Periscope Depth

everywhere I go, people know the game I’m playing

Every nine months, I start talking about politics again. Roughly six months after that, I stop, realizing that my tone has become insufferable. As I slip further along into adulthood, I put a higher premium on being civil than on being right all the time. People can disagree with me – within earshot! – and not only will I not take it as an insult, I won’t even speak up. I don’t feel compelled to correct them. This makes me a lot more fun at parties. Smugness doesn’t keep the wine flowing.

This is my perennial promise to stop talking about politics for a bit.* One last comment to tide me over.

I spend a lot of time making fun of things in the political arena that I find contradictory. I do this because it’s easy to find contradictions and because it’s easy to turn a contradiction into a joke. That’s what paradox is and from there absurdity grows. But it’s unfair to sit in the front row, lobbing peanuts at Billy Zane while he recites Shakespeare, without saying what I would find more dignified. Nothing says critics are useless to art. But a critic must assert as well as rebut.

So here’s what I want: an immediate, dramatic increase in American cynicism.

I try not to be a Europhile, but the quality of Britain’s political satires and dramas towers over America’s. It’s not even close. Here’s a short list: House of Cards, Sandbaggers, Absolute Power, The Thick of It, Yes Minister, In The Red, and so forth. What sorts of media critical of American government written over the last twenty years that belong on that list? Wag the Dog? Maybe?

Of course, I know I am being the Europhile I try not to be. The shows I’ve cited are excellent examples of political drama, but they’re the exception, not the norm. Britain is not a nation of witty sophisticates. It’s a nation a lot like America. But when you compare the best the BBC and ITV have to offer with the best that American broadcasters have to offer, it’s not even a close race.

That’s what I’m aiming for. I want every new season of American television to have one comedy or drama depicting the savage hypocrisy of representative government. I want The Weft Wing, an Office-style mockumentary about a bunch of ambitious Harvard and Georgetown grads who figure out new euphemisms for “bombing civilians.” I want The Big Push Theory, a sitcom about four nerds who run a think tank that drafts leading opinion polls. I want Reno 911 but played straight-faced and set in Atlanta. I want Larry David’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I want stories without heroes, filled with awkward laughs and abrupt fades to black.

Why do I want all this? Because, to my cynical eyes, American politics would be easier to stomach – if not actually more humane – if Americans stopped believing politicians were better than they. They’re not. People who seek political office are no nobler, smarter or steadier than the people they govern. Picture your retired neighbor, that coworker who forwards you viral videos and the guy who sits in the deli all day and agrees loudly with talk radio. All three of them are in Congress. And more besides.

Americans claim not to be fooled. They say they’re hardened realists. But then they re-elect a guy by virtue of having been in office during a terrorist attack (which apparently means “leadership”). Or they elect a guy who sounds nice when he talks. When officials claim that they’ll lower taxes, reduce spending, bring the troops home and promote equal rights for all citizens, Americans believe them. Despite the fact that this has been promised in every election since America’s first.

A man who wants power over your tax dollars is not going to save you. He does not hold the secret to reducing unemployment. If there were a secret, we’d know it by now. That’s the thing about awesome discoveries that benefit everyone: you can’t keep them secret. Imagine if America had to hold an election every four years to rediscover penicillin.

I suspect most Americans know this or will admit it if pressed. But they still want to believe, despite a lack of empirical evidence or logical warrant, that One Man with One One-Hundredth of a Vote Over the Say of the Appointment of an Abstruse Federal Bureaucracy can make a difference.

The advantage of quality satire is that it gives the American popular culture a common language. When we encounter a ridiculous workplace situation, we can compare it to something from The Office. This makes our boorish boss, or our annoying coworkers, or our workplace bureaucracy, seem less like a trap. Most of the comedy of The Office comes from a character saying something that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a real office environment. This helps put the absurdity of our own jobs in context. “That’s right,” we remind ourselves. “This is ridiculous.” And being able to look around and admit our secret fear to our friends – that we’re participating in an absurd sham – is a relief.

People talk about disillusionment like it’s a bad thing. Who wants to stay illusioned?

Fortunately, Curtis Sittenfeld has taken the first steps, with this Swiftian bit of satire on Slate.com. After running down a laundry list of Obama’s failures within the first two years – a stimulus that wasn’t perhaps as urgent as the American public was led to believe; keeping Guantanamo Bay open; defending DADT; increasing troop presence in Afghanistan; and that’s not even counting the orders to assassinate a U.S. citizen residing in Yemen – Sittenfeld pulls back the lid on this solitaire diamond:

But when I see Obama on television, I’m unfailingly struck by his intelligence and charisma, by his easygoing humor, by the magnificence of his megawatt smile. He just makes me proud, and perhaps this is where I should admit that if there are two categories of Obama critics—conservatives who never liked the guy and have in some cases become unhinged since he was elected, and centrists or Democrats who voted for him but now feel let down—I suspect that, in the visceral nature of my response to our president, I have more in common with the unhinged nut jobs. By this I mean that my Obama admiration is a kind of emotional inverse of the right-wing Obama antipathy: I can pretend it’s all about policy, but in truth, it’s much more personal.

That’s on the second page of the article. Not since “A Modest Proposal” has a satirist buried the punchline so deep within the prose, stretching the anticipation out until it snaps with a laugh.

Brilliant satire, Sittenfeld. The rest of you: this is what we have to emulate. Get to work.

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* The day after everyone’s stopped campaigning in the midterm elections, Professor? Oh, how generous of you. You absolute saint.