One consolation of our progressive national stupefaction is that satire might start fooling people again. Not that Larry Doyle’s recent column on “the Jesus-eating cult of Rick Santorum” is particularly subtle. When Doyle describes himself as a former “Irish-Catholic, the worst kind” and says he discovered a possible connection between the RCC and NAMBLA “after conducting some research on the internet,” we see the flapping flag of irony country. Here lies the problem of satire within an educated society: pretty much everybody is smart enough to get it. That’s good, but it also takes some fun out of the conceit that someone, somewhere, is taking the irony seriously. It’s like a practical joke that everyone is in on; we all have to just look at the cup of pee and imagine how funny it would be if someone drank it. Lucky for us, Tony Perkins cannot resist free lemonade.
As president of the Family Research Council, Perkins is fascinated with gay men and preventing them from getting married. It’s like if NASA’s main focus were the subway. He has joined with representatives of the National Organization for Marriage and several lesser-known conservative groups to demand that Arianna Huffington apologize for Doyle’s column, which they call “bigoted and unacceptable.” They reject the notion that it was satire, saying that “bigots like Doyle think they can hurl the most contemptible insults towards Catholics (‘Jesus eaters’) and when called out, claim it was just a joke. What cowardice.” Then they claim that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable form of bigotry.
Again, this comes from people whose entire careers are dedicated to publicizing the gay conspiracy against families. It’s possible that Perkins et al are engaged in a little intellectual dishonesty, here. They insist that “intelligent readers” don’t believe for a second that Doyle was writing satirically, an explanation they call “equivocating nonsense.” For its part, the Fox article plays along with this conceit, making liberal use of the word “claim” and describing the piece as an “article about Rick Santorum’s Catholic faith.” In scrupulous observation of journalistic neutrality, it refers to Doyle’s column as “his so-called satire.”
In this way, Perkins et al create a sort of mirror satire of their own. Just as the sensible person reads the phrase “a black-robed cleric casts a spell over some bread and wine” and understands that Doyle is employing some kind of rhetorical device, so the intelligent reader takes Perkins’s claim that the Huffington Post “cannot be seen as anything but an anti-Catholic talking piece” with a grain of salt. That is a winking fantasy, right there, just like the fantasy that Doyle is afraid a papist president will limit our wars to “only the just ones.”
Of course, just like in this context means importantly different from. Both Doyle’s and Perkins’s statements advocate positions that the authors consider untrue—and invite the reader to recognize them as such—and both therefore constitute irony. The purpose of the irony, however, is wildly different in each case. Doyle wants us to laugh.* Perkins wants us to get angry, and in our righteously manufactured anger to declare ourselves victims.
I have asked this question about Perkins before, but what kind of person does that? Who looks for opportunities to get upset? Bad dates and assholes, that’s who, and I didn’t hear Tony Perkins order dinner. I recognize that the man is a professional scold, and his job requires him to err on the side of finding stuff offensive to his deep piety. But Perkins’s knowing indulgence in artificial anger is coupled with real and damaging work against real and persecuted human beings. He doesn’t just make himself angry; he makes himself angry and hurts people. When he lies and says that anti-Catholicism is the last accepted bigotry, he is lying as a paid bigot.
He is a crappy person, in other words, and the crappy person in the room will always go after the guy who’s telling jokes. The jokey guy is so rarely the punchy guy, after all. Just once in his lifelong crusade against satirists, gay kids and single mothers, I would like to see Tony Perkins go after someone who might hit him. Not literally, of course. But I would like to see his ironic victimhood stand a little risk of coming true, just once, like Doyle’s ironic connection between Catholic priests and NAMBLA. That would give his satire some bite.