Why isn’t Trump comedy funnier?

Five of several dozen Twitter search results for “nambia covfefe” on 9/21/17

When President Trump praised the non-existent country of Nambia at the UN in September, Bill Maher joked that the capital of Nambia was Covfefe. So did a seemingly endless number of Twitter users, not just over time but on the very same day. There is something about Donald Trump that encourages everyone to come up with the same jokes. There is also something about him that makes us feel the pressing need for political comedy. When a self-aggrandizing billionaire with an unusual physical appearance becomes president, satire should shine. Yet political comedy in the first year of the Trump administration has been strangely lackluster. Why isn’t the most comical president in history generating better comedy?

The New York Times Magazine let me consider this problem in a profile of Anthony Atamanuik, who plays Trump on The President Show on Comedy Central. Gigantic, sun-blotting props to Willy for helping to develop a unified theory of Trump comedy, which starts like this:

A funny Trump impression presents two broad challenges. The first is that the president exists in a cloud of signifiers: his infomercial hand gestures, his practiced facial expressions, his broad accent and narrow diction and relentless catchphrases, to say nothing of his hair and skin. Any impression of him must include these signifiers, but they are so numerous and recognizable as to weigh it down, limiting the space for the impressionist to contribute his own insights. The adage “It’s funny because it’s true” is a phenomenological account. It describes a change in the audience: It’s funny because (I just realized) it’s true. We laugh when we are surprised to recognize something. The problem with Trump is that everything about him is recognizable immediately. There seem to be no subtle truths under the cacophony of overt signifiers, so that every joke about him becomes merely a reference.

That’s the Covfefe Problem: It’s hard to think of an original joke about Trump, but it’s easy to think of a recognizable reference. The other horn in this comedy dilemma is the Clapter Problem. What is clapter? You’re just going to have to read the profile and find out, or buy Mike Sacks’s book Poking a Dead Frog, which is where I first encountered the term. But while you’re waiting for the book to arrive, read the Times piece. Remember how Combat! blog was on hiatus for weeks and everyone stopped reading it? This was one of the four big projects that forced me to put the blog aside. Now all of them are done, and I am rich. We’ll be back tomorrow with more self-promotion.

We can end alliteration in our lifetimes

Debut New York Times columnist Bari Weiss

There are two reasons to write: for approval and for satisfaction. Satisfaction is generally held to be the more noble motive, or at least the more sustainable one. But insofar as satisfaction is just another kind of approval, i.e. approval of oneself, there’s really only one reason to write. That’s why reading sucks. Most written works are series of bids for the reader’s approval, with small amounts of useful information inserted like the hook in a big, plastic lure. Look how yellow and glittery my lure is, dear reader! Don’t you want to swallow that fat worm and become my meal? Every writer thinks this, consciously, each time they sit down to write. The trick is to hide it. Here’s the first sentence of Bari Weiss’s debut column in the New York Times:

A mere half-year ago, before collusion and Comey, before Mika’s face and Muslim bans and the Mooch, there was a shining moment where millions of Americans flooded the streets in cities across the country to register their rage that an unapologetic misogynist had just been made leader of the free world.

I see what you did there, and I am displeased. “Collusion and Comey” is all right, even euphonious. That would be just enough spice to get me through this longish compound sentence. But then I get “Mika’s face and Muslim bans and the Mooch,” which is both conspicuous and unsatisfying. Alliteration doesn’t work with phrasal nouns. You could do “Mika and Muslims and the Mooch,” but that doesn’t make sense. Neither does  “Muslim bans,” though, since Donald Trump started talking about that early in the campaign, before the women’s march.  This sentence has to work to wedge in all this alliteration, and for what? It only distracts me while I’m trying to decode the meaning—something along the lines of “It seems like a long time ago, but before all this craziness, Trump’s election brought about something good: the women’s march.”

That sentence conveys the same ideas as the one Weiss wrote, but it does not demonstrate the felicity of the author. I submit that alliteration serves only that purpose in nine out of ten uses. It is a time-honored way to show that you are a good writer, despite the fact that anyone can do it. As a skill it is even less difficult than rhyming, yet generations of English teachers have taught it is a Literary Technique. It is not. Alliteration is a literary term, and as a demonstration of mastery it is only slightly more impressive than enjambment and about as difficult, i.e. easy to do but hard to do meaningfully.

Alliteration works well in epithets, such as “nattering nabobs of negativity.” This leads us to assume that it would constitute wit in prose. But while alliteration is good for coming up with catchy nicknames, it almost never makes a sentence more trenchant. Neither does it introduce double meanings or resolve ambiguities, except incidentally. It doesn’t engage the realm of meaning at all, operating on the level of diction by making it serve arbitrary similarities between words instead of connotation and nuance. It’s frosting. Alliteration is the kind of wit that isn’t funny or insightful, the kind of poetry that does not address the soul.

And yet we keep taking it up. I think alliteration is a step we take not because it gets us where we’re going, but because it’s sure. If I sit down to write the first sentence of something important, I am liable to think too much. I need to just start typing, and alliteration gives me a form I can follow almost automatically. That is a reason to avoid it. Sentences get hard to write when we are not sure what they say. To govern them by some other logic is to avoid the hard questions good writing seeks out.

Anyway, a lot of people are mad at Weiss for attacking the leaders of the women’s march on the basis of their past approval of problematic figures, such as Louis Farrakhan and Fidel Castro. She also seems to put “anti-Zionism” in the same category of bad ideas as anti-Semitism and killing cops. Those are valid grounds for criticism. I also think Weiss is right to be on the lookout for anti-Semitism in contemporary progressive movements, which seem to defend the rights of Jews less vigorously than those of other groups. Reasonable people can disagree about which ideas are “beyond the pale of the progressive feminist movement in America”—a truth that constitutes both a criticism of Weiss’s column and a defense of it. But the issue on which there can be no disagreement, where we must enforce consensus with an iron fist, is alliteration. That shit must stop immediately.

What’s between cultural appropriation and cultural segregation?

A viewer and “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz—photo by Johannes Schmitt-Tegge

Writer and ethicist Kenan Malik has written an editorial for the Times titled In Defense of Cultural Appropriation, but he spends less time defending appropriation than critiquing how we address it. He opens by discussing Hal Niedzviecki, who resigned from the Canadian Writers’ Union magazine Write after publishing a column “defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds.” The outcry, particularly on social media, was intense. Malik mentions another editor, Jonathan Kay of The Walrus, who was “compelled” to resign after merely tweeting in support of Niedzviecki. These examples imply that we are way too worked up about cultural appropriation, partly because we cannot agree what it is.

Malik’s example of an editor who was pilloried for suggesting that authors should write about people from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds certainly looks like moralism run amok. But he leaves out some  important details, including that Niedzviecki wrote his editorial for an issue of Write devoted to indigenous authors. In this context, his call for writers to “relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you [and] win the Appropriation Prize” reads like a defense of white authorship. It constitutes fair warning to anyone who would interrogate the idea of cultural appropriation: be careful not to argue for privilege in disguise.

Still, I think most people would agree that white authors should write nonwhite characters. It would be racist if they didn’t. But anyone who has read a book before knows authors routinely screw up when they try to write other races, often in ways that reinforce prejudice. We don’t want to say white writers should only write about white people, but we also don’t want to say that every white depiction of nonwhite cultures is just fine. When does art that reflects modern cultural pluralism become cultural appropriation?

What we need here is a definition. Malik cites Susan Scafidi’s claim that cultural appropriation means “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This definition introduces the fairly obvious question of who could give such permission. If I wrote a letter to Al Sharpton asking permission to write about a black man, A) that would be racist and B) his permission would not be meaningful. No individual can license a culture. Scafidi’s definition of appropriation seems more useful as a negative: Although no one can give permission to use a culture, pretty much anyone can deny permission to use a culture. Cultural appropriation happens when an artist evokes culture in a way that pisses someone off.

That actually seems like a pretty good rule of thumb. If your depiction of another culture has angered someone who identifies with that culture, you probably screwed up. Still, we can’t adopt the idea that cultural appropriation is whatever anyone says it is. We want to be able distinguish between obvious instances of appropriation, like Katy Perry in a geisha costume, and claims of appropriation that might not be made in good faith, such as the Oberlin students who called appropriation on a bad banh mi in their cafeteria.

Bad pan-Asian cuisine my be a crime against gastronomy, but I wouldn’t call it unethical. Putting zucchini in a stir fry is not wrong in the same way as dressing up as an Indian for Halloween. Implicit in our idea of cultural appropriation is that it’s bad because it hurts people. Few would argue that it’s bad because white and nonwhite cultures should stay separate. It might be appropriation when Macklemore makes terrible hip hop, but it’s not appropriation for white kids to listen to Ice Cube. Whatever value we’re trying to protect when we criticize cultural appropriation, it’s not the segregation of cultural products by race.

So what is it? Malik skirts this question and instead argues that trying to stop cultural appropriation will not meaningfully impact systemic racism. That might be true. Stopping your uncle from saying the n-word at Christmas won’t meaningfully impact systemic racism, either, but it’s nice. Malik cites the example of Elvis Presley, who became famous playing the same “race music” radio stations refused to air when Chuck Berry played it. That was surely an injustice, but stopping it wouldn’t have changed Jim Crow, Malik argues. He’s not wrong. But it does seem wrong that a white man could make a fortune playing black music when a black man could not.

We need to put our finger on what’s wrong with that, if our discussions of cultural appropriation are to have any meaning. It can’t just be that white people aren’t allowed to do black stuff. That too closely resembles the old system. Neither can we conclude that white people are allowed to do whatever, for the same reason. I find the topic of cultural appropriation endlessly interesting, because it keeps pitting contemporary values against each other.

We want to live in a plural society, where traditions from different cultures come together to create an American culture that we all own together. But we also want members of nonwhite groups to retain ownership of their own cultures, if for no other reason than that so much has been taken from them already. I don’t know how to reconcile these competing values. I suspect we will keep arguing about it.

Poll finds The Onion only slightly less credible than Breitbart

“Each” is singular, you guys. The question in the poll whose results are pictured above should be “How credible is each of the following?” Informal polling finds me unpopular, still. But this formal poll from the Morning Consult brand-tracking company finds that, despite widespread abuse of the phrase “fake news,” most people still think mainstream news outlets are believable. Sixty-three percent of those polled, for example, rated The New York Times as “credible” or “very credible.” It’s kind of terrifying that a third of respondents don’t trust the longest-established journalistic institution in the United States, and the write-up suggests that this portion is larger than it has been historically. But the overall lesson to be taken from these admittedly months-old numbers is that President Trump’s gaslighting re: news has not succeeded in turning Americans against the media.

You may have noticed a more interesting nugget at the bottom of the chart, though. A combined 19 percent of poll respondents said Breitbart was a credible source for news. That’s only one point higher than the percentage of respondents who said the same thing about The Onion, an explicitly satirical venture trafficking in obviously made-up stories. The Onion beats InfoWars, which I thought was implicitly satirical until about 18 months ago. But Breitbart is a horse of a different color. It puts “news” right in its name, and its former executive chair is now the White House chief strategist. That this nominal news organization would enjoy the same credibility as The Onion is astounding, given its influence.

But here we encounter the misleading elements of polls, which are—dare I say it?—kind of fake news. You will notice that the “credible” and “not credible” numbers for these outlets don’t add up to 100 percent. The missing portion comprises people who have never heard of the outlet in question.

For instance, 42% of respondents said they had never heard of Breitbart, which is heartening. According to the crosstabs, 32% have never heard of The Onion, and another 15% said they had heard of it but had no opinion of its credibility. One presumes that a significant number of these respondents knew it it was satirical and therefore found the question of its credibility irrelevant. While we’re presuming stuff, the spike in The Onion’s credibility among 30- to 44-year-olds might be attributable to smartassery.

Anyway, The Onion and Breitbart may not be comparably trusted so much as comparably unknown. That, too, is terrifying, given the enormous popularity of one and the enormous shittiness of the other. But the larger epistemological point—that we should not take this poll to mean that people trust Breitbart about as much as they trust The Onion—holds up. Polls mislead. Also, 17% of the country has never heard of the Wall Street Journal. What a time to be alive.

Friday links! All in how you frame it edition

A fact is objective and unchanging, but what makes it meaningful? It is a true fact, for example, that Donald Trump is the first president in US history to have never before held public office or served in the military. But what does that mean? I might be saying he’s unqualified, or I might be saying that he brings to office fresh blood, untainted by the degeneracy of the political class. Facts are inert. It’s their contexts, that allow them to come to life and create meaning for us. Today is Friday, and it’s all in how you frame it. Won’t you pick out something tasteful with me?

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