Making Light in Dark Days

By Becky O'Malley
Friday August 03, 2012 - 07:47:00 AM

Well, it’s been a hard month, hasn’t it? In just a few weeks, we’ve lost three of the most satisfyingly snarky writers in the world, people who knew how to use clever, funny words to breathe some fresh air into the murky depths of the socio-political miasma. 

Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel Heartburn was written at a time when women were just starting to believe that they could do everything—have a sensational career, plus the sexy husband, cute kids and suburban lifestyle, and do it all with the utmost panache. The book was, among other things, a hilarious send-up of her ex-husband, investigative reporter Carl Bernstein, whose Watergate expose was the journalism sensation of the era. Self-important reporters of his type, taking themselves dead seriously, were everywhere in the go-go eighties, much to the annoyance of both their wives and the women who worked with them. 

But what I loved most about that book was the t-shirt that the beleaguered heroine either had or wished she had—I can’t remember which—which said on the back “I’ve Resigned from the Job of General Manager of the Universe.” I’ve always coveted and still need one of those, along with the resolution which it announces. 

The title of one of her more recent books, “I Feel Bad about My Neck”, made good fun of the mundane preoccupations which go along with aging—and it’s a shame that she won’t be able to guide us further along the road to real old age. We’ll miss her. 

Alexander Cockburn is another lively voice which has been silenced too soon. Like Nora Ephron, he was part of a witty family. He was more conventionally political than she was—conventional in the sense that having strong opinions and expressing them directly were central to his cultural identity. 

His ideas themselves, however, were anything but conventional. The family tradition was old-style Marxism, but Alex, who had been exposed to an excellent ruling-class education in England, had some unusual embellishments on the classic model. For example, in his last years he refused to believe that climate change would be a problem, and seemed to think that the whole idea had been concocted to burden the working man. When The Nation drastically reduced the space available for his pieces in the magazine, it got a whole lot duller. (Conn Hallinan has a full obituary in this issue.) 

Gore Vidal was able to live more than a decade beyond his biblical allotment of three score and ten. He rejected the major portion of his own ruling-class education, skipping college in favor of launching into a writing career which took every available form. Contentious to the end, his best efforts were pointed essays on his views of current follies, though his novels and plays enjoyed success as well. 

And he polemicized in person too, often in Berkeley. I saw him deliver an impassioned lecture here on some combination of video cassettes and political campaigns, though I can no longer remember exactly what the plan was. I wrote him a letter with my own opinion on the topic (can’t remember exactly what that was either) and he sent me a lengthy handwritten response. Unfortunately, his handwriting was so bad I couldn’t make head or tail of it. But I realize now that he anticipated YouTube, which is a more effective means of spreading ideas through media than video cassettes were. 

Who will take their place? Who’s around who can combine satire with analysis? 

An obvious candidate is Jon Stewart, for those who think the revolution might be televised. He doesn’t offer the long in-depth kind of graphic communication that Gore Vidal envisioned, but he provides quick hits for those whose time or attention span is limited. It seems that he increasingly relies on production gimmicks more than on clever use of language, but then again who could outdo the politicians themselves at saying hilarious things? 

Jon’s last few segments on Mitt the Twit’s foray into foreign parts were funny just because of the clips of what Romney himself actually said on camera. I was reminded of Tom Lehrer’s claim that he had to give up satire when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Prize. It’s getting harder and harder to upstage the main actors. 

Then there’s the problem that what looks like a joke turns out to be reality. That would be the philosophical ideas of the likes of Congressperson Paul Ryan, profiled by Ryan Lizzo in the latest New Yorker. Like the White Queen, he seems to specialize in believing impossible things: 

“ 'I can't believe that!' said Alice. 'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'  

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said 'one can't believe impossible things.'  

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  

What’s called the Ryan Road Map is the kind of proposal that makes satire increasingly difficult. It’s got many more than six impossible things in it, and yet Ryan believes in it, and has persuaded a majority of his colleagues in the House of Representatives, mostly Republicans, but also a few Democrats, to believe in it. 

How do you make fun of that, especially when if the election goes the wrong way, they’ll be in charge of the country? Trying times—it's getting harder and harder to laugh.