Tuesday, November 10, 2015

High Hermeneutics

When you read the word "satire," tell me: what springs to mind? Do you imagine the aroma of freshly-roasted Irish baby? Do you recall that four legs are good, yet two legs are better? Do images of Dorian Gray fill your memory? Would it offend you if I claimed that Swift, Orwell, and Wilde were plebeian satirists, that if you want the good stuff, you have to look a little deeper?

Middle-tier satire will still be eminently accessible to the pedestrian reader. A pusillanimous high school student is quite capable of recognizing that Inferno is much less an ecstatic religious treatise than it is a savage condemnation of 13th century Italian aristocracy. Mediocre college sophomores are more than adroit enough to grasp that Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince not as actual advice to the Medici family, but rather to mock an entirely different cohort of corrupt Italian aristocrats two centuries after they failed to take Dante's hint. Same goes for Chaucer: if the Knight's tale doesn't convince you he's taking the piss out of Feudal notions of propriety, the Reeve's Tale surely will.

But top-shelf satire? That rarefied spirit? That hermeneutic philosopher's stone? That ambrosial bathtub gin nearly impossible to brew without a pint of divine genius? That stuff is hard to find. It's harder yet for most folks to enjoy properly. I confess without great embarrassment that a great deal of the finer satire the world of literature has to offer will often escape me. I occasionally see some double meaning in Coleridge or Wordsworth. Milton was so peerless in concealing his savage condemnation of the Stuarts to the extent that even an attentive reader might mistake Paradise Lost for an actual account of Lucifer's fall. And Joyce? Impenetrable. Half the time I read Finnegan's Wake, I imagine it's a fever dream brought on by whiskey and tuberculosis. The other half, I think he's playing a great practical joke on the popular press and his peers. Of course, these interpretations are far from mutually exclusive, which makes him one of the rare masters of the form.

Masters which now include one "Jencey Paz."

Writing at The Yale Herald, this lugubrious essay manages to accomplish in a mere ten paragraphs what it takes Ann Coulter an entire novel-length book to achieve [ed.: the link appears to be broken, excerpts are as-is. Apologies for the inconvenience]. What Paz appears at first glance to deride is the shrinking violet sensibility recently popular on college campuses:
Today, when a group of us, organized originally by the Black Student Alliance at Yale, spoke with Christakis in the Silliman Courtyard, his response once again disappointed many of us. When students tried to tell him about their painful personal experiences as students of color on campus, he responded by making more arguments for free speech. It’s unacceptable when the Master of your college is dismissive of your experiences. The Silliman Master’s role is not only to provide intellectual stimulation, but also to make Silliman a safe space that all students can come home to. His responsibility is to make it a place where your experiences are a valid concern to the administration and where you can feel free to talk with them about your pain without worrying that the conversation will turn into an argument every single time. We are supposed to feel encouraged to go to our Master and Associate Master with our concerns and feel that our opinions will be respected and heard.
Good stuff so far. Middle-tier, if you will. But what elevates Hurt at Home to TOP KEK-grade satire is that it has the audacity to take on a pernicious, yet cherished political metaphor: that of organization-or-nation-as-family. Witness:
My dad is a really stubborn man. We debate all the time, and I understand the value of hearing differing opinions. But there have been times when I have come to my father crying, when I was emotionally upset, and he heard me regardless of whether or not he agreed with me. He taught me that there is a time for debate, and there is a time for just hearing and acknowledging someone’s pain.

I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained. And through it all, Christakis has shown that he does not consider us a priority.
Whatever else you might believe about the Ivy League institutions, you have to appreciate any school that can produce students who can produce such sublime satire. I aver here and now, my beloved readers, that I have with my own two ears heard Very Serious Thinkers fall prey to the bizarre assertion that the family is different only in scale to the state, that the relationships that blood kin share are only a matter of scope difference to the anonymous community. I have seen with my own two eyes words written by Humans to be Taken Seriously that the nation is basically just an extended family. That parents must expunge the fallacy that their children belong to them. And as the little child proclaimed the emperor has no clothes, a Yale student has unceremoniously mooned the great nattering mass of aspirant despots who seek dominion with sleazy appeals to faux kinship.

And the best part? Otherwise bright people appear to have fallen for the ruse. Cervantes at his best couldn't have hoped for more success. I doff my cap, Jencey Paz. You are a modern virtuoso of satire. Please, for the sake of the art, continue to write. The world is richer for having you in it.

It's been fun watching some of the campus conflict from afar. Viewed as unstructured negotiation, it's obvious that there are some pretty severe strategic lapses on both sides. The transaction of higher education services appear to be less and less euvoluntary over time, at least on the aggrieved margin.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?