Wednesday, July 3, 2019
Have you ever been at the zoo when the resident chimpanzees become excited? It’s an amazing cacophony of hooting, screaming, chest-beating, and teeth-baring aimed at displaying dominance and power in the troop. It’s very loud and very aggressive, and ultimately meaningless. It’s soon over, until the next moment someone rattles the cage.
A simple Darwinian analysis would conclude that chimpanzees are the inspiration and model for what has evolved into Twitter—a lot of hooting and chest-beating displays of dominance that amount to nothing. Though for the primates who live in the zoo, it certainly gives them something to do. Especially the bright orange orangutan who currently rules Twitter.
I, apparently, provoked the Twitterpated with a satiric piece I wrote for Tim Atkin’s wine website. It was a piece based on a simple premise. Robert Parker officially retired. It had been unofficial for some time, so the announcement wasn’t met with shock, but with countless, unfailingly dull, postmortems. The talentless rule the wine writing world these days, sad to say, and they were out in force. I wondered, as one does when one has a twisted comic mind, who might be positively happy to see Parker gone from the wine universe. Several names jumped to mind, but the one that resonated was Alice Feiring. After all, she wrote a book about saving the world from Parkerization, she made a career of insulting him and insisting he had ruined wine, why wouldn’t she be tickled that he was finally gone?
When I sat down to write the piece, another thought occurred to me. It’s an old comic and psychological trope: what we loathe is often what we secretly desire. From there, I had the beginnings of a piece. The rest came relatively easily.
Does satire have boundaries? That’s a question I’ve contemplated, and frequently been asked over the many years I’ve published HoseMaster of Wine™. Yet the answer is simple. No, satire does not have boundaries. Put any boundary in front of a satirist and his first move is to attempt to breach it. And, anyway, who would decide the boundaries? You? The great unwashed public? Me? And what sort of gerrymandering would go on? As it turns out, "Does satire have boundaries?" is a stupid question. Satire certainly needs boundaries, for without boundaries, the boundaries of good taste, the boundaries of fake morality, the boundaries of tradition and culture steeped in ignorance, satire would have no purpose and no comic effect. In essence, satire needs your boundaries.
Satire thrives in a free society, and is necessary to it. Satire is profane and tasteless, ribald and outrageous, fearless and uninhibited, angry and unapologetic. It is often said that satire’s job is to speak truth to power. I don’t see it that way. In my mind, satire’s aim is to take another person’s truths, or the truths of a group, and dismantle them comically. Hold those truths up for ridicule. The self-righteous hate to be mocked. They immediately play the victim, and profess indignant outrage that anyone could belittle them when they’re so clearly beyond reproach. This is absolute catnip for comedy writers.
Writing about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down a law that banned foul language from trademarks, Justice Samuel Alito, with whom I almost never agree, wisely wrote, “Viewpoint discrimination is poison to a free society.” The more I think about that quote, the more I admire it.
I’ve never met Alice Feiring. As far as I know, I’ve never even been in the same city at the same time with Ms. Feiring. I don’t care even the least bit about her. Nor do I hate her. As I said, I don’t know her. Several well-meaning and well-known people wrote to me on her behalf after my recent piece about her. Each of them used the word “fragile” when describing her, as though she is a character in a Tennessee Williams play, a Folle Blanche DuBois.That’s rather sad, but it also implies, of course, that I shouldn’t lampoon her mercilessly. Which, to my mind, is profoundly sexist. I shouldn’t write about her because she’s a woman? Because as a woman, she’s “fragile?” I didn’t lampoon her because she’s a woman, her sex is unimportant to me. I lampooned her because she claims a moral high ground when it comes to wine, and I learned a long time ago that people claiming a moral high ground do so only to look down on the rest of us. You may think that’s fine, you may be one of her unquestioning sycophants, or you may be one of those Knights in Shining Armor who defends her with your imaginary honor, but I am not. My instinct is to take those folks on the moral high ground, no matter who they are, and bring them down to earth. Alice Feiring is hardly Rosa Parks or Desmond Tutu or Gandhi. She’s a wine writer. We all occupy one of the lower circles of Hell.
Feiring’s book about Parkerization is filled with sexual references and stories about ex-lovers. In my mind, that makes her sexuality fair game for a parody. In fact, it is fair game for parody. That I can mimic her writing voice effectively is testament to her gifts as a writer. She has a very strong literary voice. It’s damn near impossible to parody a lousy writer. It’s easy to parody a talented writer. They have style, they understand pace and tone, and they write stories in a distinctive way that is particular to them. After I skewered Terry Theise, he wrote me a very funny and gracious note about how painful it was to read himself being lampooned. I told him what I’ve written here about Feiring. It’s a tribute to his talent that he’s easy to parody.
So I wrote the piece. Tim Atkin MW foolishly published the piece. He can’t help it, he’s my most fervent and eloquent supporter, for which I’m very grateful. The Twitterchimps went berserk, or so I’m told. I didn’t read a single word written about me anywhere on social media. Well, to be more accurate, I didn’t read a single word written about the HoseMaster on social media. In truth, the piece was written by a fictional character, the HoseMaster of Wine™, who I created, about a fictional voice Alice Feiring created in her books. I didn’t “attack” Alice Feiring. The HoseMaster lampooned the Voice of Alice Feiring. That’s a big difference. Sadly, the moral police out there in the Twitterverse don’t care about subtlety or viewpoint. They care about hooting and screaming about their own self-righteous causes in an attempt to change the world to suit their liking. Like chimps everywhere, they do this by hurling their own feces at you. I don’t mind, I’ve thrown plenty of my own in my time. It’s all part of the fun.
I didn’t read or react to any of what was written about me because I know that if folks go to a lynching and there’s no body to tar and feather, they quickly lose interest. And if I’m the body, what the hell am I doing there? I heard about the fracas from friends. And as the Twitterchimps grew louder and did more teeth-baring, I began to receive a large volume of personal emails from people supporting me. All of them were from people famous in the wine business in their own right, and most of them were women. I know who I am. I do have boundaries as a satirist, personal boundaries that I would not impose on any other satirist. I go after everyone and anyone. I always have. I don’t see Alice Feiring as a fragile woman, and I didn’t treat her as such; I see her as a self-righteous, humorless blowhard claiming the moral high ground. Why wouldn’t I try to dismantle her truths?
When it comes to my work, I keep two lists in my head. One list is of those who like, perhaps even admire, my comedy and satire. The other list is of those who hate what I do. It matters to me who is on each list, it matters a great deal. We are judged by our enemies as often as we are judged by our friends. I’m quite proud of my list of admirers, but I am even prouder of my list of detractors. It’s a long list of some of the worst fools in the wine business. Were the two lists to switch places, I would be distraught.
One of my strongest assets as a satirist is my thick skin. I don’t care what anyone thinks of me, with a few exceptions. After the piece was posted, and before all the hooting and chest-beating, my wife came to me unsolicited to tell me she had loved the piece. She almost never does this. As it turns out, she’s a woman. She found the idea that it was sexist absurd. Hers is the only opinion I care about.