Satire: a linchpin of civilization

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While the more literal-minded might see the Nazi salute solely as a malicious and misinformed commentary on the Pope's personal history, many others understand it for the edgy observation it really is.

Knickers were twisted into proper knots and the dudgeon ran high.

According to the knicker-twisters, cartoonist Mike Constable hadridiculed and insulted all Catholics in an egregious display of religiousintolerance. That was the view of the “Catholic Civil Rights League,” a smallconservative group that claims to represent its co-religionists as it combatswhat it calls “anti-Catholic defamation” in the media. It was even the view ofsuch eminent non-Catholics as Ottawa's Rabbi Reuven Bulka, normally the epitome of intelligent common sense, who called Constable's work “inexcusable.”

The artist's crime? A brief animated cartoon on the front page ofrabble.ca. In the 12-second piece, called A Creature of Habits, asinister-looking little Pope Benedict XVI marches into a room dominated by alarge statue of the Virgin Mary, looks about furtively, raises a stiff arm inan unmistakable salute and mutters “Heil Mary.”

Off with Constable's head, then.

Never mind that the thing is actually a clever swipe at a perfectly validtarget, the former Cardinal Ratzinger's indisputably authoritarian impulses — and at the Church's, too, under his and the late John Paul's rigid direction.And while the more literal-minded might see the Nazi salute solely as amalicious and misinformed commentary on the Pope's personal history, manyothers understand it for the edgy observation it really is. Like it or not,“Nazi” has become culturally synonymous with tyranny in all kinds of arenas — remember Seinfeld's “Soup Nazi?” — so if the shoe fits ...

But no. Constable was instead pilloried. Said Bulka, “There is no room for this type of satire in this civilized world.”

Sadly, he may be right. More and more, we're making less and less room in ourworld for the astringent joys of satire. In a culture that has discovered howto manipulate what it cynically disparages as political correctness (that is,criticize it when it threatens to silence you, but trot it out when you need to muzzle someone else), we have new tools for condemning the outspoken.

Recently, for instance, an outraged letter to the editor of The Citizen asked, “Why has Mr. Constable not been investigated for committing a hate crime?” In April, withnews of a convict's cartoon art savaging what he feels is racism in policeofficers, Ontario Conservative MPP Bob Runciman asked the same thing.

Anyone else find it a bit chilly in here? I mean, is anyone else catching awhiff of Chairman Mao or Big Brother?

If satire does its job properly, it's going to offend one group or another, noquestion. “There's no possibility of being witty without a little ill-nature,”wrote Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the 18th century, when satire ruled theliterary world. “The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick.”

You may hate Constable's body of work, with its dyspeptic and distinctlyleft-wing world view, while I might find it smart and acerbic and devastatingly accurate. (And I do.) You may feel good police officers are being maligned inthe convict's art, while others might perceive instead a strong message ofsocial criticism. But, either way, you're being engaged in the dialogue andthinking about the issue.

Which is why satire is a linchpin of civilization.

In ancient Rome, the poet Horace wrote satires like A Pertinacious Bore andSycophant, immortally damning the world's most tedious people, which must haveannoyed them mightily. A few years later, satirist Juvenal took aim at Romanarrivistes, which no doubt ticked them off, too.

In the brittle intellectual universe of the 18th century, Alexander Pope sliced into literary posers with his The Dunciad, effectively eviscerating them. It musthave hurt.

At the same time in Dublin, his friend Jonathan Swift crafted choice words forthe hypocrites by whom he felt surrounded. Probably the best known of Swift'ssatires, A Modest Proposal, suggested that tender Irish babies be sold as agourmet delight (“and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very goodboiled on the fourth day”). Such a delicacy would be pricey, making it aperfect choice for “landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of theparents, seem to have the best title to the children.” The landlords, it issafe to say, were not amused.

We, too, have been blessed with satirists beyond number, most of them effective indeed in annoying this group or that. With admirable regularity, MordecaiRichler rendered Quebec nationalists apoplectic. That was when he wasn'tinfuriating members of his own anglo-Montreal community in whom he sawpomposity or venality or cowardice in need of skewering.

“The truth,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is rarely pure, and never simple.” And satireis simply an attempt to get at some version of the truth, no matter how smudged or complicated.

Horace, Juvenal, Pope, Swift, Richler — or any of the countless other witsthrough the ages who made their marks with defiant, deft sword strokes — allunderstood that. And Mike Constable, sitting at his sharp-edged drawing boardin Toronto, understands it, too. Three cheers for him.

Three cheers for all the brave, bright artists who follow the satirist'scalling. A culture that can't laugh at itself, even in an anguish ofdiscomfort, is a pallid thing. And a civilization that has lost its capacityfor that dark, cathartic laughter is a poor and barren place.

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