After reading Harrington's World in the latest issue of Progressive Farmer (yes, even humor writers check out the competition), I was baffled. It's not online (that I could find, anyway) as my articles are, but I was frankly blown away by the tone of the article.
Please find a copy and read it yourself, but my lingering impressions are attempts at risibility from the Guatanamo Bay prison and waterboarding. Of course, I'm a limp-wristed lefty who opposes farm subsidies and favors reinstituting the draft, but...
I was appalled.
As a veteran of a war so unsupported by the public I was reluctant to fly home in uniform to get married (an airline requirement for the fare I could afford), I found references to the subversion of habeus corpus (imprisonment without charges) and torture in the military to be an overreach into repugnance. To appear in a farm magazine was even more startling.
At the same time, as a competitor, I first considered, "Whoa, John's got nothing this month." Lord knows I've been there. It's pretty well documented that writing humor is a young man's game. It is also very possible that John's brilliance simply escapes me because he is a competitor.
But after some quality time in Zippy the Car getting to London, ON to speak tomorrow, I struggled to another conclusion. This particular epiphany had begun during my presentations this year, and Harrington's work simply helped it coalesce.
Snark is soooo 2008.
Snarking is cultural vandalism. I have arrived at this conclusion belatedly. I have been guilty of snarking, and of enjoying snarks. In the matter of snarking, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But it has grown entirely out of hand. It is time to put away childish things. I must restore my balance, view the world in a fair way, hope to inspire more appreciation than ridicule. No doubt there will always be a role for snarking, given the proper target and an appropriate venue, and I reserve the right to snark when it is deserved, as in certain movie reviews. But in general I must become more well-behaved.
A snarker is one who snarks. The word is said to be a combination of snide and remark. There are slithering undertones of shark, bark, and stark. There is also, for me, an association with snipe. The practice involves holding someone up to ridicule not so much for anything they actually did, as for having the presumption to be who they are. [More]
Snarking is the privilege of a society with money to burn and feelings to disregard. The disdain is offset by the oodles of wealth to soothe the pain. So you're disgusted, we say, it's not like you're losing money.
I have written with poison pen, and remarkably wittily, I must say, and have always regretted it in the long run. Some of my readers have brought me up short on such posts as well.
But it is easy to point out faults, I fumed, when you are not doing the work. The demands of producing output overrides niceties such as common courtesy or benefit of the doubt. Especially if it gets a laugh at an opponent's expense.
However, I have been forced to consider that relentless satire is a luxury good, dependent on a surplus of good feeling that allows readers to absorb invective and mean spirits with aplomb if cleverly phrased. Laughing at the foibles of others, after all, can make us feel better.
Well, until we see them flinch, anyway. Or weep.
Once when I was reading P. J. O'Rourke (I recommend "Age and Guile...") I stopped between chuckles to grasp how vicious his incredible intellect could be. This guy could write Harrington and I both under the table - sober. With a wit second to none - and I have read much of Mencken - he relentlessly eviscerates those who hold opposing views. It is apparently debilitating work, as his blog constipation seems to suggest. He was a hero of mine.
In a different way, Garrison Keillor can alternately inspire and rabbit-punch this humorist wanna-be. In his gently-worded Lutheranish, he can insert barbs equal to O'Rourke.
But at the same time we have been tickled by Dave Barry. And now Joel Stein. Their ability to amuse without leaving scars reveals by comparison the garishness of some "humor" (mine included). Perhaps it's fresh brain cells or simple genius, but I'm groping to the realization that ridicule has replaced the pun as the lowest form of humor.
Humor also has to fit the context of the times. There was a good reason why slapstick and vaudville (think Three Stooges) and sappy movies worked during the Depression. It's because an act like George Carlson would have triggered so many short fuses in the audience he would not have survived opening night.
With a populace on edge, maybe snark is the Hummer of 2009 - a belly laugh few of us can stomach. Too many of us are too anxious to embrace an additional attack on who we have been and what we have believed in, however illuminating. We're too emotionally exhausted to appreciate how an irritating insight should poke us into a "clearer picture of The Truth".
Alas, I have gotten so many laughs from that technique I suspect I will be slow to rebalance, but at least it has dawned on me what isn't working with my audiences.
More importantly, I've discovered what isn't working for me in 2009.