitimate governments, and that is one of the most iconic and pioneering modern mass political systems of the 20th century, unfortunately.

Do the death camps keep us from using 20 years of political history as a source of analogy? What if it ended in 1940, without the Final Solution or the invasion of the east?

In specifically using the Nuremberg analogy, one is not drawing any moral equivilence of regimes. Its just that this particular point of comparison is useful for describing the character of what is, in the end, not exactly an old and particularly American tradition.

Is there a American precedent since the end of WWII we can use to describe the nature of this event? A military-sponsored march, using the excuse of the anniversary of a tragic mass death, used to celebrate militarism? A march and rally, restricted to pre-screened and sympathetic participants, with media coverage restricted and monopolized by the government military sponsership, fully fenced off, policed and with the threat of arrest hanging over any outsiders who participate, and no doubt lots of flags waving everywhere and freedom invoked at every non-ironical turn.

Call it a memorial, fine, but having a Clint Black concert and fake dog tags for marchers is hardly Samuel Barber's Requiem, especially if you've lost family - and what do trinket fake dog tags have to do with lower Manhattan again?

Since we don't really have precedent its fair to invoke the most well-known example of tightly controlled, militaristic mass celebration bought and paid for by a government. If it is the difference in scale you object to, the Nuremberg rallies didn't begin as what Leni Riefenstahl filmed in the end, they began on a much smaller scale from 1923 on.

Having just read Allan Bullocks' "Parallel Lives", a side by side account of the rise of Hitler and Stalin, its patently obvious that there are many details about the methods and priorities of the Nazi movement that can be legitimately used in discussion of government and invoked in comparison without saying that our government is preparing death camps.

Other interesting points of comparison with our politics at the moment, if not at all on the same scale as within the Nazi movement, would be the primacy of public relations and propaganda, the emphasis placed on loyalty over competence, disdain for the legislative branch and an assumption of its neutering, the disdain for laws and customs that have restrained executive power, financial corruption in the layers below the executive leadership, the use of staged events, the invention of bogus enemies (liberal media, gays, etc) to exploit a "stabbed in the back" mentality and a fear of moral rot from within in, and a wallowing in nationalistic and military values combined with a free-spending, growing government sector side by side with crony capitalism.

There is one other problem with Yglesias' comparison: It doesn't have anywhere near the effect he thinks it has. The comparison to Nazis has been used so many times over the years, by so many different factions, for the same purpose: To smear the other side. For that reason, the comparison has lost whatever potency it once had. When I read Yglesias' Nuremburg comment, I was not scared of the Bush regime, nor was I amused. I simply thought, "Yep, it's the same old noise."

Alterman has responded as well:


Nyhan is generally correct that such cynical blasts from frustrated liberals are worse than useless. Indeed, Alterman seems to be digging himself a deeper hole here, since he clearly misrepresents your post.

Unfortunately, it's awfully difficult to describe the "9/11 Freedom March", in which the military sponsors a patriotic rally of pro-war music on the national mall, which requires pre-registration and bars dissenters from appearing, without discussing the 900-lb fascist gorilla in the room.

The mere fact that this event takes a page right out of the Goebbels playbook does not make Donald Rumsfeld a Nazi who secretly lusts to send liberals off to the gas chamber. Rumsfeld is, as nearly all his critics will admit, nothing more or less than a profoundly and hopefully misguided patriot and an incompetent defense secretary. The event is, nonetheless, a dismal echo of totalitarian propaganda, and there should be no thoughtcrime involved in pointing this out.

What I find most interesting is the utter inability of hawkish commentators to refute the main points made by Alterman: Bush DID use 9/11 to promote himself politically. He DID use it an excuse to launch a war which HAS objectively killed a great many Americans and reduced the domestic capabilities of the National Guard. He DID NOT use it as an inspiration to improve our nation's capacity to prevent and respond to predictable disasters.

So, much like the bitter PC leftists of the 1980s hiding in their ivory towers from the real-world failure of their ideals, Iraq hawks are left with nothing to do but fulminate about their opponents' language.

I'm not familiar enough with your writing, Brendan, to know where you're coming from on this. If you're just trying to raise the level of discourse and avoid the nasty cynicism and Nazi-baiting, then I generally agree with you.

Still, those of us who understand that starving the federal civilian agencies and staffing them with cronies and hacks leads to predictable disasters.... those of us who understand that preventive invasions and nation-building are a horrible and disastrous foreign policy choice... those of us who are utterly appalled at the Bush Administration's principled refusal to accept responsibility for its actions... those of us who are sick to death of seeing the flag we love used a stage prop for a redneck agenda... we're just a tad bit edgy and pissed off right now. We really aren't going to be all that sensitive to Bush supporters' feelings.

Young man, do you know the definition of "whippersnapper"? Look it up, wait ten years, then comment again.

Brendan, you are correct in your position with Alterman. Like it has been said before, he could have easily just clarified his position and then the matter would have been settled. In this case, in which he may not understand it at this time, he actually did more harm than good by using ridiculing language in dealing with the issue. Anyway, it may have been an isolated error in judgement but I also read his blog everyday and I think not. However, please remember that he is a journalist first and and an educator or self-proclaimed intellect second and thus maybe that was his strategy in the first place. I do believe that he is an intelligent person and discusses/debates a lot of good issues but I also believe he misses the big picture a lot of times because he generally tries to address the symptom and not the problem.

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