The World as Satire?

You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.
– Art Buchwald

I’ve been laid up all week with a sore knee – actually, sore is not the word for it, more like pain to the nth degree – and as a result, haven’t done much other than read and watch TV. And think.

I keep mulling over the questions about free speech and censorship raised by the tragic Charlie Hebdo incident. And this will probably be my last word on that subject for a while. I think the bottom line on this issue was stated succinctly the other day by none other than Riss, head of publication for Charlie Hebdo, who was injured during the attack. He said, “If you don’t like the magazine, you don’t read it, you push it aside.”

This echoes the approach laid out by the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BCE: “If you do not wish to have your heart disturbed by desire, then do not look at objects of desire.” So, if you do not wish to be offended, do not look at things you find offensive. Don’t like that a certain film has nudity, don’t watch the film. Don’t like what someone is saying on TV, change the channel.

At the same time, there can be a fine line between what is satirical and what is offensive. The legendary comedian Lenny Bruce once used the N-word 22 times in short piece of shtick that lasted about 30 seconds. He said at the end of the routine, “Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He went on to say that if you used the word repeatedly until it “didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” I’m not sure Lenny was right about that, but nonetheless, he was hailed as a genius.

Decades later when Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) repeatedly used the N-word at the Laugh Factory, it didn’t work and he was labeled a racist. What was the difference? Simply that Richard, whom I don’t believe intended to be racist, didn’t have a point. He was merely trying to shock, entertain. And he ended up being offensive.

Still, making fun of things just for the fun of it is, well, fun. I guess it comes down to how it’s done . . .

I’ve also been thinking about how Islam is not the only religion that is sensitive about images of its founder. During Buddhism’s first six centuries, no images of Buddha were ever made. Instead, he was represented by a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf. We have long passed that era but today in certain Asian countries where the more fundamentalist branch of Theravada is the predominate form of Buddhism, folks can be touchy about how Buddha is portrayed.

The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.
The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals are facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. In August, a Canadian tourist was expelled for having a Buddha tattoo and a Spanish tourist was expelled in September for his Buddhist tattoo.

Last April, A British tourist was arrested as she arrived at the airport in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo after authorities spotted a traditional, non-satiric tattoo of Buddha sitting atop a Lotus flower on her right arm.

It’s a fine line, all right. You can err by being offensive, you can also be overly sensitive. I don’t find the Buddha with headphones image offensive, but then I’ve been guilty of creating some less than traditional images of Buddha myself . . . just for the fun of it . . .

From a 2010 post, here is a scene from the Dairyvatara or “Sutra of the Decent to Dairy Queen”:


In 2011, I wondered what the stereotypical American Buddhist looked like . . .

Not content to insult the original Buddha, I’ve also lampooned the “Second Buddha”:


I’ve even had to audacity to depict The Marx Brothers as iconic Bodhisattvas – here’s their statues in Guru Hall at Whyaduck Temple:


Well, whaddya expect from a guy who doesn’t even take himself very seriously?

I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.
– Stephen Colbert


We Have Met The Enemy

Growing up I loved the “funnies” in the newspaper, especially the Sunday Funnies when the comic strips had big panels and were in color. My favorites were the usual suspects for that time: Peanuts, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Steve Roper, Tarzan, Flash Gordon and so on. I really liked Milton Caniff’s illustrating in Steve Canyon and Hal Foster’s in Prince Valiant, but I usually found the story lines in those two strips rather boring.

Pogo was a strip I didn’t appreciate until I was a bit older. That’s because it often contained more mature humor and references that were way over my head. In this way, Pogo was like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, which I didn’t get a lot of until later on either, and then in the 1990’s, Pinky and the Brain. Both of those shows included some very dry and sometimes, sophisticated humor. A lot of bad puns, too, but that’s beside the point.

Pogo was the creation of Walt Kelly, whose birthday it is today. He’s not around to celebrate because he died in 1973 at the age of sixty. Kelly was an animator and cartoonist who worked for the Walt Disney studio from 1935 to 1940.  After that, he drew for Dell Comics, where in 1941 he created the characters of Pogo the possum and Albert the alligator.

In 1948, while drawing political cartoons for the New York Star, he decided to use Pogo and Albert in a daily strip and thus Pogo was born on October 4, 1948. In syndication, it became one of the most popular strips in the country, appearing in over 400 newspapers and it continued running until a few years after Kelly’s death.

Pogo was a real mixed bag, a combination of wit and broad humor: sometimes it was just silly, sometimes it was social and political satire. It would take too long to describe Pogo – the setting, the characters, etc. I recommend you check out the official Pogo website here to learn about all that.

Even if you’ve never heard of Pogo, chances are you’re familiar with one very famous phrase from the strip. It was a parody of a message received during the War of 1812 by Army General William Henry Harrison from U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry after the Battle of Lake Erie: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” Kelly first used it in the forward to a Pogo book in 1953, in which he defended his attacks on McCarthyism. The best known version of the phrase appeared on a anti-pollution poster for Earth Day 1970.

First, here is the comic strip version featured in daily newspapers a year after that initial Earth Day, and then the passage from the forward of The Pogo Papers.

By the way, today’s comic strips don’t do much for me. The humor is more contemporary, but the artwork is nothing near the quality of old masters like Walt Kelly.

Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle.

There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.


Walt Kelly, 1953

Happy Birthday, Walt. Long live Pogo.