Charlie Hebdo and 'The Interview'

What is the connection between satire and international politics?

Politics can hardly be described without using dramatic or theatrical metaphors. There are directors behind the scenes and players who act according to their parts. The audience is deceived, mostly willingly, though special effects can make the deception real. Satire, though not necessarily a dramatic art, shares in this analogy because it is related to comedy. But the fundamental connection is deception.

Politics is a kind of open deception, a deception that many people, though not the people invested in any particular politician or program, see as flagrant and shameless. Satire is the art of counter-deception. It seeks to undeceive the reader or viewer. It shows him something that appears true or false, while punctiliously reminding him it is the reverse. A particular satire totally deceives only the person who does not recognize that he behaves precisely in the way that is being mocked; everyone else is disabused of some notion or behavior.

Most of all, satire is related to politics because the purpose of both deception and counter-deception is to change people's behavior. All art can be interpreted as political to some extent, but satire is practical in its politics.

In international politics, the need to deceive is fundamentally the same as in domestic politics. Antagonism between nations is not inherently different than antagonism between ethnicities or parties or religions. Civil wars, and international cooperation, show that there is never any firm or reliable division between home and abroad, despite the natural human tendency to focus on what is close to hand. The enforcement of laws is generally more effective in a domestic sphere, but lack of enforcement is often rampant, and conflicts can divide the polity; the international system is mostly anarchic, but military, institutional and ideological frameworks impose constraints.

Any nation that believes itself free (that is, every nation) must contend with the intrusions of others that do not share the same concepts or practices of freedom. When citizens of liberal democracies contend that civil rights should be preserved, they are faced with the criticism that they merely wish to impose their values on the outside world, and indeed they often do. But of course their freedoms are often demonstrably more extensive than those of others as well.

However, as the United States, Europe, Japan and other industrialized liberal democracies have weakened relative to rising powers like Turkey, Iran, India and China, as well as pseudo-states like the Islamic State, a different dynamic has become more obtrusive: the political elite in the Western states are now exerting themselves in trying to impose outside values onto the domestic polity in order to accommodate the populace to challenges from abroad that cannot be readily dealt with.

A popular backlash against the intolerance of foreign regimes or actors threatens domestic stability and leaders' grip on power, and yet the cost of a more confrontational foreign policy is deemed too high. Therefore in an effort to maintain stability, leaders moderately condemn foreign actions, without taking firm counter-measures, while using other tools to distract or pacify the populace so that calls for such measures are muted.

This phenomenon is what we have witnessed, in various ways, with the alleged North Korean hack of Sony and with yesterday's Islamist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Clearly these are two very different events. One involved property theft, the other involved murder. Assuming the North Korean state lay behind the hack, it contrasts with the Charlie massacre for being a state action. The identities of the attackers in France are not fully known, they may have been French citizens or foreign nationals, but they likely acted without (direct) state backing.

Moreover it is hard to call a Norkor hack "terrorism," though it was an act of political cyber-sabotage that had intimidating consequences for states, corporations and some individuals. But the common people were not terrified in the sense that they perceived they could have been victims. The Charlie massacre was terrorism, and even people who do not work in the press or do not take provocative stances on controversial issues feel, with some reason, that they could fall victim to this sort of violence. At the same time the Charlie attack threatens their access to political information and expression, which is a threat of a different order, somewhat closer to the Sony hack.

Still, people are not necessarily wrong to see a connection between the events. They both involve maverick Western artists suffering on some level for their art at the hands of enemies with intolerant ideologies, Marxist-Leninist-Juche or Islamist jihad. Those who hold these ideologies have proved intolerant toward mere words and images. They refuse passively to accept criticism and ridicule from what others perceive as harmless artworks or pranks, but believe a physical response is necessary to deter similar attempts in future.

But there is a dramatic difference in the domestic responses. The Sony hack enabled American leaders to present themselves as champions of free speech opposed to the totalitarian Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Originally Sony attempted to withdraw the film that supposedly caused the trouble. This was of course prudence about Sony's own property rather than suppression of free speech. But it reflected private interests to the neglect of a perceived public good, the public's craving for entertainment and desire to stand up to foreign intimidation. President Obama chastised the company so that he could appear to defend free expression, which both confirmed the public's demand for more courage from Sony and simultaneously distracted the populace from the US defense establishment's inability or unwillingness to prevent a foreign cyber-attack on an American company.

The defense establishment has signaled repeatedly that it perceives cyber-threats to be severe and the cyber-realm to be an international commons comparable to land, sea, air and space. The traditional military equivalent of the hack would be something like an elite DPRK expeditionary force conducting an amphibious landing in San Francisco bay and raiding the headquarters of Google to steal intellectual property and intimidate executives into withholding certain products from the public. Hence the very real US response of crippling North Korea's inchoate internet and imposing sanctions.

By contrast, the Charlie Hebdo massacre forced the French leaders into the awkward position of trying to present themselves as champions of free speech while lacking the ability to present the bad guy in as clear terms as the US could do with the Norkors. To identify the attackers with the ideology with which they self-identify -- Muslim jihad -- risks (somehow) lumping them together with mainstream Muslims, from whom the state hopes to receive compliance or collaboration. Hence the calls for national unity and careful avoidance of anything linking Islam with the extremist ideology of the attackers.

These calls are well and good, but the public wants to feel secure, and part of security is identifying the enemy and taking action to prevent him from repeating the attack. French leaders are wary of igniting a broader confrontation with the majority of Muslims, so they tread softly. But the soft tread comes as an insult to French citizens who perceive rightly that fundamental liberties are at stake and that a policy of accommodation will only embolden jihadists.

Thus the problem is not of the French state foisting its liberalism on the Muslim strata of society -- these attackers were not motivated by the ban on headscarves -- but rather foisting a "tolerance" of certain Islamic (sharia) precepts onto French society, while hoping that security forces can prevent future attacks and avoid further escalation. The domestic policy response is intended to prevent a destabilizing confrontation that would draw on extensive resources from Muslim powers at home and abroad (state or non-state), but at the expense of exacerbating the already growing (naturally, in the wake of violent attacks) anti-Muslim sentiment at home.

The American government and media use the same tactics with relation to the Islamist threat in general and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in particular.

The American media has not changed its editorial policies to respond to the actual circumstances of the attacks in Paris, but has continued devoting more air time to the intolerance of French society, and the dangers of Marine le Pen and Islamophobia, than to the intolerance of jihadism and dangers of terrorism. On NPR, a commentator spoke about how freedom of speech was already compromised in France because it was illegal to deny the Holocaust. The implication is that Muslim jihadists are not the only ones limiting speech and the press. Of course, no other commentator or interviewer corrected him by pointing out the simple fact that the Charlie attacks are primarily about one's right to live, i.e. not be murdered, and secondarily about one's right to speak or publish freely. But the NPR guest's pernicious sophistry at least illustrates that laws regulating speech open the door to abuse by ideological extremists and their intellectual abettors.

The DPRK's threats serve to unite the American (and Japanese) populace against a foreign communist enemy, and thus American leaders have every reason to exaggerate them while also talking up their ability to respond forcefully to them. But jihadist terrorism divides the American (and European) populace by antagonizing the people against Muslims, backing moderate Muslims into a corner and radicalizing them in response, and creating security fears that undermine the leaders. Therefore the policy implemented from on high demands that American and European populations accommodate themselves to Muslim sensitivities, even if that means letting go of certain freedoms, like, say, the freedom to joke around or draw silly pictures.

What the Western political elites and their agents in the mainstream media fail to understand is that satire is more than it appears. Satire is not merely jokes and sarcasm and stuff, but the ridicule of vice. It requires at least some vague sense of what is virtuous as well as what is vicious. Failing to defend this particular mode of speech (and press) is a general failure to defend basic rights but also a particular failure to defend the public's sense of virtue. Politicians end up softening criticism toward violent actors and hardening criticism toward non-violent actors. They do so because they do not wish a conflagration to occur under their watch that would force them from office or worse. This is a tactic of buying time, but it cannot ultimately procure a jihadi-liberal accommodation because it asks (regardless of what politicians say) Western national opinion to share a sharia interpretation of speech and press.

Not only is jihadi vice militating against liberal irony, but liberal "virtue" is stirring against jihadi sincerity. Suddenly strange constellations are forming. Bill Maher, who, however distorted his view of virtue and vice, is a satirist, has enough appreciation for logical consistency that he has pursued his rejection of religion in general even to the point of criticizing Islam. He has thus come to have something in common with a twenty-first century model of the classical liberal tradition, Aayan Hirsi Ali, whose opinions the American left wing is increasingly having trouble smothering. This kind of agreement is symbolic, but it shows movement is occurring.

The process will be very slow and domestic policy will delay it -- the current elite does not want to be pressured by a union of libertarian right and left. So both countries will appear to be shocked the next time jihadists slaughter innocents for speaking or printing their minds. And intellectuals from both countries will appear to be shocked at the savage wave of Islamophobia surrounding them. The French left will still somehow be surprised when Marine le Pen, or someone like her, wins the presidency. The American left will still somehow be surprised when President Obama's foreign policy legacy becomes, among the general public, an object of disdain more frequently than of reverence.


Unlimited Government

Last night while playing pool and drinking Lone Star at Hole in the Wall, I engaged in an argument on the topic of limited government. One member of the company proposed, though did not go so far as to assert a full and settled conviction, that "it is absurd to promote or favor limited government." He said such a principle can have no practical application in the current era and in this country, that there is already excess of government and will forever continue to be since government will not be constrained but will overpower any attempts to constrain it, and a policy of limiting government is bound to be disastrous. The basis for the argument was that government does not merely include state organs, but includes all powerful organizations, including corporations, and since there is no way for people not to be governed, the question is only what they will be governed by; shrinking the organs of the state would only be to increase government by corporations or other powerful entities; therefore to speak of limiting government is merely to prefer government by different organizations than are currently felt to be in power.

To my interlocutor I posed the question whether it is equally absurd to promote or favor unlimited government. He hesitated but at length affirmed that it was, since to do otherwise would be to affirm that unlimited government is reasonable while limited government is absurd, and he would not go so far. Yet his own position, that all people are always under some form of governance and that "government" is not limited to public agencies of the state but includes all modes of institutional and social power, clearly is an argument for currently existing unlimited government. Monopoly of force, I added, is a characteristic of formal federal government, and can hardly admit of a peer among the other organizations that are allegedly equal forms of government. Corporations do not have armies; even if we grant that some of them have small mercenary bands, we must acknowledge that these exist at the will of the public authority, and in terms of military power do not present a significant rival.

The only argument I could think to make at the time was that corporations, if they be admitted as governing structures, exist only insofar as consumers continue to buy their products and use their services. They collapse into bankruptcy, or into government-administered (!) life-support, if their consumers dwindle or disappear. Hence consumer relationships with corporations are voluntary, critical exceptions being utilities and groceries and a few others providing basic necessities. Certainly even these latter relationships are more voluntary than the relationship with the civil authority that exacts taxes, administers justice, and wages police action and war. Unless one is inclined to elevate tangible organizations into a metaphysical category and argue that the corporate sector is unified and derives its power and wealth from the same source, one must recognize that corporations are in fact in competition with each other, to such a degree that governance by corporations can only be conceived as a confederacy, not as a centralized power comparable to formal federal power. Even if one does not voluntarily go to the grocery, one does voluntarily choose which grocer to go to. The high degree of inter-corporate competition means greater pressure on companies at all times, hence they are weaker and less capable of exerting "power" or coercion over their customers. The voluntary relationship between consumers and companies, and the confederate relationship of companies to each other, and the extreme element of contingency woven throughout both these relationships, should show that even if rule by corporations were the necessary consequence of limiting governance by state institutions, this rule would inherently prove weaker and less uniform than that of state institutions. In other words, even if one grants that reducing one form of authority will only usher in other forms of authority, nevertheless these forms of authority will differ in their applications and qualities.

The remaining question, on this line of thought, would be whether one prefers strong and uniform government by federal institutions, or weak and multiform government by "corporate" institutions. Both have their disadvantages and dangers. One thing is clear: the concept of limited government allows of gradations, whereas the concept of unlimited government is an absolute. As far as absurdity goes, absolutes seem much better suited to meet the definition. If it were true that "government" extends to all organizations that have power over people's lives, then its unlimited nature resides in the definition -- it needs no advocates.

Of course, the dichotomy of state-government and corporate government is false. It is only an absurdity to propose limiting unlimited government if one includes self-government in the definition of unlimited government. One can rationally call for limiting corporate and state government, if that is what is meant by unlimited government; while to oppose limiting the "illimitable" power of government would not only be to oppose limiting federal power but also to oppose limiting corporate power and the power of all other overarching organizations. Ultimately the great omission of my opponent's argument and other such arguments reveals itself, continually, to be even a hint toward the concept of any sort of control exerted by a person upon his or her self. The argument for the absurdity of limited government on the basis that government is inherently unlimited (and defined as the aggregate of all powerful institutions and organizations) now appears in its true light as an argument for the abolition of self-government.


The Policeman in Your Head

There's little I can add to the story of Syrian security forces beating cartoonist Ali Ferzat. I've posted one of his cartoons as an example of his work.

The amazing thing about satire is how reality continually tries to outdo it. The headline below says it all. The entire article is worth reading.

Syrian gunmen break hands of anti-regime cartoonist, warn him to stop drawing

By: Zeina Karam, The Associated Press

Posted: 08/26/2011 12:41 AM

BEIRUT - A renowned political cartoonist whose drawings expressed Syrians' frustrated hopes for change was grabbed after he left his studio and beaten by masked gunmen who broke his hands and dumped him on a road outside Damascus.

One of Syria's most famous artists, Ali Ferzat, 60, earned international recognition and the respect of many Arabs with stinging caricatures that infuriated dictators including Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and, particularly in recent months, Syria's autocratic Assad family.

On Thursday evening, he lay badly bruised in a hospital bed with his hands swathed in bandages, a stark reminder that no Syrian remains immune to a brutal crackdown on a five-month anti-government uprising.

Ferzat remembers the gunmen telling him that "this is just a warning," as they attacked and beat him early Thursday, a relative told The Associated Press.

"We will break your hands so that you'll stop drawing," the masked men said, according to the relative, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.

Before inheriting Syria's presidency from his father in 2000, Bashar Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, used to visit Ferzat's exhibitions and offer encouraging words, the artist has said.

When the new president opened Syria to reforms, Ferzat was allowed to publish the country's first private newspaper in decades, a satirical weekly called The Lamplighter.

The paper was an instant hit, with copies of each issue selling out a few hours after hitting the stands. It was soon shut down, however, as Assad began cracking down on dissent and jailing critics after the brief, heady period known as the Damascus Spring quickly lost steam.

Ferzat became a vehement critic of the regime, particularly after the military launched a brutal crackdown on the country's protest movement.

Human rights groups said Assad's forces have killed more than 2,000 people since the uprising against his autocratic rule erupted in mid-March, touched off by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.

An endearing figure with a bushy grey beard, Ferzat drew cartoons about the uprising and posted the illustrations on his private website, providing comic relief to many Syrians who were unable to follow his work in local newspapers because of a ban on his drawings.

His illustrations grew bolder in recent months, with some of his cartoons directly criticizing Assad, even through caricatures of the president are forbidden in Syria.

This week, he published a cartoon showing Assad with a packed suitcase, frantically hitching a ride with a fleeing Gadhafi. Another drawing showed dictators walking a long red carpet that leads them, in the end, to a dustbin.

The response was swift.

Ferzat, who usually works late into the night, left his studio at 4 a.m. Thursday, but a jeep with tinted windows quickly cut him off, according to the relative. Four masked gunmen then dragged him out of his car, bundled him into the jeep and drove him to the airport road just outside Damascus, beating him and making threats all the while.

The men then singed the artist's beard, put a bag over his head and dumped him on the side of the road.

The Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus described it as a "government-sponsored, targeted, brutal attack."

The Obama administration, which has called for Assad to step down, said the cartoonist's beating was deplorable.

"They broke his hands in the most disgusting and deplorable way to send a message," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "It's not only Ali Ferzat that we're worried about. The regime has also locked up a number of other prominent dissidents to send a message."

The United States and European nations are seeking U.N. sanctions against Assad and his regime. The Security Council scheduled closed consultations Thursday on their draft resolution that would impose an arms embargo on Syria, an asset freeze on Assad and key members and companies associated with his regime, and a travel ban on 21 individuals.

Diplomats said Russia and China, both with close ties to Damascus, boycotted the meeting. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin hinted Wednesday that he would veto the resolution, saying the council should use dialogue to persuade Syria to end its violent crackdown on protesters. Calls to Russian and Chinese U.N. Missions seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Assad's crackdown has not spared other Syrian intellectuals and artists who dared to voice criticism. A group of intellectuals and artists, including Syrian actress May Skaff, were rounded up and jailed for a week last month after holding a protest in Damascus.

Damascus-based activist and film producer Shadi Abu Fakher went missing on July 23 and has not been heard of since.

Ferzat, however, is the most famous victim of the repression to date. He had been encouraging other Syrian artists to side with the protesters, even publishing on his website a "List of Shame" that included names of those who were on the side of the regime.

"We were a group of reformers in the country, and suddenly, the doors of hell opened on us. It was a huge disappointment," Ferzat told the AP earlier this month in a phone interview.

The timing of the attack strongly suggests Ferzat's attackers knew his unusual working hours and had been tracking him. Ferzat said his day starts at 5 p.m.

In the telephone interview, he said he was full of hope that the Syrian revolution would bring about the change fervently desired by so many Syrians.

"There are two things in this life that cannot be crushed — the will of God and the will of the people," he said.

Asked if he fears arrest because of his drawings, he said: "I have killed the policeman in my head."

After news of Ferzat's attack broke Thursday, online social networking sites exploded with angry postings.

"Assad's Syria is the burial ground of talent," read a posting on Twitter.

"Ali Ferzat, your innovation will stand in the face of their cowardice and hate," wrote Suheir Atassi, a prominent Syrian pro-democracy activist.

Soon after the attack, his website where he published his cartoons and satirical commentary was taken down. "This account has been suspended," reads a message on the website, http://www.ali-ferzat.com/.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram


The Jumbo Coin

Jack Balkin, a constitutional law specialist at Yale, has written a very interesting article about President Obama's options to raise funds for the government and avoid a default if congress does not raise the debt ceiling. Balkin says that the Treasury cannot simply print more paper to create the money to pay the bills, since there are statutory limitations on how much currency is allowed to circulate at once. However there is no limit on coinage, and there is an arcane provision allowing Treasury to issue platinum coins in any denomination. Therefore "some commentators," according to Balkin, have pointed out that the Treasury could print two platinum coins worth $1 trillion each, put them in a deposit at the Federal Reserve and write checks on the deposit.

Another possible solution features the president selling the Fed a financial option to buy US government property for $2 trillion, which would give the money he needs to meet US government obligations, but with the option later expiring. Balkin says the "jumbo coin" and "exploding option" possibilities haven't been discussed openly because there may be unknown legal reasons they wouldn't work, and at any rate they could prove politically unpalatable -- meaning, in short, that these ideas sound absurd and even a public that is astoundingly credulous at times would have trouble accepting their actual implementation. Notably Balkin mentioned that investors could be terrified since "these devices could be used over and over again," and that degree of uncertainty could trigger a crisis of confidence that the tools are intended to avoid.

Ah, the word "device." The truth now becomes radiantly clear -- the old Shakespearean wisdom blazes before us -- that politics is at its very essence a form of drama. Drama includes farce, and we have now entered the land of cartoons. Congress erupts in a cloud of dust with fists and boots poking out of the storm, and congressmen attempting to smash each other with mallets. Obama, perturbed, picks up his red telephone and calls Geithner and Bernanke into his office. He orders them to procure the sacred platinum coins. Geithner is dispatched to speak to the US Mint, which begins the metallurgic process. The coins, hot off the press, are stamped, wrapped in a velvet cloth and placed in a special indestructible black box. Fifty black SUVs accompany Geithner to the Fed, where Bernanke opens the vault and carefully nestles the box in between the tin-man's heart and the scarecrow's brain. Obama begins writing checks. The US government is saved.

But then something terrible happens. Bernanke awakes in a cold sweat from a nightmare. He dreamed that a turkey stole his scone. He throws a jacket on over his pajamas while rushing downstairs, into his car and off to the Fed. He peeps into the vault to check on the precious coins and Lo! His greatest fear has come true, they are gone! Tripping over himself as he scampers to the red phone, he calls Obama.

"What's the meaning of this?"

"They're gone, Sir. I don't know what happened. They're gone."

"What? What're you talking about? Calm down, damn it, you sound like a madman. What happened?"

"The jumbo coins have disappeared."


"Well, we'll have to make a couple more."

Meanwhile a mysterious seaplane takes off from Chesapeake Bay. The propeller whirs in the night air. A man dressed in black hands over a box of moon cakes to his partner, smiling and nodding.

Et cetera, et cetera.

The debt ceiling debate was foreseeable, in a fairly definable form, immediately after the Tea Party victories of the 2010 midterms. The directors of the republican factions revamped the script of the 1990s "Republican Revolution," which led to a budget crisis and government shutdown before Republicans gained a victory. The twist today is that the opposition party is in a much weaker position, and is attempting to make a much bigger gamble, since the credit of the US is ostensibly at stake. The controversy has intensified over the months under careful orchestration, and it has reached its climax according to a political schedule imposed by the actors themselves. The deadline is artificial, the default threat is mostly artificial, the scaremongering about a new global financial crisis is artificial. As in all stunts, stage tricks and special effects, someone could actually get hurt, but it is unlikely. If the Tea Party attacks too aggressively, and accidentally flings mud into the audience, then the audience will hiss it off stage. Better to compromise at the last minute, having played their craziness convincingly, without actually doing anything crazy.

What is clear from the jumbo coin scenario is that the executive branch is not without extraordinary powers. The real threat to the country may reside here. The plot: a president who resorts to an arcane and unprecedented stratagem -- producing magic tokens from within the cloak of his prerogative -- in order to deliver a nation whose credit is imperiled by the schemes of a monomaniacal faction. The alternate version: the ruling elite conspires across party lines to suppress the attempts of a small, inexperienced group of elected representatives to force the elite to adhere to their own rules and restrain their profligacy that is depleting the nation's coffers and adding tax burdens on the people.

Audiences in general seem to prefer the hero with a magic token to the rebel lawmakers with reformist zeal. A larger and larger share of the American public appears to be adopting this inclination toward the mythical, and in doing so joining the rest of the world. This is conspicuous because the United States was founded upon the latter plot, the plot of representative politics, division of powers and checks and balances. But the country has changed, and audiences now may not even recognize nominal obeisance to forgotten ideals.

In the final days, the rebels must act with utmost tact. If they push their bluff too far and cause damage, they appear as villainous saboteurs, losing the public's support. They also provide the occasion for the executive to set new precedents and create new tools to overrule them, counteracting their aims of limited government. There is at least some risk that they are inferior tacticians, and know not the law of unintended consequences. The danger of the jumbo platinum coin is that it can be produced ad infinitum. Better not to dare the Leviathan.


Miro at the Tate Modern

Not time to explain fully everything I saw at the Miro exhibition at London's Tate Modern, which you can read about here. The exhibit is masterful and well worth the price. But an unfortunate preoccupation of the exhibit's textual commentary was to condense the idiosyncrasy and immense variety of his work, surprising and again surprising in every room, into a single narrative about Miro's political affiliations and commentary on topical events. This was in the typical post-modern art curator's fashion, in which the art is not allowed to say anything for itself but made to speak for conceptual frameworks, -isms, and context, and occluded in the process.

It would be difficult to understate the importance of the Spanish Civil War on any Spanish or European or even any Western artist at the time, and Miro's Catalonian loyalty added another dimension to the story of his artistic response to the conflict. Nevertheless the exhibit somehow managed to overstate the war by neglecting the fact that the surrealists in general and Miro in particular were obsessed with depicting psychological phenomena (as understood through contemporary psychoanalysis) that they believed to be definitive of human existence and prior to, determining of, topical events, however momentous.

If anything the paintings, in consistent contrast to the placards that insisted on a coherent political-military narrative, showed Miro's descent into the subconscious and exploration of dark, often sexual, and certainly internal, forces. The horrible symbols he developed for these forces -- especially the ferocious elephantiasic human forms -- rarely resembled contemporary European conflicts and their images (the woman fleeing a burning house being a poignant exception). They rather appeared as symbols of subconscious drives that must have been supposed to lead to the phenomenon of war itself, even -- especially -- in the atrocious forms of civil war (national self-mutilation), technologically-advanced total war, and genocide. The museum text failed to notice that as its chronology progressed into the Spanish war, the paintings began showing more, and more monstrous, reproductive organs.

Miro's failure is that he has no Guernica. The work he exhibited alongside Picasso's masterpiece-of-masterpieces is not extant, as the exhibit explained. Its survival would not have guaranteed equivalent status to Picasso's masterpiece, which, even if it alone survived, would ensure Picasso's immortality. Miro's achievement seems to have been the cumulative effect of his many works, rather than a single work that says it all -- continual invention of peculiar styles and an elaborate personal symbolism that expanded throughout his life and connected each new technical phase to its predecessors. But the work of Miro's among those in the Tate exhibit that comes closest to Guernica-like sweep is the one that depicts the "tragedy of the old shoe." And here Miro's deliberate avoidance of specific war imagery is clear. The real story of Miro's art is not its involvement in barbarous current events, but detachment from them and obsession with images of the nightmarish psychology at the root of them.

The exhibition commentary erred even in its mission of foregrounding the political and military context by diminishing the impact of World War II relative to the Spanish civil war. The exhibit raised the term "Phoney War," referring to the period of Allied inactivity between Hitler's invasion of Poland in fall 1939 and the eruption of hostilities with France in spring 1940, yet adopted the term subsequently in the exhibit to refer to World War II itself -- a grave error of judgment in an attempt at historical contextualization. This can probably be attributed to the post-modern curator's sense of his own cleverness in implanting a hidden critique of the "myth" of WWII. (This hidden critique was confirmed when later placards referred to most WWII monuments as "bombastic" compared to Miro's unimpressive blobs of un-sculpted clay and found objects.)

Miro's nationality and his whereabouts at different times may be cited by way of explanation for the heavier emphasis on Spain's war, but his work within the exhibit speaks otherwise. The Barcelona Series, 50 terrifying lithographs of black ink on white paper, which consumes a lengthy wall in the heart of the Tate exhibit, showed the most direct artistic response to war, and it was produced in 1944.

This series brings me to the connection with satire. Miro's entire artistic response to the human disasters of the 1930s and 1940s could be viewed as satirical, with the anguished, toothed faces and worn-out ordinary objects and looming gigantic penises all standing in a satirical position toward the horrors and atrocities. But the Barcelona Series specifically grew from Miro's reading of Ubu Roi, the satirical play by Alfred Jarry, which ridiculed bad kings and bad professors alike. The play, written in the 1890s, depicts a tyrannical protagonist who exhibits the worst of infantile emotions and animalistic desires.

The historical background to Miro's work is unavoidable. But the psychological is essential. As usual our post-modernists, in converting Miro's work into just another political protest, have failed to grasp the depth of his terror and his condemnation. Like Cervantes, whose bones will bear the mark, Miro had witnessed war himself. For both Spaniards, however different in other respects, war was not only a matter of acting on bad ideas but also a symptom of an incurable corruption at the heart of humankind.


Scatological satire and re-education

Those who know satire know that it is rarely far from scatological humor. Swift's "excremental vision" is a prime example, and his lengthy poem on Celia shitting. (Notice the occurrence of "Swift" in the title below.) South Park has done much to, um, fertilize this fruitful ground.

Excrement forces a recognition of its existence -- necessary but unpleasant, common to all humans but hidden from public. It forces ideals to encounter the foulest symbol of material and physiological existence. It is the implacable enemy of decorum, formality, hierarchy and privilege.

The following story is about a person in China, apparently a very good person, who wrote a scatological satire on Bo Xilai, the princeling who is responsible for the Maoist revival in Chongqing and who will probably ride his helicopter onto the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012 (unless he becomes too bold and makes a false step that enables his enemies in the party to cut him down). At the moment his rise seems irrepressible, except for the security threat posed by satirists.

There is a great need for satire in China, where it is severely punishable. The country is so unstable that the hard-left rulers believe greater free speech would result in civil war. Which may be true. But not because of speech.

The purpose of satire is to expose social and political vices, that they may be corrected. China's rulers will not tolerate their vices getting exposed. But concealment cannot succeed forever.

Scatological Mockery of Chinese Official Brings Swift Penalty

Published: June 8, 2011


BEIJING — Apparently dismayed by the considerable political power of Bo Xilai, the fast-rising Communist Party leader in the south-central Chinese city of Chongqing, Fang Hong went online in April to express his views about Mr. Bo’s regard for the rule of law — comparing it, in a stanza of crude verse, to excrement.

As a result, Mr. Fang, 45, a retired forestry worker, is serving a year’s sentence in a Chongqing re-education-through-labor camp.

His travails, which became known only this week, are a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about belittling party leaders. Particularly since the Middle East erupted in democratic revolts this year, China’s rulers have dealt ever more harshly with anything they deem a threat to stability, even while permitting freewheeling commentary on other issues.

But Mr. Fang also picked an especially prominent official to mock. Mr. Bo, Chongqing’s populist party secretary, is widely seen as aiming for a spot in the nation’s ruling elite when China’s leadership turns over next year. He has made a national splash with theatrical political stunts, including an ordered-from-the-top revival of Mao-era songs and pageantry, and a bare-knuckles crackdown on corruption that some critics have called overzealous.

It was the anticorruption campaign that Mr. Fang challenged, and which drew the state’s swift retribution.

As reported this week by Britain’s Financial Times, Mr. Fang apparently went online to satirize Chongqing’s prosecution of Li Zhuang, a well-known lawyer who had defended one of the leading targets of Mr. Bo’s war on corrupt officials and their gangs of backers. Mr. Li was convicted of perjury and spent 18 months in prison, but a range of critics complained that the prosecution had framed him for opposing Mr. Bo’s campaign, and that the case underscored the degree to which politics had trumped the rule of law.

Mr. Fang posted his scatological criticism on April 21 on the Chinese social network Tencent. In it, he compared the case against Mr. Li to excrement that Mr. Bo had handed to his underlings for delivery to Mr. Li — who then returned it, with emphasis, to Mr. Bo. For good measure, Mr. Fang’s online post made a crude sexual pun on Mr. Bo’s name.

On his microblog, Mr. Fang had commented on supposed miscarriages of justice many times before, but the reaction to his April post was swift. Censors ordered the post deleted the next day.

An account by Mr. Fang’s son Fang Di, posted on the Web site of a Chongqing lawyer, Chen Youxi, details what followed. The elder Mr. Fang was invited to visit the local police station for a talk, his house was placed under surveillance and his electricity and gas were shut off. On April 24, he was detained. And on April 25 he was shipped to a prison for re-education through labor, a punishment meted out to small-time criminals and political miscreants by police officials without judicial oversight.

Mr. Fang’s last post appeared on April 25. It was a message to the lawyer, Mr. Chen, who has written about Li Zhaung’s trial. It reads, “Hello, are you there? I’m looking for you. There is an extremely important matter.”

Attempts to reach Fang Di were unsuccessful. A post on an Internet site related to human rights, Weiquan Wang, says that Fang Di vanished Tuesday afternoon after notifying his lawyer that he was at an office of the local public security police.

Most Internet references to the Fangs’ situation appear to have been erased by censors, but a few survive. In one of them, a political science professor at Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University, Zhang Ming, repeated the crude word that Mr. Fang used to describe the Li Zhuang case.

Then he added: “Excuse me, Chongqing police. Please re-educate me through labor.”

Jonathan Kaiman contributed research.