Lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot about a Woody Allen’s sketch on Nazis, from the movie Manhattan.
At the opening of an exhibition, Isaac Davis, the protagonist, is having a chat with some other guests, and says: “Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? […] We should go down there, get some guys together, ya know, get some bricks and baseball bats, and really explain things to ’em.” At this point another guest replies: “There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times, just devastating.” And Isaac goes on: “ Whoa, whoa. A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point of it.” Then the other guest sticks to her believe that satire “is always better than physical force.” But Isaac closes on that, saying: “No, physical force is always better with Nazis.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that, lately. This sketch is indeed a perfect example of what I believe satire is: the conversation suggests violence over Nazis is better then satire but, exactly because this is a sketch, whereas physical violence over Nazis is named, it is never applied. Physical violence is suggested as a mean for making fun on them, because satire is too a nuanced mean for stupid Nazis to get it, and for being effective on them. I found it really clever.
But the problem Woody Allen raises, that is if satire is effective on Nazis, still stands and takes the shape, for me, of this broader and trickier question: Is satire ineffective on a certain kind of people?
Of course I believe in the power of satire – I’m a political cartoonist myself, I couldn’t think otherwise – in its power of making people think, pointing out the contradictions and ineptitudes of the targets.
On the other hand though, as Emily Nussbaum wrote on the New Yorker, it is exactly jokes and humour dispensers that helped a neo-fascist strongman to sit in one of the most important – if not the most important – chairs there are around. “Nazis were humourless,” she says, and “jokes were a superior way to tell the truth.” But now all has changed, and it is easy to hide behind a joke, or to justify having said or done something awful simply saying that it was meant as a joke no one got. Say I’m insulting, as Berlusconi did, another minister calling her a monkey for her African origins: a joke, dudes! Say I’m mocking a reporter with health problems imitating his moves in front of the world, and say I’m the USA President: c’mon, it’s a joke! No one should take these things so seriously, and if you do you’re a humourless Nazi.
The problem is that, going this way, making political cartoons becomes a drag. It is true that with people like Trump in the Oval Office there will be material for thousands of cartoons, but the problem he poses on the effectiveness of such cartoons is, I’m afraid, quite clear.
First of all, it is impossible to mock him.
Caricatures come too easy, because he is a real clown and people don’t care.
After all, mocking a person for his aspect is exactly what he is blamed for, so doing the same cannot really help – I’m surprised many cartoonists are not getting it. Concentrating on his soggy clothes, on his wavy hair, on his orange complexion, is useless. Many did this mistake, from The Simpsons to the New Yorker. He’s OK with that, everyone is OK with that, and rightly so.
But then, there are other things that are not OK. On those, satire should focus. And yet, you try to concentrate on his racism; or on his machismo; or on his xenophobia. He’s so adamant and blatantly open about them that it is impossible to make people realize he has crazy positions. His racism sticks out like his shiny hair, proudly enough to become a funny thing. His machismo is, because of his ugly aspect, awkward, and he looks like a loser. But a loser he is not, as he is the 45th President of the United States.
What he does, the danger he poses, is absolutely true.
Here we passed the realm of constructionism, where you bend reality to your believes, where what you say true becomes real. That was the position of the US administration under George W. Bush: America is a superpower and what we say is true is true, and you journalists have to comply to our standards of truth. Now we are in the realm of the fake news, where nothing – or everything – is true and so what’s the point of getting steamed up for some racism or some machismo? It can be fake. Power doesn’t shape reality, just messes up with it in a comical way. Jokes are a weapon at the service of the bad guys as well.
Moreover, in the realm of fake news, satire can be fake too – or it can be applied on fake believes. It is even useless to try to exercise satire on a fake character, overtly incapable of anything and still ok with that, and still voted by millions. It looks like there’s no shame in being dangerously ignorant and aiming to power. And this is, I came to think, the big failure of the liberal intelligentsia – among which political cartoonists are often counted.
And so, what do you do with someone, like Trump or like some European leaders like Farage, Le Pen, Salvini, that is beyond satire? Mine is a real question, because I don’t have an answer to that. Every time I confront myself with a topic I want to draw about, I find myself overwhelmed by the awareness that nothing will work, because we passed so many thresholds my imagination almost cannot cope. There is no grip to reality, and we seem to be finally ok with the monsters the sleep of our reason generated.
Again, a NewYorker cartoon summarizes how I feel.
I often think about that Woody Allen’s sketch. I really do. And I ask myself if going on with intelligence, trying to find other ways for confronting this brain tumour that is tearing civilization apart is the right way to go. Maybe these people are immune to that. But maybe they are not immune to bricks and baseball bats.
What? I’m just joking, dudes!