Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: The Performance Art, or Satire, of Herman Cain

Posted at 2:18 pm, November 10th, 2011
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CNBC commentator Rachel Maddow believes Herman Cain is a “performance artist” and his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination is “performance art.”

Could be. It could be also that Cain is a satirist and his campaign a satire on presidential politics.

Satire: the use of “irony, sarcasm and ridicule to attack the follies of humankind.” I once enjoyed writing satire. I retired from the genre when events in the real world became so ridiculous that readers had difficulty separating fact from fiction. My final fling at satire was a proposal, in a spoof of penny-pinching politicians, that the Pentagon become a profit center by renting the military to foreign bidders.

Readers were beside themselves. They let me know in language unfit to repeat, that American boys should not be sacrificed fighting other country’s battles no matter how it improved Uncle Sam’s bottom line. My decision to retire looked especially good after an academic wrote for permission to include my essay in a collection he was editing of innovative ideas.

It spares everyone embarrassment if satirists sprinkle their work with unmistakable clues that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Cain evidently tried to do that when he declared he was the brother of billionaire David Koch “by another mother.” The nonsense rhyme ‘brother by another mother’ was so weak it barely qualified as a clue. I thought I did better in my rent-the-military piece by writing that it would give fresh meaning to the term “doughboy.” To no avail; many readers are literal, and they were furious.

In such cases, there is no good option. Certainly not honesty. You don’t tell a reader, under any circumstances, “Dummy, you missed the point!” You do say, as gently as possible, that what we did was satire that misfired. Forgive us; it won’t happen again.”

If Herman Cain is into satire, he will find that he’s on treacherous ground. People don’t take kindly to being the butt of a joke. Fortunately for him, the accusations of sexual harassment have come along at just the right time for him to spend more time with his family. Better that than to admit that he made fools of his followers.

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