The Limits of Satire

I remember the first Grand Theft Auto game. It was a little shareware title that came out about fifteen years ago with a hilarious premise, a simple idea and great execution. There were no complex philosophical questions. I don’t remember any satire. I don’t remember any story. I just remember the thrill of sitting at my prized Pentium desktop computer with my brother next to me, getting in fast cars and crashing them into everything on the screen, mostly other cars. And people.

Of course, the people weren’t real. It was top down, so all you really saw was shoulders and heads. Apart from the context it might as well have been Pac-Man eating dots. To us, as kids, it was great fun because running over fake computer people is really, really funny. You get to do something that is completely unacceptable in real life and nobody gets hurt. The entire appeal of it is the fact that it’s unacceptable, or undesirable to do such a thing in real life. If you could drive around hitting cars and people with impunity in real life, why would anyone want to play a game based around the same activity? The other side of that coin is the question: if it’s fun to do it in a game, would it be even more fun in real life?

But this isn’t the question I’m interested in. I’m interested in understanding what it is, if anything, Grand Theft Auto V’s developer, Rockstar, is trying to say to us–not necessarily just about violence, but about American culture.

In the modern GTA games, the entire world is a send-up. The major landmarks of modernity are all to be found, but darkly twisted. Fox News is Weazel News, the NASDAQ is BAWSAQ, the FBI is represented by the unrepentantly corrupt FIB, and the in-car radios in every car are rife with advertisements that take every social trend to ridiculous extremes. The jokes are many, and there’s little to no subtlety in their delivery or punchlines. There is a fictional superhero in this universe called Impotent Rage, who is every stereotype of all liberal privileged-white-guilt hypocrisy. In Impotent Rage’s TV show (yes, you can sit down and watch TV in the game), he manages to lampoon both liberals and conservatives in a sequence where he destroys a group of environmentalists who are protesting an oil corporation for “fracking,” misunderstanding them to be protesting against homosexuality.

It’s clever, about as clever as Rockstar ever gets, and amusing, but it’s never particularly satisfying. I’m having trouble putting my finger on why, but I think it has something to do with the pervasive nature of the satire.

Thinking about it took me back to an article I read some years ago by Douglas Haddow that discussed hipsters as heralding the “end of western civilization.” Hyperbolic, to be sure, and written back when it was still interesting to speak derisively about hipster culture, but the point it made–that there’s a fine line to be walked by counter-culture commentary, and that by overdoing it we run the risk of subversion crashing into nihilistic narcissism–is relevant to my struggle to find some meaning behind the satire of Rockstar’s opus. I want to quote from the article, and note that “hipsterdom” could easily be replaced with “GTA V”:

“With nothing to defend, uphold or even embrace, the idea of ‘hipsterdom’ is left wide open for attack. And yet, it is this ironic lack of authenticity that has allowed hipsterdom to grow into a global phenomenon that is set to consume the very core of Western counterculture.”

Haddow is making the argument that the appropriation of art or aesthetic by a culture which cannot appreciate the heritage of its spoils strips them of their meaning. Star Trek brilliantly exposes the horror of such cultural annihilation via the Borg, a collective intelligence made up of drones bent solely upon consuming all biological life. In the Star Trek universe, being assimilated by the Borg is a fate worse than death–not only are the essential parts of your personality subsumed by the collective intelligence, but your body then serves as a tool to force others into the same state. The Borg and hipsters alike are the average of all civilizations and people they assimilate, which is another way of saying they are nothing, they are meaningless, they exist simply for their own sake, their own mechanistic preening, and you are just another item to be added to their collection.

Satire, to me, is reductio ad absurdum, shining a critical light on reasoning or circumstance by stripping away the bits that hide the true character of our pretenses. But what happens when we apply the brush of satirical absurdity to everything in sight? As Haddow ably pointed out, this type of cultural consumption rapidly loses any meaning. We stop caring about what it’s saying. Once we’ve cut everything down to its most ridiculous aspects, the only thing left to do is satirize the critical process itself, and then we’re forced to wonder about the entire point of the exercise. Ironic detachment is the tool of choice when we want to comment on something without actually saying anything, but it’s the surest way to cry wolf and find yourself ignored and irrelevant.

Coming back around to the violence of the experience in a game like GTA V, it’s obvious that for many, including myself, the appeal of such violence is not in the rehearsal of despicable acts against thinking and feeling human beings, but in the novelty and thrill of simulated activities we’d never want to actually engage in in real life. When asking questions about the effect of video game violence on human behavior, we often fail to recognize that the attraction comes not from the similarity of such stylized violence to real-life violence, but in the safety and insulation of the vast gulf of abstraction that actually separates the two. Gamers, by and large, when confronted by too-real depictions of violence in their games, recoil with horror. For evidence of this, look no further than reactions to titles like last year’s Spec Ops: The Line or even the graphic and impactful torture sequence in GTA V itself. There is meaning to be found behind the bloody façade of GTA V. Rockstar recognizes this, and makes it sharply manifest by the harrowing emptiness and dysfunction of the story’s main characters that results from a lifetime of sociopathic feloniousness. Sadly, the heft of the violence doesn’t carry over to the game’s ubiquitous social commentary, which rarely rises above the level of “yeah, that’s pretty silly, isn’t it?”

The friction between fiction and reality that we find so satisfying in the action of the game isn’t as readily found in the catch-all net cast by Rockstar’s farcical take on Los Angeles and American culture in general. This seems to be what happens when you refuse to take sides and are satisfied with simply taking haphazard aim, shooting, and moving to the next target. After a while we stop nodding our heads and just shrug, thinking, “And?”

Is American Journalism Dead?

2013-09-27 Carney
Jay Carney: Just one of many journalists to decide it’s more liberating to cast aside the pretext of impartiality and work for The Man directly.

I think I might be fading into that fabled silent majority of American conservatives. Where I used to get into heated debates with folks in my cohort about their liberal beliefs, I mostly now just shake my head and try to get back to earning a living. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

But I still see stories, now and then, that just irritate me to no end. Here’s a collection. First, there’s all the journalists who jump back and forth between journalism and working for the Obama administration. The Washington Times gives us some numbers: “The current count of press turncoats varies from a low of 15 reported by The Daily Beast to a high of 24 as reported by The Atlantic.” Then there’s old battlehorses like Bob Woodward or, more recently, Seymour Hersh showing up as the only guys willing to go to bad against the Obama administration (short of conservative pundits, of course). Woodward is famous for covering Watergate and Hersh is famous for covering My Lai and Abu Ghraib. Now Hersh says Obama is worse than Bush and castigates the NYT for “carrying water for Obama than I ever thought they would.”

Seymour Hersh
Ordinarily truth tellers who uncover not one but *two* major cover ups of military crimes are lionized by the left, but Seymour Hersh is another one of those erstwhile heroes relegated to “crazy uncle” status for turning on President Obama.

And then, to give a specific example, here’s an obscenely bad story from CNN purporting to do some “mythbusting” about the impact of Obamacare.

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Aussie Pig Steals Beer, Gets Drunk, Fights Cow


From The Independent:

A booze-pilfering drunken feral pig has caused chaos by running amok at an Australian campsite and starting a fight with a cow.

The belligerent porker went on a drunken bender after stealing and drinking three six-packs of beer that had been left out by campers at the DeGrey River campsite in Port Hedland, Australia.

In the predictable series of events that followed the animal went on to ransack rubbish bin bags to find some late-night snacks before starting a fight with an innocent eyewitness cow.

Following the boarish rampage the pig decided to swim out into the middle of a river before collapsing drunk under a tree and falling asleep.

Gadling adds this detail of the fight with the cow:

And just like anyone 18 beers in at a rural dive bar, the pig got big-headed and decided to start a fight with a cow, resulting in the cow chasing the pig around a car.

Oh, Australia.

Brave Toddler Confronts Terrorist in Kenya

2013-09-24 Bravery in Kenya

I have been following the horrific news from Kenya closely, but not too closely. Close enough to know what is happening, but so close that I’m overcome with the sadness and horror of what is going on. I think people should know about the story, however, because I’m not seeing very much coverage yet. The short version is that over a dozen armed terrorists stormed a mall in Kenya, executing non-Muslims (identified by who could answer questions such as “What is the name of the mother of Mohammad?”), and fighting stubbornly against Kenyan attempts to retake the mall. That combined with the relatively low death toll (tragically, 62 deaths so far is low relative to what it could have been) lead many analysts to believe that the primary goal of the attack is to drag it on as long as possible. Since the crisis is now in its fourth day and witnesses report ongoing gunfire and explosions, that aspect of the plan appears to be a success. Individual stories of survivors and victims are now trickling out, including a British ex-marine with a concealed handgun who helped 100 unarmed citizens escape and this heart-rending tale of a 4-year old boy standing up to the terrorist who shot his mother. From The Independent:

After apparently seeing his mother shot in the thigh, young Elliott Prior is said to have confronted the gunman shouting “you’re a bad man, let us leave”. Incredibly the gunman in understood to have taken took pity on Elliott and his six-year-old sister Amelie, giving the pair a Mars bar each and allowing them and their mother to leave the chaotic shopping mall in the middle of the terror attack.

The boy’s mother is a hero, too. She took two more children (besides her own) as she escaped. This contrasts with stories of adults who climbed over frightened children “like animals” to escape the gunfire in the initial attack on a children’s cooking contest held in the mall. The tragedy is still unfolding, and I’ll be praying for the survivors and families of the victims.

Monday Mormon Mormonism: Aspirational Obedience

2013-09-23 Obedience

I had a conversation with my mum yesterday where I mentioned this idea of “aspirational obedience” that I’d been thinking about. She said it would make a good post, and I like to do what my momma tells me to do, so today’s post at Times And Seasons is on that topic. I also threw in some related concepts, like the idea that guilt is usually a symptom of pride and the relationship between goal-setting and humility.

Comments are off on this post, but y’all can contribute to the original post at T&S if you feel so inclined.

The Importance of Economic Freedom in 6 Graphs

The Fraser Institute recently released its Economic Freedom of the World: 2013 Annual Report, which reveals the continual decline of the U.S. (#2 in 2000, now #17). Some may object to the term “economic freedom,” seeing it only as a pretty-sounding Trojan Horse for the evil bourgeois system of capitalism.

Guess what: it is.

But rhetoric is important (as economist Deirdre McCloskey has explained) and “economic freedom” is, in my view, a more accurate description. And far from living up to its caricature (i.e. a system of power and greed that exploits the poor), economic freedom–as shown by the graphs below–does more to raise the living standards of all involved, rich and poor alike, than any other economic system yet discovered. Descriptions are at the bottom of the graphs.

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Meet the New Catholicism, Same as the Old Catholicism

2013-09-21 Pope Francis

The Internet was all abuzz this week with news that Pope Francis had announced bold, sweeping changes to Catholic teachings on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Except, of course, that he hadn’t. Even a little bit.

This is the second time that Pope Francis has issued statements that amount to basically restating fundamental Christian theology, and has been met with awestruck praise from the mainstream press for revolutionizing the Catholic faith. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pleased (even as a non-Catholic) that everyone seems to love the New Catholicism so much. I’m just scratching my head because it is actually the same as the Old Catholicism.

Of course that’s a bit of an exaggeration: Pope Francis’s tone is markedly different. But that doesn’t actually justify all the “did you hear what the Pope just said!?!?!” coverage that is coming out, because the secular press is just as incapable of understanding the New Catholicism as it was of understanding the Old Catholicism. It hated the one and loves the other, but it understands neither

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