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On Satire, Prejudice & Intolerance
Commentary on the News
Friday, February 10, 2017
Alf Cengia

You say pot-ah-toe and I say pot-ay-toe. You say satire while I say prejudice.

I'm sure there are great university courses available for the initiated expounding the virtues and, perhaps, misuses of satire. However, I've never taken one and remain largely at the mercy of what the academics tell me.

Satire is often used as propaganda and the exercise of one's personal prejudices. What might be considered satire by a writer or performer of a skit might be classed as propaganda or prejudice by someone who strongly disagrees with it. For what it's worth, here's a definition:

"[Satire is] the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues."

Professor Charles Gruner has cited people like Gilbert Highett, Mary Collins Swabey and Edgar Johnson to arrive at a generally agreed upon purpose for satire. It is the business of ridiculing the vices and follies of mankind; it uses laughter to cure folly and punish evil, and according to Johnson:

"For satiric purposes, however, abuse has to be more than funny, it has to be damaging."

I'm glad he said that it had to be "more than funny" because I find many examples of satire annoying and unfunny. I should know given my own highly refined sense of humor.

Whatever the case, satire isn't rocket science. It is an effective polemic used as a change agent. Clever humor ridiculing beliefs or individuals tends to attract followings. People are often drawn to join groups and adopt ideas which are perceived to be smart or chic.

When I was a teenager, a friend gave us a hypothetical quiz he'd been given at his university. It went something like this: Robin Hood is imprisoned by the Sheriff of Nottingham. In order to release him, Maid Marian sleeps with the Sheriff. Upon discovering the circumstances of his release, Robin refuses to have anything to do with Marian. But Little John takes pity and runs off with her.

Participants were asked to place the characters in order of their moral conduct. I remember feeling pressure to not rate Robin too highly because I'd be considered "narrow minded." One had to rate Marian and John higher than Robin to be labeled "broad minded." I suspect that when the "word" got out it influenced many choices.

I bring all this up because of a recent brouhaha involving a satirical skit produced by Melbourne, Australia (my old haunt) based Juice Rap News which was featured in Russia Today (RT) News.

The satire was a polemic aimed at Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. At one point an actor depicts a Gaza Palestinian in terrorist garb making a statement about recognizing Israel only after it moves back to the 1967 borders. The next scene has him being blown up. The actor portraying Netanyahu claims it was in self defense, to which the narrator hold his finger out accusingly and responds, "No it wasn't!"

Make no mistake; this was a biased anti-Israel commentary. No doubt the performers did it for the Greater Good.

When the skit appeared on RT News, the Simon Wiesenthal Center complained that it broadcasted a string of typical anti-Semitic canards. In turn, RT News defended their action by appealing to the dangers of stifling free speech. It complained that:

'Media views that deviate from the mainstream are more often than not condemned and it seems RT has not been able to escape this trend. A Jewish rights group has branded RT “anti-Semite” over a satirical sketch lampooning Israel’s policy on Palestine.' (Emphasis mine)

Click on the video (which depicts the satirical skit) and, instead, one is directed to a six minute sermon, by RT News, on the dangers of political correctness stifling free expression.

An obviously offended RT News hunted down "author and media analyst", Danny Schechter for consolation. He said that this sort of criticism was ridiculous and "obviously written by people who don’t know anything about satire."

I wonder if his definition aligns with Edgar Johnson's, as cited above. Schechter added that:

“They’re so used to hearing voices that agree with them, it is very hard for them to accept a voice that questions them." (Emphasis mine)

Those poor sensitive creatures - how horrible!

Schechter and RT News are kidding themselves. Contra their assertions, Israel bashing is a mainstream phenomenon. They're not bravely pioneering new vistas in free thought. They're part of the noisy mob. Scratch the sentimental martyr-posture surface and you get prejudice. A cursory check of their website shows that RT has a history of polemics against Israel.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center's response is hardly stifling debate - it is participating in it. And given Jewish history (not just the Holocaust), they have every right to. Indeed, they have an obligation.

The SWC correctly observes that the satire reinforced canards against Israel. These attacks often overflow to Jews. This is one reason why some distance themselves from Israel. Anti-Semites gorge themselves on the type of vacuous material presented in that satirical skit.

Meanwhile, well-meaning organizations frantically plan the boycotting of Israel on the assumption that these canards are true. It's, perhaps, not a coincidence that I've participated in discussions that began with typical polemics directed at Israel, and which deteriorated into blatant racism.

The noble notion of defending the freedom of speech doesn't always work in the real world.

I went to some prominent anti-Israel Christian websites and conducted a search on Iran and Pastor Saeed Abedini. He isn't mentioned and neither is the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls. Iran came up under the context that it was wrong to demonize it by assuming it was seeking nuclear weapons.

Nothing was ever said on the subject of Christian persecution in any Islamic regime. I gather that it's not cool to criticize Iran. Israel is another matter.

Remember the Chick-fil-a debacle? When Dan Cathy expressed his personal views on traditional marriage he was pilloried in the media. One mayor threatened to ban the chain from within fifty miles of his city. A prominent Chicago politician suggested the franchise would be hard pressed to get an approval for a license in his city.

Various universities threatened to ban Chick-fil-a from their food courts because Cathy's personal belief did not align with their mottos. Yet some of these institutions are not averse to entertaining anti-Israel speakers and even handing out holocaust denying assignments.

RT News and Juice Rap News have a right to express themselves. In like fashion, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has a right to respond.

After all, it's about the freedom of speech - right?

Originally Written: May 23, 2014

About Alf Cengia

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