Without asking for it, humanity is engaged in a great experiment of turning meaning on its head. The beauty of our human gift of language is its flexibility. And as my ancestor Alexander Pope and his colleague Jonathan Swift demonstrated, with the addition of a few deft clues to let the reader know his intent, an author can mock something with the same words used to praise it. It’s called satire. Back then it was employed with the goal of improving the situation.
Over the centuries of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps to reach a less educated or work-exhausted audience, the techniques of satire became less subtle and more linked with destruction and character assassination. The current union of the power of film and digital media has created an altogether bizarre paradigm shift, the use of satire without the author winking in the background. Speech is now open to becoming weaponry of subversion on a level we have never before seen.
Online, voices and pens have become dissociated from each other. There is no one to wink and no tradition encouraging it. And seemingly little intention of improving anything. The function of communication to share, reveal and teach has been emasculated. Insight, meaning and intent have fallen prey to marketing. Punditry has been strangled in its bed. This last event is because every digital proclamation appears on the screen with the same weight. We are all pundits now.
The irony is that, though surrounded by screens, we have no screening, no vetting for quality or truth. Because speech now comes from terminal to terminal by invitation and is coupled with worldwide blocking mechanisms for other content, we are safe from learning anything from each other. And Wonder of Wonders, we are flooded with data coming from those terminals. Who could devise a better scheme for the downfall of civilization? If only we were armed, we could all kill each other quickly. (Oh, sorry, that’s satire, with a dash of cynicism.)
We awaken in the 21st Century to find our intellectual North Star missing. The function of language to foster communion seems most often appropriated for its opposite, hate. Religions, long masters of conveying some version of hope, (yes, history has decidedly mixed reviews on this!) are jumping on board. Lately Christians seem to find support for hate in the Bible. Hating one’s neighbor as you fear he would heap hate unto you. Preferably, be first in this exchange, as in, Bomb ISIS before they bomb you.
In this stranger than fiction presidential election year, we find the twists of blame and meaning moving too fast to allow time to either laugh or cry. For instance, this week we hear the Trump campaign’s defense of Melania Trump’s plagiarizing the speech of the woman she hopes to replace as—get this—Mrs. Clinton’s fault because she’s afraid of other powerful women. [Editor: Today, 48 hours later, Mrs. Trump’s ‘speechwriter’ has taken the fall for this.]
That is brilliant beyond any leap of mind—though now just run-of-the-mill fare from oligarchic realms that employ powerful minds for profit. This is where your campaign dollars go. Not into policy, except as window dressing. Because how can we have policy until we know what is going to happen?, which means we will govern by response from the rear. Shades of W’s time in office. And we know how that turned out. . . By Obama, taking us into unpaid for wars, of course, and secretly funding ISIS because of his secret Muslim affiliations.. (Oops, satire again.)
In one phrase the campaign defends the person who has plagiarized as an elegant victim, ignores the theft and the idiocy of committing the sin in public and blames a third party (Mrs. Clinton) that the campaign hopes to destroy by triggering issues about which the Trump campaign needs to improve its image, IE women’s sympathy. Wow! Passive-aggressive, dictatorial, denying through bullying and guilty by proxy. AND reaping the benefits of the confusion, through no other means except that the triggering words are there. This is the result of two generations of Reality TV overtaking boys and girls playing outside and getting along.
President Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope (subtitled: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream) conveys a longing for improved lives for all Americans. Arising just a few short years later from the chaos of the Right Wing Evangelical Christian outrage at not being successful in Congress, Mr. Trump is being audacious with hate. As a purveyor of misaligned words and meaning for malicious intent (EG: “I would never say anything like Hilary has a history of prostitution, though I am sure she has lain in many strange beds. . .” etc. etc.), Mr. Trump is transforming the often stinky swamp of political discourse into nothing more than rampant castigation. The Art of the Deal as he now plays it is the art of denial. We learn nothing of the man, except the serial rollout of what he denies or, contrarily, what he takes refuge in for the moment either to steal from it or to dog whistle to an aroused and unseemly base.
The chimera he presents has the press buffaloed and the public moving toward an emotional breakdown. We make sense of Messieurs Obama and Trump both being audacious with such differing results by understanding that audacious has two diametrically-opposed meanings. One means brave, bold, fearless and intrepid. The other means impudent, insolent, defiant and bad mannered.
It is time for us Americans to study our hearts and (re)discover which meaning of audacious we hope to live by. And while at it, we should be carefully informed by how whatever we choose will be met by other nations around the world.
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Some Alexander Pope quotes from an age when satire worked well.
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.
A man should never be ashamed to own he has been wrong, which is but saying, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.
Honor and shame from no condition rise. Act well your part: there all the honor lies.
To err is human; to forgive, divine.