This is a strange one. There’s some satire, and then there’s someone who merely skims it to criticize it on its face. Strange enough. Except the purpose of the piece was to point out the hopelessness of vital satire in an environment that’s over-wrought and partisan. So Michael Barone fell right into it.
It begins with Rochelle Gurstein writing in the New Republic:
The Baby Lottery
A rational redistributive plan.
As someone who has long believed that there is something morally repellant about living in a country that prides itself on being the greatest democracy in the world but where the top one-tenth of one percent of the people “earn” as much money per year collectively as the entire bottom fifty percent of working people, I would like to offer a modest proposal that might “level the playing field,” as the popular saying has it, and thus provide a foundation for a democracy worthy of the name. Instead of the old Marxist plan to redistribute property–and let’s face it, that always took a bloody revolution and even then, it didn’t always work out so well–how about redistributing babies at birth, a kind of big baby lottery?
Every child is finally given a fair shot at the ‘good life’ in the greatest country on Earth. Races caring for each others’ babies creates a colorblind society. Knowing your ‘familial’ child lives with somebody else makes sectors and strata of society genuinely interested in the well-being of the once ‘outsiders’ — you don’t know where your kid ended up, so it’s important for everybody, rich and poor, to do well. You fight for the other because that’s probably who’s raising your own.
Yeah, it’s insane, nothing is more coveted than your own flesh and blood. And your family and your heritage are the first things you are, and that’s fine. And, certainly, forcing the well-off to submit their children into perhaps poverty (there’s plenty of that) would be mind-numbingly, tyrannically cruel. But, then, no one deserves it, right? That’s how satire goes: it’s to expose essential truths by way perhaps of a wild ‘proposal’.
Michael Barone, he of the American Enterprise Institute and the Washington Examiner, took only a moment to read a few words, sniff a liberal rat and crank out a column:
She is kidding, isn’t she?
By: Michael Barone
Senior Political Analyst
I’ve been reading the New Republic for decades, even though (or perhaps because) it’s a wildly uneven publication. It can publish as thoughtful and intellectually rigorous a figure as William Galston, whose every word is worth serious attention. And it can publish some real garbage. In the second category (I think) falls what the website calls “Our New Columnist’s Rational Plan for Redistributing Babies.” The “new columnist,” Rachel Gurstein, writes, “how about redistributing babies at birth, a kind of big baby lottery?”
That’s right, not even close to her name.
It turns out (I think) that she’s kidding; her citation of Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” is one tipoff. But her proposal has some roots, as she notes, with the famed and in some liberal quarters revered political philosopher John Rawls. He argued that all public policy proposals should be assessed from the perspective of one who does not know into what station of life he or she is born. It turns out that when you do this you end up opting for a cradle-to-grave welfare state (or at least Rawls did). The problem with this, I have long thought, is that we aren’t born this way, we are born into families (or some other child care situation), we are raised in a particular milieu which is only part of a larger society and at a particular point in history.
In other words, “While I recognize this proposal is a satirical one, I would pause to add this: life simply doesn’t work this way. So this is a bad idea.”
Cough. Or: “Yes, yes, it’s satire. But it’s bad politics, you know.”
Stupefying. Well, to sharpen all the 90-degree vertices of his analysis, Barone adds:
So while Rachel [sic] Gurstein isn’t really suggesting that babies should be redistributed at birth, it seems that the idea is in some way appealing to her—even while she presumably understands that it will sound appalling to the very large majority of Americans. There are clues here to why the Democrats’ health care policies are so unpopular with the American people.
Amazing. Just brilliant. But it gets better, if that’s possible: the point of Gurstein’s piece wasn’t the utopian gambit or comedy. It was that in this wholly bizarre and hyper-partisan political world, the preceding satire seems to have become pointless ( . . and perhaps Barone should have read the whole thing?).
The lack of a common reality, of universal up and down, has rendered hyperbole almost impossible to detect and compass:
. . well-meaning friends have repeatedly cautioned me against it, for fear–baseless, no doubt–that my intentions will be misunderstood. The more I protest that my scheme is as clear as the night is long –the old New York lottery slogan “You gotta be in it, to win it” at last made universal; Rawls’s theoretical “veil of ignorance” finally put into practice–the more insistent and stern and dour these same friends become: “You’ll see, they will think you are trying to destroy their precious idea of the American family, the bedrock of society.” “You’ll see, they will accuse you of being a fascist, a Nazi.” . . Have we now come to the point, I wondered, that our shared sense of reality is so tenuous that something as outrageous to common sense as my big baby lottery will not immediately be recognized as political satire?
. . you are kidding, aren’t you?
. . Like Tina Fey mimicking Sarah Palin, what passes for satire today plays on our incredulity, presenting us with an exact replica of something real but at the same time so absurd that it beggars our belief. It gets a laugh, but what is missing is the wild, inspired, visionary flights of imagination that masters of satire like Jonathan Swift so excelled at. Through caustic hyperbole, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” to raise Irish babies like cattle and sell them to Englishmen for dinner in order to eliminate overpopulation and poverty in Ireland made his first readers–and us, too, almost three centuries after them–see and feel how the world appears from the standpoint of common decency.
And, for me, that’s it. When there’s no “common decency”, satire becomes hopeless, doesn’t it? There’s no one beating heart to it, no bullseye to hit. Communication becomes a crapshoot, like trying to squint and see one of those fractal space shuttles behind the multi-colored chaos. Did you get it — can you see it?
And when one side of the political world, as a matter of policy, becomes so mechanically bent on taking an axe to the other, no matter what’s said or done, the fragments are all that’s universal. As in: “Bringing down deficits is the decent thing to do, but if you proffer a pay/go rule before we do, not one of us will vote for it . .”
Nobody writes like that any more and I could not help wondering if the extinction of satire that attempts to shame people into recognizing that there are things higher and worth striving towards than what merely happens to exist was a sign of just how poverty-stricken our moral, political, and literary imaginations have become.
And there is the point. She could have paid Barone to write his post, but he did it for free.