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Why Liberals Love Satire


By James Tillman | November 2012
James Tillman is a graduate student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

Most of the people who reject Christianity know almost nothing of what they are rejecting: those who condemn what they do not understand are, surely, little men. — Sheldon Vanauken

Liberals, it seems, are more adept than conservatives at satire and parody. Consider Hume, who is perhaps the archetype of all subsequent militant atheists: He mocked all religions, save the brand of Christianity that was officially established in Britain, and he was careful to mock these religions in the ways in which they resembled the established religion. Or consider how programs like The Daily Show tend to lean to the left, or how movies parodying any particular religious or political view tend to plunge to the left. Such examples are not accidental; due to its very nature, satire is more useful to liberals than to conservatives. Furthermore, it is more useful to liberals for rather the same reason that satire is more useful to those attacking an incumbent politician than it is to those who support him: It is not as effective in defending as it is in destroying, whether it is used to destroy politicians, moral standards, religious reverence, or anything else. Satire’s destructive properties may be used, or misused, by either conservatives or liberals, so why would satire be particularly fitted to liberalism?

In the annals of their imagination, liberals view themselves as lonely rebels courageously defying unthinking tradition, prejudiced rulers, and the great mass of benighted humanity. There is nothing wrong with having such a dramatic view of life — conservatives, after all, see themselves as the outnumbered remnant manning the walls their fathers erected to defend “tradition” — but the liberal view leads to a few interesting positions. In particular, to be a liberal is to believe oneself to have discovered a truth that evaded one’s ancestors, one’s superiors, and often one’s peers. For this reason, it sometimes seems less congenial to the liberal temperament to go on searching for new truths than to attack some heretofore universally accepted opinion. Often what they advocate is simply the negation of the old opinion they wish to destroy.

To put the matter more bluntly, the liberal temperament seems not so much concerned with knowing as with knowing better. As Edmund Burke said, liberals are those who think “a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order.” In our time they go further: Liberals know better than to think religion anything but a myth, a nation anything but a contract, a family more than slavery, man more than an animal, or an animal more than a clump of cells. They do not wish to see so much as to see through; and even the backdrop at which their self-declared vision stops tends to be the target for the next generation of liberals. One generation believes the indissolubility of marriage is an evil; the next finds monogamy itself an evil. One generation believes authority exercised for moral purpose is evil; the next believes any authority is evil. This is why reductionism is so rampant among them: It is the best way to ignore what is truly important. And this is why liberals are always reactionary, for they can only respond to what is presented to them. They are, to borrow a phrase from the unfortunate Ayn Rand, second-handers, even if they are second-handers in reverse.

But this habit of seeing through helps to illustrate why liberals love satire, and why satire is especially suited to liberals. Consider Voltaire, a founding father of the liberal tradition. In his Letters on the English, he pokes fun at the manner in which the men of his time greeted one another — namely, by whipping off their head coverings, bending at the midsection, and shifting about their feet in a certain manner. Other bodily rituals are parodied with equal ease — for instance, worshipers who kneel at various points during the Mass while the priest scatters about sweet-smelling smoke. Comparison with the rituals of barbaric tribes improves the irony in such cases and makes ecclesial rites appear to be nothing more than ridiculous holdovers from a superstitious past.

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