High Desert Sketches: A simple explanation for a very complex notion

From time to time I find it necessary to explain the meaning of satire. I always start with Lord Byron’s definition, “Fools are my theme, let satire be my song.” 

I also love the definition I received locally from internationally-renowned philosopher, educator, and girls basketball coach, Leo Dominguez. He said, “My definition of satire is simply the cognitive conjuring of complicated criticism that causes comical, critical and convoluted condemnation of a condition.”

It was only after reading his definition that I realized his dictionary only went as far as the Cs, but he captured the essence of satire. 

One of my two favorite writers of satire is Johnathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish cleric who wrote, among other things, Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal.” In the latter, he proposed that instead of ignoring the starvation going on in Ireland during the potato blight, that the British accept a modest proposal from an American friend of his: to cook and eat Irish infants. Because he was a cleric, no one proposed burning him at the stake. My second favorite satirical writer is the Frenchman Voltaire, who wrote the novel Candide.

One of my longest and most enduring satirical targets are the Texas A&M University Aggies. I had to explain to my readers outside of Texas that Aggies are small, smelly rodents found throughout the state. In a follow-up column, I wrote that I was incorrect — that most Aggies aren’t that small. 

In another column, I described the Aggie wedding ritual as being conducted by a fundamentalist preacher wearing an uncured sheepskin with goat antlers, and that the ceremony involved a secret Aggie handshake and stale beer. It ends with the preacher saying “You are now married without possibility of parole!”

Finally, I had to write a column explaining that I was being satirical and that some of my best friends are Aggies. 

Satire has a long representation in history. In 411 BC, the ancient Greek poet Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, in which the protagonist convinces women to withhold sex from men in an effort to convince them to end the Peloponnesian War. It didn’t work then, and it wouldn’t work today, but it was a very funny play.

Today, we have Dave Barry and hundreds of stand-up comics to keep the spirit of satire alive. There have even been recent examples of young people using satire to comment on the insanity we have seen in recent years. My favorite is the “Birds Aren’t Real” campaign that has swept many parts of the internet. On Instagram and TikTok, Birds Aren’t Real accounts have racked up hundreds of thousands of followers, and YouTube videos about it have gone viral. Recently, Birds Aren’t Real adherents even protested outside Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco to demand that the company change its bird logo.

The events were all connected by a Gen Z-fueled conspiracy theory, which posits that birds are really drone replicas installed by the devious U.S. government to spy on Americans. Hundreds of thousands of young people have joined the movement, wearing Birds Aren’t Real T-shirts, swarming rallies and spreading the word.

It might smack of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that the world is controlled by an elite cabal of child-trafficking Democrats. Except that the creator of Birds Aren’t Real and the movement’s followers are in on a joke: they know that birds are, in fact, real and that their theory is just an example of outlandish fake news.

What Birds Aren’t Real truly is, they say, is a parody social movement with a purpose. In a post-truth world dominated by online conspiracy theories, young people have coalesced around the effort to thumb their nose at, fight, and poke fun at misinformation. It’s Gen Z’s attempt to upend the rabbit hole with absurdism and I applaud them all.

The creator of the movement is Peter McIndoe, 23, a floppy-haired college dropout in Memphis who created Birds Aren’t Real on a whim in 2017. For years, he stayed in character as the conspiracy theory’s chief believer, commanding acolytes to rage against those who challenged his dogma. But now, he said in an interview, he is ready to reveal the parody lest people think birds really are drones. The young man realizes that there’s a thin line today between reality and fake news, but he has decided he must come out of character and disclose the satire he has created to prove almost anybody can create a worldwide phenomenon with no facts. 

Last year, a group of artists and activists developed a project satirizing Mexico’s mistreatment of the migrant “caravan” from Central America. When media outlets started broadcasting their satirical video, it triggered an outcry against what many cast as hypocritical racism and bigotry. Does it matter that the video was fake?

I am delighted to know that there are enough intelligent young people today that can create satire on a level that will be long remembered. 

If you think we may run out of things to satirize, contemplate the fact that many of former President Tweet’s followers are now fighting the pandemic by taking drugs meant to deworm cows and other livestock. What do they expect? To get more milk?