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A Satire on Impermissible Satire


Mr. Robert Walpole
Editor-in-Chief
The Onion
1000 Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611

Dear Mr. Walpole:

I read in The Atlantic that Cole Bolton, The Onion’s editor in 2015, said that his publication is devoted to “calling out bullshit” and has “had an anti-corporate rebellious streak throughout [their] editorial history.”[1]

Taking that mission seriously, I submit to you the satire below.

In the spirit of speaking truth to power,

Gary Olson

“Karl Marx Defends Henry Kissinger Before the International Criminal Court”
By Gary Olson

In a parallel universe, Henry Kissinger is being prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands. Seated at the table with Kissinger is his cunning choice for Chief Defense Counsel, none other than Karl Marx.

The ICC’s Chief Prosecutor addresses the three-judge Trial Chamber, reminding them that the preamble of the Rome Statute establishing the court states “that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished.”

She draws upon a myriad of impeccable sources, including historian Greg Grandin’s new book Kissinger’s Shadow.[2] The judges are stunned by the prosecutor’s searing portrayal of the defendant’s alleged responsibility for so many deaths—six million in Indochina alone. An anguished look crosses the face of Norwegian judge Olaf Ingeborg as he watches some unspeakably macabre visual evidence.

A guilty verdict seems inevitable.

Kissinger’s chin falls to his breast as Marx, a man demonized in the West for some 175 years, rises to address the judges. Not only does Marx readily concede the veracity of the prosecution’s evidence, he adds a few graphic details about the defendant’s role in the East Timor genocide. Kissinger thinks he mishears when Marx adds, “Dr. Kissinger’s behavior was not a result of unusual circumstances, honest mistakes, or individual ambition.”

Kissinger is distraught as his legal counsel has seemingly hammered the final nail into his coffin. For the first time in his life, Kissinger wonders if he has outsmarted himself by choosing Marx to save him from prison and an ignominious legacy.

But then Marx continues:

“Honorable justices, I’ve not come to The Hague to send Dr. Kissinger to prison. And I’m sure it was an oversight when my learned friend, the Chief Prosecutor, neglected to mention that the defendant received the Nobel Peace Prize, or that President Obama recently bestowed on my client the Distinguished Public Service Award, the Pentagon’s highest honor for a civilian.

“By his own lights and conscience, my client is a bona fide civilian war hero acting on firm principles of objective necessity.

“​​Facts​, ​without any appreciation for context and motives​, are not germane to arriving at a guilty verdict. I submit to you that the ‘facts’ presented here today are only the end result of certain ​policies.

“Esteemed members of this tribunal, if you can set aside any preconceived notions, here are the actual facts of the matter, something you may not have learned in Economics 101. Dr. Kissinger operated under the global capitalist moral imperative that requires the endless accumulation of capital on the one hand and escalating impoverishment on the other. Once you accept this fact, you surrender autonomy, and other options cease to exist. If economic disparity is necessary, suppressing radical efforts to reduce it are ethically justified.

“Remember, I wrote the book on class struggle—three volumes, in fact—and the mantra of the capitalist is, ‘Accumulate! Accumulate! This is Moses and the Prophets.’ Expand or perish! The chronic crises produced by this system must be addressed, sometimes in the most brutal and barbarous fashion. And the defendant would be the first to tell you that he was the quintessential geostrategic game player of his era.

“I know these accusations against Dr. Kissinger call to mind the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the grainy images of Goering, Frank, Streicher, and Hess. But would the surviving Nazi officials have been accorded the praise, honor, and gratitude that have accrued to Dr. Kissinger?

“Here’s the critical distinction: The Nazi term for those they exterminated and/or exploited was Untermenschen—subhumans. By contrast, the basic humanity of the casualties associated with Dr. Kissinger’s crimes was never in doubt. It’s only that their lives mattered slightly less than some other lives, perhaps including your own.[3]

“Millions of innocent people did not deserve to die. But the defendant knew that incalculably grotesque violence—so many killings—had preceded his time in office. Many of the survivors felt aggrieved, and, because they no longer feared death, they posed either an imminent or eventual threat to the post-WWII international order. He was conversant with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s declaration that ‘there are no boundaries in this struggle to the death.’

“Unlike the Nazis, Dr. Kissinger wasn’t ‘just following orders’ from his superiors, but obeying a higher law, the sometimes brutal but unyielding first law of capitalism that I spoke of earlier. He believed the service he performed was a moral act. As Dr. Kissinger has advised us more than once, ‘We must learn to distinguish morality from moralizing.’

“Esteemed justices, it’s easy to blame statesmen for errors in judgment, and sometimes it’s justified. But here we have an individual who assumed the awesome responsibility of burning Vietnamese children alive with napalm in order to protect his country’s free market system, a system which is now the world’s dominant economic system. And he’s hardly been alone in assuming this moral obligation.

“Recall this exchange, aired on 60 Minutes in 1996 between Leslie Stahl and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright regarding U.S. sanctions on Iraq:

Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.

“Later, sensing her compassion and empathy might be in doubt, Albright added, ‘I regretted coming across as cold-blooded and cruel.’

“And during Sec. Clinton’s watch, Libya descended into a failed state on the heels of the U.S.-led intervention. Later, hundreds of children perished at sea when their refugee boats sank. But Dr. Kissinger’s disciple championed the U.S. role because she knew that Col. Gaddafi’s insolent noncompliance with Washington made him an impediment for U.S. investors in gaining critical access to resource-rich Africa. She was abiding by the adage of her mentor, Dr. Kissinger, who sagely said, ‘The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously.’ She acted on objective reality. But lest you suspect this make Sec. Clinton a moral monster, recall her pledge that ‘every child in America should be able to reach his or her God-given potential.’

“Finally, and not to belabor the point, but aren’t President Obama’s Hellfire missile-armed Reaper drones that vaporize children only abiding by this same economic and moral calculus? Remember what I said about mere ‘facts’ divorced from motives. It’s the distinction between human facts and strategic facts. Obama, like Kissinger, believes he’s acting virtuously on behalf of advancing the interests of the penultimate economic system ever devised by humans, the Holy Grail of modern economics for the entire world. And recall that Obama also received the Nobel Peace Prize.” Again, Norway’s Judge Ingeborg’s face registers discomfort.

“Honorable judges, we can all agree that The Netherlands is a most felicitous setting, but do you really want to spend the remainder of your term putting leaders on trial for simply doing their jobs?

“Finally, to convict the defendant of these charges, you must be convinced the prosecution has established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; in legal terms, it’s sometimes called moral certainty. If you believe the alleged crimes could have been committed due to circumstances, conditions, and causes not contained in the indictment, you must vote for acquittal. Your vote is a profoundly moral one that will determine the fate of another human.[4]

“Honorable justices, the defense rests.”

After Marx’s statement, Kissinger notices confusion and even doubt creeping onto the faces of the three judges. Inwardly, he congratulates himself.

An intense deliberation ensues. The Australian justice says, “As to the death of children—the most vexing charge we heard—my husband and I have a precious new granddaughter, so it’s not abstract for me. I know I may sound harsh, but, given the wretched conditions confronting the poor and given the world’s frightening overpopulation problems, this suffering will only become more pronounced. To Herr Doktor Marx’s point that Dr. Kissinger’s actions were morally necessary to save the system, couldn’t we add that the deaths of these children—unusually and mercifully swift—was a prophylactic measure? This policy protected not only our long-term interests, but theirs as well. Finally, I’ll say out loud what many are thinking: A certain percentage of these adorable children would have grown up to be terrorists.”

Jamaica’s Justice Michael Cooper responds, “I’m leaning towards acquittal, but for very different reasons. If we convict the defendant, aren’t we letting the system off the hook, making Kissinger the scapegoat, and feeling self-righteous about it? Part of me wishes capitalism, itself, could be in the dock.”

Judge Ingeborg is largely silent, confining himself to rereading the portion of the official transcript describing moral certainty.

Finally, after two days, an acquitted Kissinger walks free.

The drained and visibly relieved defendant approaches Marx, extends his hand and effuses, “Dein Genie hat mir sowohl mein Leben als auch mein Vermächtnis gerettet. Danke! (Your brilliance has saved both my life and legacy! Thank you!)”

Marx brushes the hand aside and, refusing to speak German, mutters, “I don’t shake hands with mass murderers.”

Kissinger stammers, “But, but, you…”

Marx cuts him off. “I defended you because it gave me an opportunity on the world stage to explain how saving humanity, and saving the world, requires eliminating the power of the capitalist class, not individuals. And there’s precious little time.

“A guilty verdict would have been personally gratifying, but it would have been a misdirection, a distraction from the truth. My statement identified the ultimate guilty party. As someone said in a different context, I think the price for your acquittal is worth it. And speaking of precious little time, I saw the Grim Reaper lurking in the parking lot next to your car. Auf wiedersehen, Dr. Kissinger!”

[The End]

________________

Dear Mr. Olson:

Thank you for your submission. We’re proud that The Onion has been praised by media experts for “being at the forefront of a politically and socially conscious niche of satire.”[5] Earlier this year, the media titan Univision Communications acquired a 40% controlling interest in The Onion. As the new executive editor, and having recently moved over to The Onion from Univision’s corporate headquarters, I can assure that we will continue to be the trailblazer for this mission, especially with Millennials, who constitute our primary target audience and revenue source.

Our bread and butter is making people laugh, but, of course, we’re primarily in the entertainment business. We must show a healthy profit for our shareholders, or we’ll cease to exist. Some people claim that satire’s highest obligation is to speak truth to power. I disagree. It’s not that truth is unimportant, but, when compared to competing needs and demands, it’s an overrated virtue.

Today, our ability to absorb, assimilate, and commodify art, including satire, is virtually limitless. We see an exceedingly bright future for political satire as a valuable commodity. Satire sells!

Further, you’ve egregiously misinterpreted Cole Bolton’s statement about “calling out bullshit.” Our lampooning of episodic corporate greed and stupidity is a far cry from what your narrator does in his defense of Dr. Kissinger.

We’re a publication that prides itself on our hard-earned reputation that “everything is fair game.” An ICC guilty verdict would have tracked well with some of our readership. The only submissions we won’t consider for The Onion are transgressive ones like your own, with its neo-Swiftian overtones of indicting the entire free market system.

You might consider starting your own blog, a popular option for satirists who fail to pass muster in mainstream publications.

Sincerely,

Bob Walpole
Executive Editor
The Onion/Univision Communications, Inc.
Chicago, IL

Dear Bob:

After receiving your rejection letter, I noted that Haim Saban is Univision’s chairperson and co-owner. As reported in a New Yorker profile, Saban revealed that one of his preferred methods for influencing American politics is to gain control of media outlets.[6] This all cries out for a delicious, over-the-top satire. Clearly, it won’t appear in The Onion.

Sincerely,

Gary Olson

Mr. William Wood
Editor
The New Yorker
​1100 Park Avenue
NY NY​

Dear Mr. Wood: ​

Knowing that the magazine occasionally publishes satire, I’m submitting my piece “Karl Marx Defends Henry Kissinger Before the International Criminal Court.”

Sincerely,
Gary Olson

​Dear Mr. Olson:​

We all agreed that while your piece was engaging and neo-Swiftian in both style and substance it’s not a good fit for us.

​As Andy Borowitz, our satirist-in-residence is fond of saying, “I​ just want to make people laugh.”​ Neither our subscribers​ nor​ our advertisers would ​be amused by a wholesale​ indictment of the global capitalist system. We’ll pass.

Sincerely,
​Bill Wood
Editor
The New Yorker

Mr. William M. Thackeray
Executive Producer
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
1818 Park Ave.
New York, NY 10034

Dear Mr. Thackeray:

Enclosed please find my writing sample, “Karl Marx Defends Henry Kissinger Before the International Criminal Court.” I’ve long been of the opinion that, by just taking a few more risks, your program, and, before that, The Daily Show, could serve as the response to the rhetorical question, “Where is Jonathan Swift when we need him?”

In a slight twist on Russell Peterson’s distinction between pseudo-satire and real satire, I’m suggesting that the former only reveals the empire’s nudity, while the latter explains how we’ve been manipulated into never seeing that nakedness.[7]

As you’re undoubtedly aware, Swift turned to satire like Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal when his earlier, non-satirical writing on Britain’s brutal colonialism in Ireland was ignored. Because incomparably worse situations exist in our day, I immediately thought of your show when looking for an appropriate venue for my writing.

Sincerely,

Gary Olson

Dear Mr. Olson:

Thanks for your submission. At our weekly reading of submissions, several staff laughed aloud and a few even applauded your audacity in employing this form of neo-Swiftian satire.

At the same time, we all agreed that your piece cuts too close to the bone. When Marx argues that free market capitalism is the primary culprit for U.S. domestic problems and mischief abroad, that’s off-limits for us. One staffer noted that it’s actually too Swiftian.

It’s one thing for Stephen to skewer politicians like Trump or brilliantly excoriate President Bush at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2006. It’s quite another—as your narrator does—to exhibit outright contempt for the free market system that’s made the United States the envy of the world. Swift satirically portrayed the evils of English colonialism,[8] but we both know a neo-Swiftian would never be invited to perform for dinner guests at the White House! Stephen was accorded fulsome praise from many critics for his courage, integrity, and, frankly, his cojones.

When Sec. Kissinger guested on The Colbert Report, Stephen respectfully introduced him as: “A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, an adviser to seven presidents, and friend of the show, Dr. Henry Kissinger.” Displaying an endearing, self-deprecating sense of humor, Dr. Kissinger has also been on the show in a dance party clip with Stephen and judging a guitar solo concert. He even crooned, “We’ll Meet Again” during Stephen’s rousing farewell show. By all accounts, the audience loved Dr. Kissinger, who graciously remained after the show to sign autographs.

I also worked on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show when Dr. Kissinger accepted Jon’s invitation to guest on the program. He sat on the couch and kibitzed with Jon, who referred to him throughout as “sir.” Jon encouraged Dr. Kissinger to expound on his new book. We pride ourselves on taking liberties, but we recognize the permissible boundaries of satire. (Parenthetically, South Park, a quite different Comedy Central satire, absolutely prides itself on performing merciless social satire where nothing is sacred and all ideas are mocked.)

In any event, you almost seem to suggest that Jon or Stephen should have just come out and asked Dr. Kissinger if his public career was about killing millions of people on behalf of capitalism and empire. That’s beyond ludicrous. It’s also rude, insolent, and bordering on defamatory. Understandably, Dr. Kissinger would never again grace us with his presence on our show.

Did our treatment of Dr. Kissinger confer a certain cultural legitimacy on his invaluable public service to our nation? Absolutely. We make no apologies for that. We’ll take an emphatic pass on your employment application.

Finally—and this is purely a personal aside—you might exhibit some humility and gratitude for being a citizen of the United States, the freest country in the world, where you can write this frothy revolutionary venom and pursue publishing options without fear of retribution.

Sincerely,

Bill M. Thackeray
Executive Producer
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
1818 Park Ave.
New York, NY 10034

Dear Mr. Thackeray,

First, I’m indebted to you for clarifying the boundaries of permissible satire.

Second, you cited South Park as evidence of no-holds-barred satire. Paul Cantor writes approvingly that Viacom executives pumped so much money into South Park “not because they value free speech or trenchant satire but because the show has developed a niche market and is profitable.” No doubt they also share Cantor’s encomium for the show when he says that South Park “celebrates the most developed defense of capitalism.” Co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are self-identified libertarians who’ve voiced disgust for the liberal left. When Stone was asked, “So, what’s it like working for a multinational corporation,” he replied, “It’s pretty good, you know? We can say whatever we want.”[9]

Third, not long after receiving your rejection letter, I came across a 2004 interview with Liz Winstead, the long-departed co-creator of The Daily Show. Asked about Jon’s soft interviews, Winstead replied, “When you are interviewing a Richard Perle or a Kissinger, if you give them a pass, then you are becoming what you are satirizing. You have a war criminal sitting on your couch—to just let him be a war criminal sitting on your couch means you are having to respect some kind of boundary.”[10]

Finally, Jonathan Swift composed his own epitaph in a final effort to influence future readers of to pursue social justice. The words are found on his grave site inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.

Jonathan Swift
(1667-1745)

[Here is deposited the body
of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology
Dean of this Cathedral Church
Where fierce indignation can no longer
Rend his heart.
Go traveler, if you can
And imitate this earnest and dedicated
Champion of Liberty.]

Obviously, these words are not for your edification. But if, per chance, my essay and correspondence with you and other prominent satire editors finds a publisher, Swift’s words might be taken to heart and find renewed meaning and inspiration among his kindred spirits.

With all the respect you are due,

Gary Olson

Author’s note:  All three responses to my submission are fictitious. Robert Walpole, W.M. Thackeray and William Wood were three of Jonathan’s Swift’s fiercest political enemies and frequently the target of his satires on British colonialism.

The author gratefully acknowledges valuable comments by Sarah Goletz and Kathleen Kelly on an earlier version of this essay.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., is a member of the Political Science Department, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is EMPATHY IMPERILED: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (NY: Springer/Verlag, 2013). Contact: olsong@moravian.edu

Endnotes:
[1] Chris Heller, “The Onion is not a Joke” The Atlantic, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/05/area-media-company-makes-money/392141/

[2] Greg Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman (New York: Picador, 2016); see also, Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2001). Reissued in paper by Atlantic Books in 2012. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/05/10/the-influencer​

[3] Wallace Shawn explores this banality of evil in two plays, Aunt Dan and Lemon, including the appendix on the context of the play (New York: Grove Press, 1985) and The Fever (New York: Grove Press, 1991).

[4] Jacob Stein, “The Morality of Reasonable Doubt,” www.greenbag.org/v13n2/v13n2_stein.pdf

[5] AP, “The Onion’s Bid to Create More Fake Campaign News,” International New York Times, September 12, 2016. http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/theonion-s-bid-to-create-more-fake-campaign-news-9216712.php

[6] Connie Bruck, “The Influencer,” The New Yorker, May 20, 2010. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/05/10/the-influencer

[7] Peterson, Russell. Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

[8] David McNally, Another World is Possible (Monmouth Wales: The Merlin Press, 2006), pp. 146-7. See also Mr. Fish, Go Fish (New York: Akashic Books, 2011) pp. 219-23. When Dwayne Booth (a.k.a. Mr. Fish) was asked about his ultimate goal as a political cartoonist, he replied, “To disrupt what people assume to be true but what is in fact programmed ignorance. There is truth out there.” MR FISH TRUTHDIG LIVE! http://www.clowncrack.com/2016/08/26/mr-fish-truthdig-live/

[9] Cantor, Paul A. “Cartman Shrugged: The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand in South Park.” Mises Daily Articles, Jan. 25, 2013. https://mises.org/library/cartman-shrugged-invisible-gnomes-and-invisible-hand-south-park

[10] Kurt Anderson, “Taking Back the Dial,” Mother Jones (May-June 2004) http://motherjones.com/media/2004/05/taking-back-dial

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