Freedom of Speech, Offense and Satire (Interview 1: Dan Geddes)

The first interview is with Glossy News Stalwart and editor of The Satirist, Dan Geddes. 

Question 1 (From Alexander Pope)

WALLACE:

Brian K.White of Glossy News once interviewed you about your work at The Satirist. The latter is a fairly highbrow publication; but to me, it appears to carry this sophistication and erudition with a somewhat detached pomo irony.

It’s arguably more ‘light’ and ‘readable’ than the word ‘highbrow’ would suggest, with all the connotations of dustiness and erudite irrelevance the latter term may evoke to some.

Yet, there are also some fairly dark specimens of satire on the site, such as Jonathan Zimmerman’s 666 Reasons to Like Donald Trump! 

So at The Satirist, do you consciously strive for an editorial balance between light-hued snark and sombre Swiftian tones, or does the texture of the satire somehow seem to arise spontaneously out of the existing ingredients?

DAN:

The Satirist may seem “highbrow” in comparison to some silly satire sites, but is consciously Borgesian with its literary artifacts and reviews of imaginary works, as well as criticism of serious books.

Satire is sometimes a genre, but more often it is a mode of writing that creeps into all sort of writing. My own satirical pieces have a tonal range from the silly to the straight-faced. Some of the variation in tone is intentional, to make it fit the piece; some of it comes from the desire for variety in my writing

Contributors bring even more variety to the mix.

Question 2 (From Voltaire)

WALLACE:

My reading over time (for what it’s worth!) suggests to me that The Satirist doesn’t seem to have a huge proportion of ‘edgy’ or ‘inflammatory’ material.

First of all, do you agree that this is the case?

Secondly, is this intentional, or is it just a contingent matter, attributable more to the kind of material generally submitted than to any kind of editorial taste?

DAN:

The Satirist is interested in pointing out the hypocrisy of the powerful — in punching up — more than in pushing the envelope of, say, moral tastes, by breaking taboos (if there are any left). I think that satirizing the powerful is intrinsically more cutting-edge and worthy of the name of satire than pieces that make fun of celebrities, or push some new sexual boundary. I think of “The 5 Stages of NSA Surveillance Grief” and similar pieces as fairly cutting-edge.

Satirizing someone doesn’t give you the right to offend them for its own sake with potential consequences. As a satirist, you should be trying to take the high-ground; so purely to be offensive is not high art or even good satire. It’s just inflammatory for its own sake, a sophomoric gesture.

Question 3 (From Jonathan Swift)

WALLACE:

On a similar note, would including highly contentious or controversial satire risk challenging the air of ironical poise and sophistication that may strike some readers as characteristic of The Satirist? From my perspective, Your Lord Jonathan Swift is a classic example of the Anglo-Irish monstrosity: half civilised and genteel English aristocrat and cleric, half unclad savage from the boglands. Can either nature or culture prevail over the other, or is this something of a zero-sum game?

DAN:

The satirical mode assumes many guises. Depending on the context there are many appropriate satirical modes that can be used to maximum effect. The virulence of the satire may invoke hysterical laughter and earn the satirical target years of obloquy; but the satirist may also appear to have been an extremist, someone without proper balance, who could give voice to injustice but whose overall perspective was too extreme to take seriously.

I don’t see the contentiousness of a satire as a product of a nature/culture struggle specifically. We are animals with language. And while each word and action could be said to be derived from a mix of nature and nurture, it’s possible to be much more specific than that about a satirist’s motives.

Question 4 (From Samuel Johnson… aye, Dr., if you please!)

WALLACE:

The most enlightened critics all know and agree (now do you refrain from sniggering there, young man!), but aye, it is a self-evident truth that many of the writings of famous satirists like Voltaire, Swift, Pope and Dryden was hardly free of a kind of ‘bite’ that in some ways may diverge strongly from the stereotype of the refined courtesy of the European upper crust.

Is it possible for modern satire stylists to combine a certain elegance and grace with their pointed barbs nowadays?

Could this perhaps be part of your vision for The Satirist?

DAN:

Kenneth Atchity, in A Writer’s Time, used the metaphor that good writing was like a good stew, with a proper balance of ingredients. If a satirist is working for many years than it is helpful to have a full cabinet of ingredients to draw from, to vary the flavor of the works. So the degree of refinement can vary.

Many satirical news writers strive for a headline that is also a punchline that itself evokes hysterical laughter. Ideally it goes viral and becomes a meme. The piece may flesh out the joke a bit, but doesn’t really develop it much beyond the punchline/headline.

My favorite satirical news pieces start out about one thing, but then move on to additional points or targets. These pieces develop. “Conspiracy Theorist Denies that Olive Oil is Really Extra Virgin” starts out about fake extra virgin olive oil, but also touches on the virginity of the Virgin Mary, and then develops into the conspiracy theorist’s denying at length that he believed that the U.S. moon landings were faked. But he knows too much about it. There’s also references to The Godfather.

I think verisimilitude is a very important part of satirical news pieces. They should read serious, but be ridiculous. Too many of them read ridiculous and are ridiculous, so it seems too easy, too raw, too much in the chatty tone of some would-be satirist.

My vision for The Satirist is for less fake news and more literary productions. More poems. More reviews of imaginary books and movies, more biographical sketches of imaginary writers and artists, if convincingly done.

Question 5 (From Elbert Hubbard)

WALLACE:

You’ve moved from the USA to Europe, so you’ve had experience of both sides of the pond. Would you broadly agree with the notion that many European countries have taken a more authoritarian (or at least restrictive) line on freedom of speech than the USA? Or is it worthwhile deconstructing this dichotomy a little bit?

On that note, do you think being anti-censorship is  identical with pro-speech,  or is it only a necessary and not a sufficient condition?

So is it possible to be anti-censorship but also, in some respects, anti-speech; or at least insufficiently pro-speech?

DAN:

There are certainly recent examples of European nations cracking down on free speech, whether it was the new laws enacted in France in 2015 after the Paris attacks, or especially in Germany with Merkel and the Boehnemann case, where the German satirist read a very insulting poem about President Erdogan of Turkey on TV. Erdogan pressed Germany to prosecute this satirist.

In the U.S. satire has a strong tradition of being lawful speech, but there are always exceptions. In the States political correctness is enforced first in the media, the universities especially, and of course the corporate sector, with the forces of government rarely needing to be invoked to suppress satire. People do self-suppress if they know where the line is and don’t want to challenge it. I think that calculation is always at work. How far do you want to go with it?
I think being pro free-speech has a high correlation with being anti-censorship. But it always comes to down to cases. You could imagine that people don’t want other people to say everything they want to say if they don’t agree with them. They would often rather that the other group would reconsider their opinion. But most people are against censorship, even of opinions they don’t like.

A lot of liberals or progressives believe themselves to be free speech, but if they really support censoring others for reasons of political correctness, then I would say (as a progressive) that they are insufficiently pro free speech.

Question 6 (From Lao She)

WALLACE:

A possibly related issue: do you think freedom of expression is purely a negative guarantee of freedom from intrusion and interference, or is freedom of expression something positive as well, that ought to be cultivated?

And is it possible to positively promote a culture of freedom of expression, without ending up with too many negative unintended consequences?

Some conservatives, progressives and anti-authoritarian progressives (rightly or wrongly) might worry that the task of promoting freedom of expression risks giving a blank check to governments and other institutions to control other people with some top-down regulation and manipulation, under the guise of assisting freedom of expression.

Is there a risk that those in power might end up empowering themselves more than anyone else?

DAN GEDDES:

Freedom of expression is a guarantee of freedom from interference, and thus what philosophers call a negative right: you don’t get anything other than left alone.

Governments have different goals with how much they want to foster freedom of expression, and how much they want to allow people to amplify their speech. Obviously many governments repress speech to varying degrees.

Those in power certainly do use various channels to propagate their positions, sometimes under the guise of freedom of expression. I think we are being propagated to in a far more organized fashion than many people imagine.

Question 7  (From La Caricature, 1830–1843)

WALLACE:

The Satirist is a publication where you often prefer to have ‘timeless’ rather than ‘ephemeral’ works. You are perhaps more selective than some other outlets in this regard.

As a ‘gatekeeper’ opening or shutting the door to the products of the imaginations of other people, do you ever feel  qualms or discomfort about not publishing more work,particularly from new,up-and-coming writers? Or are you able to be fairly dispassionate about this, knowing that if they persevere,these writers can one day achieve a good deal of what they want to achieve…

Even to the point of portraying the monarch as a pear?

DAN:

The Satirist is not trying to just crank out as many pieces as possible. There are many outlets for new writers, so I don’t feel like a gatekeeper at all. Nearly all submitted pieces are well-written, but they don’t all fit within the current range of what The Satirist publishes.

Thanks to Dan for this engaging with this rather dizzying gish-gallop of anarchic interviewers!

This is part of a series of interviews on Glossy News; there is going to be a book in 2018. More news on the Crowdfund in the coming week!

In the meantime, try sponsoring Wallace (One Tongue Johnny) on Patreon for just $1+ per month; or drop a few cents in my Paypal. I hope to spend some money on a nice cover, as well as at least some basic advertising.

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