LIFE IS HARD for satirists. Like high school poets or people who get aroused when they put on furry mascot costumes, no one understands them. Back in 1729, Jonathan Swift was almost universally reviled when he suggested, in "A Modest Proposal," that the antidote to urban squalor was to eat the children of poor Irish immigrants and use their skin to make "admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen." If only Fox News had been around; Sean Hannity would have dined out (so to speak) for weeks on the skirmish.
Today, of course, "A Modest Proposal" is considered one of the greatest works of political satire in the English language. But isn't that always the way? Comedy is tragedy plus time, which may explain why Ann Coulter, the Cruella De Vil of blond, ectomorphic wonkdom, is getting such a beating by the liberal and (more important) tragically literal mainstream media. Such is the price of being in the cultural vanguard. If you think Swift was cutting-edge, imagine having a wit so dry that even you haven't yet realized you're a satirist.
Satire —In a column about Ann Coulter, Meghan Daum wrote that Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" called for eating the "children of poor Irish immigrants." Swift's satire didn't mention immigrants, just "the children of the poor people in Ireland."
Coulter's new book, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism," will debut Sunday on the New York Time bestseller list at No. 1. Topics discussed include liberals' attitudes toward crime ("Assuming you aren't a fetus, the left's most dangerous religious belief is their adoration of violent criminals"); education ("Most public schools are — at best
expensive baby-sitting arrangements
. At worse, they are criminal training labs, where teachers sexually abuse the children between drinking binges and acts of grand larceny"); and evolution ("The only evidence for Darwin's theory of evolution is fake evidence").
Then there's her assessment of the four 9/11 widows who gained national attention for demanding an investigation into how the Bush administration might have prevented the attacks. Assuming you aren't a fetus, you've probably heard that Coulter referred to the widows as "witches" who are "enjoying their husbands' deaths." This — along with her much-quoted statement: "How do we know their husbands weren't planning to divorce these harpies? Now that their shelf life is dwindling they'd better hurry up and appear in Playboy" — has rankled Republicans and Democrats alike.
But we mustn't despair over Americans' diminishing appreciation for irony. There are, mercifully, a sophisticated few who see Coulter's work as the subtly arch commentary it really is. On "Larry King Live" last week, David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, declared Coulter "much funnier" than Bill Maher and Al Franken combined and decreed "Godless" "absolutely" a work of satire. Republican strategist Karen Hanretty appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" a week or so earlier and characterized Coulter's work as "tongue-in-cheek."
Even a few common citizens got the joke. A letter to the editor of the Arizona Republic criticized columnist Leonard Pitts for showing "his own ignorance by failing to recognize Coulter as a satirist, in the mode of Jonathan Swift." Here at home, a reader responded to L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten's suggestion that Coulter was essentially in the pornography business with: "Coulter isn't selling pornography, she's selling satire — and doing it with great success."
Duh, people! The woman isn't a pariah, she's a comic genius, an anthropologist with an edge, the adopted lovechild of Oscar Wilde and Gore Vidal (see what happens when gays get to be parents?). Not just anyone gets endorsed by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, whose mission statement includes "defending the cultural foundations of a free society," which, in layman's terms, means "understanding the joke, so no one else has to."
Apparently, this service is dearly needed. Rutten, one of the panelists on "Larry King Live," was so flummoxed by Horowitz's cultural acuity that he sputtered: "You think this was satire? Really? Really?" Come on, Tim, you're making us look bad! Next thing we know you're going to let it slip that you don't see the razor-like wit in "Family Circus."
As Swift knew too well, the public's understanding of satire follows a steep learning curve. And as hard as he had it, imagine how it must be for Coulter, who, like many funny women, is clearly too oppressed by the male patriarchy to recognize the scope of her own talents. As millions of readers are now discovering, all that's standing between Coulter and a writing job on "The Simpsons" are testicles and a Harvard degree.
If only the 9/11 widows, Darwinians and public educators were as sophisticated as the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, they might not be so bruised. But it's hard to look past Coulter's great legs. Let's be honest. Humor, even the unfunny kind, usually runs in inverse proportion to physical hotness, and that's quadruply true for women, who often don't bother trying to be funny unless they're still upset about missing the prom or have physical deformities like acne or small breasts.
Coulter, with her lucky genes and shrewd marketing instincts, isn't self-loathing enough to be a comedienne, but she's a brilliant satirist in spite of herself. She can add tragedy to time, subtract actual humor, divide by the lowest common denominator and come up with "A Modest Proposal, 2006." It was about time someone pimped up that rusty old tract.
Listen up, America: If you're not in on the joke, the joke's on you.