The Immortality of Satire
The cosmos has an annoying habit of reminding us, just when we feel it simply cannot get any more extreme, that we really haven't seen it all yet. Not even close. In 1878 Johann Philipp Gustav von Jolly,1 a mathematician and physicist of some renown not least for inventing the "Jolly balance," then teaching at the University of Munich, advised one of his students to avoid the study of physics as:
...in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.
His student, Max Planck, ignored him and founded quantum theory instead. (Planck was, however, a force of nature and was still summiting alpine peaks at age 85).
True, the longstanding rumor that in 1899 the then Director of the United States Patent Office Charles H. Duell urged President McKinley to abolish the office entirely because "everything that can be invented has been invented," is a fiction, but Tom Lehrer did in fact find occasion to remark that political satire "became obsolete" when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize in Peace in 1973. But then, Lehrer stopped performing before October 2009.2
Certainly, it appeared that political satire had finally (after taking several rounds to the torso) received a decisive coup de grâce among the fjords in October 2009. Alas, someone appears to have been able to stop the hemorrhaging before it finally expired:
Billy Raye, a 51-year-old unemployed bike courier, is looking for work.
Fortunately for him, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters is seeking paid demonstrators to march and chant in its current picket line outside the McPherson Building, an office complex here where the council says work is being done with nonunion labor.
"For a lot of our members, it's really difficult to have them come out, either because of parking or something else," explains Vincente Garcia, a union representative who is supervising the picketing.
So instead, the union hires unemployed people at the minimum wage—$8.25 an hour—to walk picket lines. Mr. Raye says he's grateful for the work, even though he's not sure why he's doing it. "I could care less," he says. "I am being paid to march around and sound off."3
On reading this account it becomes easy to empathize with Lehrer. A solid ninety minutes of muse invoking ritual fails to issue forth a single sentence that proves even remotely additive to the moment. Instead finem respice is moved to offer only this:
- 1. No, seriously. Even I'm not creative enough to make this up.
- 2. One might be persuaded to give Lehrer a pass on learning that, when reflecting on his musical career in 1997, he remarked: "If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while."
- 3. Jennifer Levitz, "To Protest Hiring of Nonunion Help, Union Hires Nonunion Pickets," The Wall Street Journal (July 16, 2010).