Thursday, October 27, 2016

EPHEMERA: The Malcolm Gladwell Paradox

A number of people sent me a link to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called, “The Satire Paradox.” Richard Hemming MW also mentions the same podcast in a piece he wrote for Jancis Robinson MW, a piece where I also receive a brief mention. So, of course, I listened to Gladwell’s podcast.

There isn’t a duller subject to write about than satire. E.B. White famously, and accurately, said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Gladwell’s podcast is forty minutes long but seemed to last several generations of drosophila. Only the examples of satire broke the dullness. I can hear you saying what goes around comes around. Yeah, I get that.

Gladwell’s point, and the point of the experts he quotes, the “paradox” of satire in the title, is that satire is essentially toothless, that it speaks truth to power, but doesn’t actually influence anyone, change minds. So, exactly like podcasts. I happen to agree with all of that. Gladwell also says that we live in a Golden Age of Satire. Are you as amazed as I am at how many Golden Ages we’re currently living in? It’s the Golden Age of Wine Writing, too, I hear. And the Golden Age of Wine as well. Every time I hear the phrase “Golden Age,” I automatically assume the writer knows nothing about the subject. I live in the Golden Age of Skepticism.

Listening to Gladwell’s podcast (and I know nothing about Gladwell, have never read any of his books or listened to any of his podcasts before this), I began to realize that Gladwell knows absolutely nothing about satire, except what he’s read about it. Yet I agree with his conclusions. Satire is toothless, and does not change minds. But Gladwell misses the point.

I’ve been writing HoseMaster of Wine™ for five years, in this incarnation, and another three before that. I write satire. Or, as W. Blake Gray once said when writing about my disagreement with Riedel (and this is my favorite quote about me that I’ve ever read), “Washam, who claims to be a satirist…” That always makes me laugh. Anyhow, in all the years I’ve been writing wine satire, it was never my intention to influence anyone, to change anyone’s mind about the wine business or a wine critic. I don’t care about that. And I don’t think anyone who writes satire actually believes he can alter the course of human events. We do address the coarse of human events, but that’s slightly different.

Satire is often, and predictably, said to be a way of speaking truth to power. Perhaps. I’m slightly uncomfortable with that definition. Satire is more often a way of speaking truth to the ignorant. Perhaps that’s the same thing; I might concede that. But “truth” is a slippery concept in satire. Every reader brings their own truth to a piece. And they find funny in the piece only where they agree with it, almost never where they don’t. No one reads satire to discover truth, they read satire to laugh, and to laugh at other people they think are stupider, or more arrogant, or more powerful, or more important than they are.

Power, unfortunately, is unable to hear truth very well. So only an idiot would spend his life trying to speak truth to power. That’s like debating Donald Trump. A yuge waste of time. Sometimes the glass is half-empty, and sometimes the glass is half-empty. Satire depends upon viewing the world from a skewed perspective. It tries to show truth by glancing at hypocrisy and hubris and evil out of the corner of the eye, or by exaggerating its victim’s weaknesses and/or foibles to make them laughable. The aim isn’t to change a reader’s mind, but to make him laugh at the absurdity of the human condition. There’s no paradox in that.

This is not to say that satire isn’t a powerful weapon. It can be. Except that it’s a weapon rendered harmless when the object of the attack plays along. Smart and powerful people play along. It’s safe to say I’ve insulted just about everyone in reach in the wine business, lampooned them mercilessly, but, while fun, it doesn’t succeed unless the “victim,” reacts in a negative way. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Georg Riedel. Smart people understand satire’s ultimate impotence. Others do not, and feel the need to respond. Which, of course, plays into the satirist’s very weak hand. If Riedel doesn’t threaten to sue me (and Tim Atkin MW), I have far fewer readers, far less influence (which ain’t much anyway), and I probably never get invited to speak at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium, never meet Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, never get asked to write for the Wine Advocate’s new website, and more than likely never win a Roederer Wine Writing Award. So maybe it was Riedel’s reaction to the HoseMaster of Wine™ that changed minds and influenced people, in a way satire cannot. And doesn’t intend to.

Gladwell’s podcast is harmless. But it’s certainly not insightful (which, I hear, is how people think of Gladwell, that he’s a perceptive thinker). The premise is false, and so the conclusions become rather useless. Satire is written not to influence people or create change, but to make people laugh, occasionally make them think, and often make them uncomfortable. It may speak truth to power, but that’s simply a starting point, a way in to a place where it can make people laugh at the world, at the constant foolishness of men, at the hypocrisy and lies that take up too much of our time and consciousness. As a weapon of mass destruction, it’s as toothless as a guppy. Satirists don’t want power, Malcolm, satirists despise power. We reap the benefits of powerlessness. Laughter and courage.

There’s great joy in writing satire and making people laugh, making them squirm. Satire intends to be raucous, often tasteless, it intends to be outrageous and fearless. You cannot pull punches and be good at it. It requires a mean-spiritedness that is tempered with truth and laughter. It’s an outlet for the outlier, a way of trying to make sense of a world gone irredeemably mad. That’s enough of a burden to hang on satire. To see its goal as changing the world, influencing people, is simply, well, laughable.


AmitiesJerome said...

Ron, you hold up a wonderful mirror to all that is pretentious about wine. Thanks.

Thomas said...

On Gladwell's writing: while he is a thinker, in my view, what he writes falls into the category of pop pap, pseudo-scientific stuff.

On truth: I've learned from journalism (and from jury duty) there is no such thing. Only facts.

On satire: you are real gooooood at it.

James Biddle said...

The bad news is that we're in "a world gone irredeemably mad;" the good news is that the law of unintended consequences provides a never-ending commentary on that madness. Keep the pencil sharp!

Charlie Olken said...

And while it may not be your goal to influence the course of human events, satire can and does do that from time to time.

No, you won't get Riedel to pull back on all the various stemware he makes. You may not even influence many of the gullible in their beliefs that they need a half dozen or more shapes of wine glasses.

But, maybe you do. And maybe you cause folks to rethink the 100-point rating scale or their worship of MS and MW as god-marks of wine.

To me, satire is sometimes just about laughter, but it also can be about serious commentary on the foibles you perceive. In that way, and when it occurs, it is nothing less than an editorial. And while very few single editorials change the world, some point the way, and some reinforce the way and some are just pissing in the wind because the satirist can.

You write very good satire. I think you sell the genre short--and you sell yourself short.

Unknown said...

Ron - Take the case of Al Franken; Al was a very sharp satirist in his pre-MN-senator days. It made him rich, after SNL made him famous. Oddly, it was Rush Limbaugh (the 'big fat idiot') and Fox's Roger Ailes ('fair and balanced') that sent his books to the NYT bestseller list. I think his prominence as a satirist made him poised to actually have an impact, but alas he wanted to get something 'done' and he ran for the senate. While I like his political work, I prefer the satirist version of Franken.

I think you would be a lousy politician but the wine world needs (and deserves) you. Gladwell needs you.

Mark Rader said...

Brilliant, Ron. So much so that I'm inspired to go out and buy a bunch of Reidel wine glasses!

Marcia Macomber said...

Happy Belated Birthday, Ron!

What Charlie and Thomas said...

While it may be true that satire alone doesn't change the world, but humor does! And you always make us laugh. And we do need to laugh (particularly during this dismal electoral season)! And it makes us all keep coming back for more every Monday and Thursday (even when we don't have time to comment) because you change our day.

...for the better! :-D

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Common Taters,

After I listened to Gladwell's podcast, I couldn't stop thinking about how misguided and silly it was. Made me wonder if others in fields he pontificates about also think he's off-base. Also, I haven't written much EPHEMERA lately, and so I wanted to resurrect that. I was spouting off, is what it boils down to.

My heart is in writing comedy. Satire is the most demanding genre of comedy, I think. It can have influence, and can effect some change, but only rarely. But if it pointedly makes people cringe, makes them uncomfortable, then it's gold. I only wish I were much better at it.

Thanks to everyone for the kind words.

Bob Henry said...

An element of satire not overtly mentioned is: public shaming, which can lead to public behavior change. (Unseen nefarious private behavior can still go unchanged.)

We no longer have public stockades, but being pilloried in the media is a powerful weapon.

The publicized unguarded and lascivious comments by a contemporary high public office aspirant, recorded on a Hollywood promotional tour bus, being the latest example.

Eric V. Orange said...

Hey Hose, drive-by.


Daniel said...

The best satire works because the person or group either don't get it, or don't know how to respond, or just don't really care what anyone thinks. If they freak out and overreact then it usually makes it not funny anymore (see: Riedel)...just tragic.
Keep poking them with a stick, it is needed in the golden age of _____________(choose your favorite).

Ziggy said...

political bullsh*t?