Perhaps the only good thing to have come out of a Trump presidency is the dark humour, and I must confess – much of it has been brilliant. Seeing the wonderful placards (WE SHALL OVERCOMB) hearing the chants (TINKLE TINKLE LITTLE CZAR, PUTIN PUT YOU WHERE YOU ARE) and watching the SNL skits has raised welcome smiles in what are by all accounts the most depressing political days I’ve ever lived through.
And yet… and yet…
The other day I finished Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Sellout. It tells the story of a kid raised with intense black consciousness who takes a slave and reintroduces school segregation when his city ‘disappears’ from the maps of LA. It is biting and brilliant and genuinely one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. Reviewers pretty much universally agreed, with the chair of the Booker judges saying she’d been banned from reading it in bed because she was laughing so much.
When I’d finished it, I went online to look up some interviews with Beatty to find out about his literary back-story, and pretty immediately came across this in The Paris Review:
I’m surprised that everybody keeps calling this a comic novel. I mean, I get it. But it’s an easy way not to talk about anything else. I would better understand it if they talked about it in a hyphenated way, to talk about it as a tragicomic novel, even. There’s comedy in the book, but there’s a bunch of other stuff in there, too. It’s easy just to hide behind the humor, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else.
With the Trump-athon going along in overdrive, that hit hard and made me sit up and reflect that there’s may be a level of comfort in satire. To be able to satirise I wonder if you’ve got to have some resources. It was easy for me to laugh at the absurd world that Beatty creates in an LA suburb, because I’m a very long way from having to suffer the brutality of actually living there.
All of the wit around Trump has made it a lot of fun, and I think that mockery will have a special place in critiquing this American administration because Trump is such a narcissist who clearly has a fragile ego. But what we must allow that to do is become a means by which we avoid talking about the real issues that give rise to the satire. In other words, we mustn’t allow it to become a source of comfort, but commit to hearing the voices of those who don’t have the privilege of laughing about any of this.
I’m thankful to my friend Paul Trueman for posting this article from Times columnist Hugo Rifkind, which talks of satire as ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable’… and yet achieving as much as the Berlin cabaret clubs did in preventing the rise of Hitler:
How many times in the election run-up did we see links to videos where so-and-so **destroys Trump with this awesome take-down**? The satire did bite, and we felt a little better, but there was no destruction. To do that, we will need to make fun of him less, and get serious about taking action, in courts, in Parliaments and on the streets.
Click here to receive updates, and hear first about new projects