Beyoncé, Satire, and the Problems of Emotion

In case you haven’t heard the news yet,
congressional Republicans are calling on President Obama to resign after speculations that Beyoncé may have lip synced the national anthem at the Inauguration. Or so reports Andy Borowitz’s excellently satirical piece in the New Yorker yesterday. Give it a read; the article is hilarious. Borowitz’s wit was first brought to my attention, however, by a friend of mine who thought that the article was a serious news article (or rather violently hoped that it wasn’t), and who posted a very angry status on Facebook about Rand Paul and other Republicans, containing no less than four question marks and one elipsis (punctuation is the usual marker of strong emotion among my rather tame Facebook friends). An internet search reveals similar reactions from other people. And so, after I reassured my friend that the article was, thankfully, fiction, I thought to myself “What a shame! Andy Borowitz wrote this lovely article to make people laugh, and instead it’s making people very very angry. What went wrong?”

The problem with Andy Borowitz’s piece is a problem that’s fundamental to the genre of satire. Political satire of Borowitz’s sort creates its humor by constructing what’s essentially a reductio ad absurdum argument. The goal is to take your target’s line of thought, and carry it so far that it cannot provoke anything but ridicule. You have to create a situation that is at the same time totally impossible, but also strangely plausible. The impossible part is very important because satire usually deals with people doing or saying things that it is very very bad for people to do or say. If we know that it didn’t actually happen, it’s hilarious. If we think that it did actually happen, it’s enraging. Consider, for example, how differently we might react to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal if there had been cases in recent history of people actually selling their children for food! The problem with Borowitz’s article is that it is too believable. He takes a far right line of thought and pushes it into ridiculous territory, but the far right itself has done that repeatedly, and they weren’t writing satire. Think about the birthers. Think about our friend Mr. Akin. One can all too easily imagine a few fringe conservatives making the sort of arguments Borowitz puts in the mouth of Rand Paul.

The lesson I take away from all of this is that it is important to remember that emotions, like anger or humor, occur not in the words of a text, but in the heart of the audience. The audience becomes angry, or sad, or happy, or contemptuous, or calm, or violent, not because of what someone said, but because of how what was said fits into the context of the audience’s own past experiences. In short, know your audience.


Obama’s Alliteration

President Obama gave his second inaugural address today. I watched the speech with a couple friends of mine. After the speech one of my companions turned to me and asked me what I thought about it rhetorically. I told him that I thought it was one of the best speeches Obama has ever given, and that the speech writer’s use of alliteration was particularly clever and effective. My friend was surprised and told me that he hadn’t noticed any alliteration. This, of course, just proves the writer’s true mastery. As Aristotle says, “Authors should compose without being noticed and should seem to speak not artificially but naturally. (the latter is persuasive, the former the opposite; for people become resentful, as at someone plotting against them, just as they are at those adulterating wines.)”1 And so, I thought it might be fun to take a look at two of my favorite sentences from the speech:

(1) “Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.” (4:18)

On paper, the alliteration here doesn’t look like much. Watch the video, however, and you’ll see that this phrase is clearly meant to stand out. For one thing it’s been placed at the end of the period (“period” in rhetoric meaning the completion of a thought, not the punctuation point, although they often coincide). For another thing the alliteration itself is just so good. In addition to the initial ‘c’ sound, the consonant clusters ‘nst’ and ‘nts’ in “constants” resonate very nicely with the ‘ct’ in “character.” I could say “constants in our character” all day without getting tired of the sound!

What is Obama doing here? In case you missed it, “constants in our character,” is a rather clever allusion to Martin Luther King, particularly this line from the “Dream Speech”: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”2 This same line was more directly referenced in the first paragraph of Obama’s speech, as a description of “the promise of our democracy”: “We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.” MLK is all over Obama’s public speeches. In fact, if you want a fun evening at home, read MLK’s I Have a Dream, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the “Preamble” of the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, and then watch any major Obama speech, and try to count all the references to these texts.

(2) We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. (13:45)

Aren’t the ‘S’s lovely? In the “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall” phrase, we see an excellent example of the classic use of alliteration to emphasize and set apart a tricolon. That the speech write managed to come up with three place names that symbolize their respective civil rights movements and all start with ‘s’ is quite remarkable. I wonder how long it took him? Also notice the rhyming of “Stonewall” and “Mall.” Not terribly significant, but I do think it helps with the rhythm of delivery. This is just a fabulous sentence. Read it aloud to yourself and feel the swell of noble sentiment.

One last word and why I think this speech is one of Obama’s best: Cato is quoted as saying “Rem tene, verba sequunter” (Grasp the idea, the words will follow). This speech displays the unmistakable signs of careful craft, hardly Cato’s ideal, but when you hear it, you can easily grasp Obama’s idea, so much so that the craft disappears entirely behind the thought. That is very difficult to do.

Here’s the full address:

1. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), 3.2.2.