Further Reflections on Irony and Satire

Here’s a comment that I think perfectly summarizes the problem (and the beauty) of satire. It comes from a guy named Chris Smith.

You’re totally not a hack for trying to excuse your defamatory hoax against a windbag like Brooks as “satire”, and your half-assed, belated “apology” is certainly sufficient. On behalf of everyone who read this well-plotted piece of non-claptrap, I sincerely thank you for wasting our time.

PS – the above is an example of actual use of “irony”.

Now, I had to read this two or three times to figure it out, and I’m still not 100%  sure. I think what Smith is saying is that I am a hack, that my apology was insufficient, and that my piece was not non-claptrap or truly ironic. But it could work the other way–that it was not a defamatory hoax, that Brooks is a windbag, that his time was not wasted, that he’s sympathizing with my trouble in being understood as an ironicist. In other words, without knowing the valence of Chris Smith’s attitude toward me, it’s hard to tell what’s ironic and what’s not. I’m pretty sure I detected the valence after the third or fourth read, and that it is hostile, which makes the rest fall into place (but I’d point out, it works exactly the same way backwards). If Chris Smith were to contact me and say, “Dude, what have you been smoking? Of course I’m on your side,” I’d be a little embarrassed to think I’d spent all that time analyzing his comment and coming up wrong.

I don’t blame Smith a bit for my uncertainty, although I think he was probably more confusing than he intended. He made me think, which might contribute in some small way to delaying the onset of dementia. More to the point, if my understanding of his point was in some way crucial, if, say I was a writer or editor of a mass media outlet contemplating a piece about whether or not Gary Greenberg is a hack writer, I would reach out to Chris, who provided his email address, and just ask him. If he didn’t respond, or if his response didn’t clarify the question, I’d find some other way to find out–google him, ask his friends, look for other stuff he’s written, and so on. And I wouldn’t go forward until I had an answer that satisfied me, or if I did go forward, I’d note that I didn’t know exactly what the facts are here.

So let’s say you’re not Chris Smith, but Betsy Rothstein, a blogger for something called the Daily Caller. I’d never heard of either before yesterday at 10:53 a.m., which is about when I was pulling the battery out of the Bobcat. Her email went like this:

Name: Betsy Rothstein

Email: xxxx@xxxx.com

Message: Hi there. I write for The Daily Caller in Washington, D.C. I’d like to talk to you about your David Brooks essay. I need to verify that this is real, that you actually knew him, smoked weed with him, etc…

Thank you so much.
P.S. My phone is 555-555-5555

It was one of fifty-seven emails that hit my inbox between 1045 and 1120. I thought I had answered it, but I think now that it was the one that my son was writing for me when he quit as my amanuensis. In any event, I did not answer Rothstein.


That didn’t stop her from posting, at 11:44 a.m. a story under the headline “Dude who smoked pot with DAvid Brooks surfaces, writes about it.” Unlike Chris Smith, Betsy Rothstein’s valence was  unmistakable from the first sentence, wherein she describes me as “a p[sychotherapist who has been diagnosed with major depression.” She does throw in a “he claims” and an “allegedly” here and there, but she obviously took the piece seriously, so seriously in fact that she confesses to finding it “so thick with bitterness and resentment… that it is almost hard to read.”


Later (and I don’t know when, because I wasn’t aware of any of this until last night), she posted an update.

The Mirror has learned that Gary Greenberg, the psychotherapist who claims he smoked pot with NYT‘s David Brooks in a story on his blog is actually a hoax. There is absolutely no indication on his blog, however, that it is a hoax and Greenberg has a long list of credentials. The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza asked Brooks about Greenberg and Brooks said he doesn’t know him. In addition, Wired‘s Steve Silberman tweeted with certainty that it was satire and wrote that he “checked” on it.  CNN’s Jake Tapper probably put it best: “People need to learn that creative lying does not = satire.” Greenberg’s site has yet to be updated with any clear sign that what he wrote was satire

So her intrepid reporting had exposed me as the hoaxster I would have told her I was if she’;d waited for an answer. What she fails to report, however, is that Silberman weighed in at 10:50., more than an hour before she posted her report, and just few minutes before when she emailed me with her question about the truth status of my blog post. Her initial post came long (in Internet time) after the tide of journalists that had been lapping at my door was turned back by my immediate and unequivocal confirmation that the piece was satiric. But somehow the fault was mine. And I needed to be spanked–by Jake Tapper, and then by Rothstein herself, who, in case her dismay wasn’t clear enough, posted another piece at 2:54 titled “Gary Greenberg adds his ‘I was full of sh*t disclaimer.” She said the notice I posted was “lame [sorry] and late.” I guess she must be right. As of this morning, I’m still getting comments on the article indicating that people are skipping right over the disclaimer.  (But tell me, Besty, why the asterisk? Surely a website that claims that climate change is a hoax (a word they obviously know the meaning of [IRONY]), uses Nelson Mandela to sell its voter ID support, and runs an article suggesting that it should be a crime to speak up for Obama–surely such a media outlet knows wherein lies obscenity.)


Anyway, last night, I was going over the hundreds of emails I’d gotten, trying to make sure I’d responded to the ones I thought should be responded to. I saw that Betsy’s had gone unanswered. When I went to respond to it, I realized she was the person who had written this Daily Caller article, which I had just read. So I emailed her at 9:37 last night.
Betsy–It’s not real, but I guess you figured that out. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier today. Things got a little hectic around here. But here’s a question: if you were uncertain enough to ask, then why didn’t you wait until you got an answer?
Then I went to bed. This morning, this response was waiting for me.
Seriously? You wrote a completely false story and you ask why didn’t I wait? There was no indication for me to believe that what you wrote wasn’t real.
You’re a psychotherapist, right? You need to examine yourself. Your behavior as a writer disgusts me. No one should believe a word you say.


It was followed in my inbox by a twitter notification:
@Bookofwoe has some serious self-analysis to do. Such a lying prick. But it’s everyone else’s fault.
I didn’t know whether to fall in love or commit hari-kari.
But seriously, I guess Betsy Rothstein is aspiring to fill the Ann Coulter chair of American journalism. After all, if “there was no indication for [her] to believe that what I wrote wasn’t real” (and there is something really wrong with the syntax there), then why did she email me in the first place? You can’t have it both ways, Bets.
Wait a minute. Of course she can. It’s the Internet.
AS for Jake Tapper, I don’t really know who this guy is. My CNN exposure comes from The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. So that might explain my reaction, which is that I thought Creative Lying = cable news. Or Creative Lying =  Daily Caller, which seems to specialize in climate-change-is-a-hoax and Obamacare-is-the-coming-of-the- Antichrist stories, although on second thought, that’s not so creative is it?
So my hat’s off to all those journalists who did their jobs, especially to the superbly named Zack Beauchamp and his not so well named thinkprogress.org. I’m sorry if I got your hopes up that you’d have an excellent celebrity kerfuffle to palaver about for awhile, and another reason to hate on David Brooks (if only privately). To those of you who wanted to cross post it (as satire) anyway but were nixed by your editors, I feel your pain. And to all of you, I understand that the Internet is a demanding place, that nanoseconds count, that no one can afford to be the last lemming over the cliff, and I don’t envy you one bit for having to spend your days on the wrong end of a firehose spewing all sorts of toxicity.
Myself, I’m going back to my broken machines and my foul-mouthed son, and to Melville, whose point in the Confidence-Man seems to be that 1) the easiest thing to convince people of is something they already wanted to believe, and 2) that reading only starts with looking at words on a page, that you have to fully engage with the written material to understand it, and yourself, and your world.

3 Responses to “Further Reflections on Irony and Satire”

  1. Richard C. says:

    “There was no indication for me to believe that what you wrote wasn’t real.”

    I guess that explains all the right wing BS that gets passed off for real over there at the Caller. Poor lass can’t separate fact from fiction.

  2. Charles M. says:

    Color me disappointed your story was satire. Too good to be true I suppose. I’m unfamiliar with your blog and your work – and more importantly, you yourself – so I’m loathe to make judgments here.

    But I get a tad uneasy when one deflects criticism of a piece with a shield of satire when legitimate questions arise over its authenticity.

    It brings to mind a much discussed recent essay, “On Smarm”, in which the author (T. Scocca) reflects on those who dismiss criticism of their work with

    “appeals to ’emotional truth’ or humorism or sheer artistic ambition too large to be contained by mere dumb lowly fact. Their lies and the exposure of their lies become intellectually interesting, to them; it all becomes terribly revealing about the clods who were lied to, the poor sad literal-minded clods . . . or they talk about their children. How bad can you be if you have children.”

    If you haven’t read the piece you owe it to yourself to do so.

  3. Nick says:

    Let me explain how I knew this was satire. The writer claimed to be a househusband/artist in the first paragraph. Right across the screen, the profile says that he is a practicing psychotherapist.

    To those who were outraged upon discovering that the piece was satire, and to those who consider it a hoax, I spit upon their hubris and I fleer and scorn at their solemnity.

    Greenberg has done a great public service by exposing the low level of critical thinking skills a variety of media outlets are using. I put this service up there with the man who could not become a cop because his IQ was too high http://abcnews.go.com/US/court-oks-barring-high-iqs-cops/story?id=95836

    fwiw I have never smoked weed

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