Over at the New Criterion blog, Roger Kimball has this piece on why satire is becoming increasingly perilous: “Reality is just too nimble in outstripping even the most extravagant satire.”
Satire has always, to a certain extent, been topical; even the best satirical books and movies from the past are enhanced by a brief primer on the context and environment which existed at the time the satire was produced. It makes the funniest parts even funnier, and the most obscure at least understandable.
But for the author, satire operates on a tight timeline. If you’re too far ahead of the game, your audience won’t have any idea what you’re talking about. Lag too far behind the timeline, and the joke is stale. You might even run the risk, as Kimball points out, of having your sly social commentary pre-empted by true-life events, thus defeating the whole purpose of satire.
The political field can be (can be? Don’t you mean is?) particularly fertile ground for satire, but it’s also the area in which one runs the greatest risk of having yesterday’s most outlandish ideas become tomorrow’s official policy. I’ve read Mitchell’s very funny (and still unpublished) novel about his life in politics, and discussed with him the challenge involved in coming up with ideas that push the envelope of absurdity, when you might hear those very ideas being voiced in dead earnest by some talking head on CNN the next day. You have to act fast, that’s for sure.
Which brings me to this week’s story on the recently declassified files documenting the CIA’s attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. And I ask you, does this not read like a plot from a Christopher Buckley novel?
According to a five-page memo in Tuesday’s release, the plotting began in the final months of the Eisenhower administration, under the leadership of Richard Bissell, the agency’s director for plans. The operation used a go-between, Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent who did work as a private investigator for the CIA.
In September 1960, Maheu traveled to New York to meet Johnny Roselli, a high-ranking Mafia official who controlled ice-making machines in Las Vegas. Maheu told Roselli a cover story: that he represented several large international business firms that were suffering catastrophic financial losses in Cuba. And they were willing to pay $150,000 to arrange for Castro’s “removal.”
Roselli didn’t want to get involved, but he introduced Maheu to Sam Giancana, boss of the Chicago mob, and Santos Trafficant, the head of the mob’s Cuban operations, both of them members of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
Concerned about the messiness and unreliability of firearms, Giancana suggested poisoning Castro with a pill in his food. The CIA accordingly provided six pills that it described as “of high lethal content.” They were given to Juan Orta, “a Cuban official who had been receiving kick-back payments from the gambling interests, who still had access to Castro, and was in a financial bind.”
The documents also reveal that at the height of negotiations over his involvement in the Castro plot, Giancana asked Maheu for help in finding out whether his girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire, a member of the singing McGuire Sisters, was having an affair with Dan Rowan, half of the Rowan & Martin comedy team.
The CIA sent a technician to bug Rowan’s Las Vegas hotel room, the CIA memo says. But the technician was arrested by Clark County sheriff’s deputies. He placed a telephone call to Maheu in the presence of sheriff’s officials, potentially endangering the entire Castro plot.
The Justice Department announced its intention to prosecute Maheu and the technician, leading the CIA’s director of security to intervene with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
The prosecution was dropped.
This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Who in their right minds would possibly believe something like this? A few years ago, if you’d tried to pass this off as a plot for a serious political thriller, you’d have been laughed out of the publisher’s office. Pitch it as satire, and you might have had a chance. Today? It’s just another, all-too-plausible, example of your tax dollars at work. I don’t think anyone today would doubt for a minute that this is the way history is made. And that the more implausible an episode is, the more likely it is to be true.
I ask you, what’s a working satirist to do? Steve, I don't know how you manage it!