Monday, February 22, 2010

Precis- The 'Horror' of Satire

I don’t really know anything about any of these works, so I’ve gotten in the habit of looking at the summary on the back cover to get a sense of the general theme of the argument, the partisanship of the author/reader base, and it’s impact. There was no summary, but one of the quotes on the back from Elliot Fremont-Smith struck me: “It is, of course, a hoax – but what a hoax! – a parody so elaborate and ingenious and, in fact, so substantively original, acute, interesting and horrifying, that it will receive serious attention regardless of its origin.” Report From Iron Mountain is obviously different from anything we’ve read so far in this class because it’s meant to be a satire. But why can a satire, something that’s supposed to produce a commentary by making a mockery through imitation, be so horrifying? What is it about the imitation that seems to get our guts wrenching in a way that the original it imitates doesn’t do on its own? And what is happening to warp what’s actually going on? These were some themes I wanted to explore with this précis.

One of the main ways this particular satire operates is through a sort of modified “straw man” approach. Rather than emphasizing the knocking down of this straw man though, the goal seems to be to dress it up in the most grotesque way possible in order to produce a visceral reaction from the audience (sorry if there’s a technical term for this that I’m missing). And since this was designed to pass as a hoax, it reads like an unsmiling replica of how an economic think-tank report would read, which adds an element of confusion for those who don’t get the joke right away. Even with some of the book’s more absurd claims and assumptions (like the necessity of poverty and war as a “janitor” of unwanted social behaviors), the effect here is less about producing laughter and more about shocking and unsettling. The fact that no one was willing to call it a hoax for weeks is a testament to the power and effectiveness of this move. It was so similar to a scenario that would actually be discussed by economists that Victor Navasky even makes the comment, “For all the LBJ whitehouse knew, the JFK White House had comissioned such a study.”

Another one of the scariest things about RFIM is that you can’t argue with the report on it’s own terms. People can object to the soullessness of the argument and its refusal to incorporate the emotionally sensitive issues of war, but the report’s introduction already warns you that this was the point of the study. From here, the claims and observations, though sickening at times, follow a tight logical progression. On top of that, the report uses what it anticipates its audience would normally bemoan or object to as examples to support its claims. So when it talks about the need for the creation of an enemy in order to hold the fabric of society together and says, “We will not speculate on the specific forms this kind of program might take, except to note that there is again ample precedent, in the treatment meted out to disfavored, allegedly menacing, ethnic groups in certain societies during certain historical periods,” the reader’s options are to catch on to the tongue-in-cheek reference of the period’s actual happenings or to sit dumbfounded.

But perhaps the scariest thing about this hoax was that it passed as a plausible study held by the people in charge. I don’t think this was meant to satirize any particular political or economic ideology, but instead the method and mindset behind economic theorizing and the rationalization of certain political and economic decisions. I think very few people, if any, would want to accept the conclusion that peace is unfavorable for our economy and must therefore be avoided, but its findings can’t be argued unless the precondition of avoiding any “emotional” reasons in the discussion is eliminated. The point of this piece therefore is to remind people that the HUMAN element of war should never be eliminated from the conversation. Ultimately it seeks to reevaluate how we discuss and make decisions regarding politics and economics, and to remind people that the statistics thrown around by economists are human beings before they are numbers. What’s interesting is that economists have been using this objectified, emotionless tone to construct theories without objection for hundreds of years, and it took a satire to effectively expose some of the inherent flaws of this approach.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points about the effectiveness of satire. While arguments aimed directly against the war system can be dismissed as "emotional" under the language of cost-benefit analysis, satire works by assuming the language and deducing an absurd conclusion. However, it only works if the conclusions are seen as absurd...

    I agree that its plausibility as a government document makes it darkly humorous...and it becomes even more horrifyingly comedic when we realize that the Tim McVeigh's of the world use it justify their delusions and sick acts of terror.


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