Saturday, January 28, 2017

Motive, Not Malice

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou

I don't talk politics in my classes, for several reasons. But on a recent Thursday, I was giving my English classes a lecture on Social Commentary, how to write it and how to deliver it orally. We were talking about one of the ways to impart social commentary: the humor piece. “Want to read satire that is sometimes so subtle people don’t even realize it’s satire?” I asked them. “Take a peek at, and of course look up the well-known and brilliantly satiric Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.” Then a student mentioned Alec Baldwin's portrayal of President Trump on SNL and suddenly The Great Divide opened. It was clear that I had both vehement supporters and non-supporters of President Trump in this class.

I had not anticipated a political discussion today. This was a complication I had not foreseen in this lecture, but they were starting to snark at one another pretty heavily and I needed to step in.

"Why do you think Alec Baldwin portrays President Trump?” I asked.

“Because he doesn’t like him,” was one response.

“Because it’s funny,” was another.

“Because he gets paid to,” was a third.

Think about this,” I implored. “The answer is the same whether you are a supporter of President Trump or not. Whether you like him or not. This is what satire does. So, why, when it's not always funny, when it's sometimes downright painful, but when it's so spot-on, why?


They were trying. They had those looks on their faces that students get when they are trying to figure something out that is *just* beyond their reach.

“Okay. How many of you have heard the story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’?” I asked them.

One student raised his hand. One. Really? Wow. So I told them a very abbreviated version of the story:

Once upon a time, an Emperor – a vain and silly man who loved all the best things – ordered a new set of robes. The dressmakers who came to make his clothes fooled him, though. They could spin material that was lighter than air, they said, so fine it was lighter than a spider’s web. But people who were uncommonly stupid or unfit for their post would be unable to see it. Who would ever admit they couldn’t see the cloth? When the clothes were “revealed” to the Emperor, he couldn’t see them (because they did not exist). But instead of admitting that, and perhaps catching the dressmakers in their hustle, he was afraid people would think him incapable of office. So he remained silent. Thus, all those around him remained silent. He “dressed” in his non-existent clothes and went out for a procession. Finally, it took a child to speak up. “But he hasn’t got anything on!” the child said. “He’s naked.” The Emperor continued, with every step realizing what he was.*

This is why Alec Baldwin portrays President Trump, I told my students. He shows us precisely the behavior we closed our eyes to. He shows us what we chose not to see. We saw the clothes that we pretended were there. Alec Baldwin is the child in the crowd repeatedly telling us “But he hasn’t got anything on!” President Trump, of course, is the Emperor.

And with that, they understood. We didn’t have to talk politics anymore because the politics itself didn’t matter. Not today. Today was about a larger point. Today we saw a motive where before I think they had just seen malice. I tell them, that is Social Commentary. They are living it. They are part of it. It moves and breathes as each of them moves and breathes. And as long as they have an idea, then the idea for change lives on.

*Credit to Hans Christian Andersen, "The Emperor's New Clothes," 1837

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