The Limits of Satire

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Harvard Extension puts their course syllabi online for free download.

https://www.extension.harvard.edu/academics/courses/fall-syllabi-course-websites

Thanks to this generosity, I’m “taking” a course on satire now.

Following a course syllabus is fun, because it makes me read things I otherwise wouldn’t, and think about them harder than I otherwise would. (I’m a lazy reader by nature.)

I guess I’ve never understood satire, or rather never understood the limits of it. When I hear the word Satire, I think of Gulliver’s Travels, Animal Farm, Candide. And they do indeed kick off the reading list.

Gulliver in Lilliput, a make-believe world that parodies our own

But then the course goes on to things I wouldn’t think of – “Ku Klux” by Langston Hughes, The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, and others that are 1) not funny, 2) not clearly allegorical, and 3) shockingly bad/violent, but in a realistic way.

So what exactly is the line that separates satire from just reporting of the world as it is? If I’d read, a couple years ago, a story about a US president publicly mocking governors of his own country while they struggle with an outbreak of disease, while he simultaneously tries to corner the market on that disease’s vaccine, it would’ve been a satirical exaggeration of politicians’ greed and indifference. But if you wrote that story today, could you still call it satire?

Literal public statement from actual president of the United States

Hughes’ poem Ku Klux, too. It’s over-the-top violence and hypocrisy and ignorance. But is it satire, if exactly that sort of thing really happens as reported?

Ku Klux Klan, real people, still with us.

If I could afford to actually take the class, this might’ve been covered on day 1. But I can’t, and I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

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