Saturday, July 18, 2009

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Sometimes you'll read something and it sticks with you, be it a section of a novel, a short story, a newspaper article or a movie review. It can be because of the language, the ideas or the even the rhythm of the words. And it can happen with writers from Shakespeare to Isaac Asimov, from Woody Allen to Annie Proulx, from Pete Hamill to Tom Wolfe.

When I find those kinds of passages, I tend to jot them down or clip them out. More often than not they go into a file, and simply languish there forever. Other times, though, something I see or hear makes me want to revisit that excerpt. And so it was that the news these past weeks drove me to dig through one of my many folders in order to unearth and then reread an essay by Christopher Buckley from the fall of 1993.

Buckley, of course, if the son of conservative icon William Buckley, and a talented writer in his own right. He is known for his acerbic takes on current events, as well as his books which spin contemporary political themes into slightly off-kilter Saturday Night Live-esque novels. These include "Florence of Arabia," which focuses on a US-sponsored Arab-language television station in the Middle-East which features shows such as a sitcom about a group of ruthless though inept religious police called "Mukfellahs." There's "Boomsday," about a social security program that offers payments to baby boomers who lighten the load on the system by committing suicide. And his most recent work of fiction is "Supreme Courtship," wherein the President confounds the adversarial head of the Senate Judiciary committee by appointing a popular TV judge to the high bench, daring him to reject her in the wake of her sky high ratings. Obama, take note.

The article that I extracted and gently smoothed out was published in the Wall Street Journal and was titled "Our Post-Satirical World." In it, Buckley lamented the abundance of what he called "low hanging fruit" in the political world. That is, the state of public affairs wherein it's hard to write humor because truth is stranger, or at least more ironic and more bizarre than fiction. Jon Stewart may have made a career out of reporting it, but as Buckley pointed out, the level of in-your-face lunacy makes it hard for those whose stock-in-trade is to try and exploit any subtlely humorous moments... mainly because subtlety these days appears to be out the window. Or as he put it, "The satirist's job is the same as the cook's: to simmer the raw ingredients until they're reduced to absurdity. But when they're so fresh, why bother cooking at all?"

Today, not much as changed, and in fact, the fruit seems to have gotten riper. Indeed, it's hard to know where to start. There's South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford telling everyone he's hiking the Appalachian trial, while shacking up in Argentina with his "soul mate," protesting that his infidelity is unlike other's similar transgressions because he really is in love. There's the Governor of Alaska baling out of her remaining term because, by golly, she's not a quitter. There's the New York State Senate being led by a senator who switched sides twice and is under investigation for, among other things, not living in the district he represents because his wife wouldn't be caught dead in the Bronx. And there's California paying suppliers with IOU's while asking for donations to cover expenses related to Michael Jackson's funeral. That sound you hear is the writers at on David Letterman's show hyperventilating.

There're some serious problems out there... health care, the ongoing housing crisis and the economy, to name but a few. Maybe we really should ignore the distractions, and buckle down to listen to Wolf Blitzer conduct an in-depth interview with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the new H1N1 flu vaccine. But wait: here comes Senator John Ensign, known as "Casino Johnny" in Las Vegas, trying to explain how the nearly $100K that his parents gave to his ex-married lover is merely "consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family."

There's an old military term, know by it's inevitable acronym, OBE. It stands for "Overtaken By Events," and refers to situations when realities supersede plans. In today's context, it seems that anything really important has been pushed to the back burner as it's overtaken the stupidity and chutzpah of certain elected officials. Or as Buckley wrote a half a dozen years ago in words that still seem fresh today, "you can't take a step in any direction without bumping into an over-ripe mango."


Marc Wollin of Bedford never ceases to be amazed. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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