Just today, Young Turks founder and head anchor Cenk Uygur was called out for a series of misogynistic blog posts he wrote in the early 2000s. These posts included complaints about not getting laid enough (“It seems like there is a sea of tits here, and I am drinking in tiny droplets”), rules for dating (“If I haven’t felt your tits by [the third date], things are not about to last much longer”), and the hotness of underage girls (“whores in training”) in a post co-written with TYT contributor Dave Koller. Uygur has since apologized for these posts, saying he has changed and that some of what he wrote, particularly the post with Koller, was “over-the-top satire.”
The same goes for Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi, who recently found himself in hot water over his time at the eXile, a Moscow-based magazine he ran with Mark Ames in the 1990s. They used the publication to cultivate images of themselves as sexually-charged expats who knew the ins and outs of Russian women, writing about them in the most vulgar ways imaginable. Taibbi’s female colleagues from then claim they saw no inappropriate sexual behavior from him (Kathy Lally’s harrowing account of his mental abuse notwithstanding), but what’s interesting is not whether or not his words reflect his actions – it’s that, like Uygur, Taibbi offered the same defense of his work at the eXile – it was satire:
“While the events described are not a biographical reality, this is not to say I don’t have regrets about the eXile, which was conceived as a giant satire…In my younger mind this sounded like a good idea…but in practice it was often stupid, cruel, gratuitous, and mean-spirited. I regret…putting my name as a co-author on a book that used cruel and misogynistic language to describe many people and women in particular.”
Both Uygur and Taibbi have apologized, and no women have accused them of sexual assault (at least as of this writing) – but this doesn’t mean we can close the books on them just yet. Just as a thought experiment, let’s take them at their word and assume that what they wrote was intended only to be satirical. Even if they’re telling the truth on this, we can only conclude that their satire sucks. Here’s why.
In the 1970s, the film professor Alexander Mackendrick (known to all his students as Sandy) talked to a student filmmaker who pitched him a boardroom satire about a power broker whose phone forces him to tell the truth. Upon hearing this pitch, Sandy asked him several questions about phones and lie detector tests. The young man grew increasingly frustrated by this grilling, since the questions didn’t deal with the premise directly, but there was a method to Sandy’s madness: he wanted to teach his class that when you write satire, the satirical element should come last. If you earn your authenticity with a convincing framework, achieved through research, you’ll achieve your ends honestly.
Stanley Kubrick and his screenwriters understood this when they made Dr. Strangelove. The film is rightly regarded as a satirical masterpiece, but attributing its success only to its sense of humor misunderstands how it earns its laughs. By researching exactly what would happen if we were pushed to the brink, Kubrick made the film as authentic as a documentary. Given that he contains it primarily in three locations – the war room, the plane, and the military base – you’d think you were watching a documentary if you turned the sound off. Amateur satirists got the wrong lesson from Strangelove and skip the research in lieu of throwing punches right away.
Without the research and the framework to allow the audience to understand that what they’re watching is meant to be satirical, they won’t understand you’re pulling their leg. Uygur and Taibbi’s work lacks such form, which is why people have called them out for its heinous content. If they were better satirists, they would have given their readers the framework right away, but since they don’t, we can’t immediately tell that their writing is satirical.
What’s more, for good satire to work, it has to punch up. The main characters of some of our most beloved comedies and satires are often low-status because that allows us to see from their point of view why the high-status characters deserve what’s coming to them. Every great satirist from Aristophanes to Jordan Peele knows this, which is why their work (though not always intentionally so) rings true as satire. Uygur and Taibbi don’t (or didn’t) get this – they punch down and slut-shame women from their own point of view, and it becomes self-serving tripe about why they can’t get laid. It does not illuminate us or leave us with any new understanding about societal ills. It’s just gross.
So, are Uygur and Taibbi dishonest pigs, or brilliant satirists who we just didn’t get? If the intent was always to satirize, then they are shitty satirists, and for them to retroactively characterize their prior work as “satirical” is a disingenuous mind game that forces their readers to ask tough questions about their true intent.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.