Over the past several decades, with the rise of cable television and then of the internet and social media, we’ve come to enjoy an abundance of political satire. At least on the left. It’s painfully obvious the right can’t do satire.
But in that once upon a time earlier era, Art Buchwald was one of the luminaries of the art. People by the millions would wake up and read his latest column at breakfast, as it appeared in over 500 newspapers. But just because he was writing decades ago, beginning in the 1960s and continuing up until his death in 2007, doesn’t mean he doesn’t continue to speak to us in the present day.
On Roe v. Wade in 1973: “The Supreme Court ruling on abortion did not have the calming effect on people that the justices on the majority had hoped for. More Americans want to kill each other in the name of ‘right to life’ and ‘freedom of choice’ than ever before.” In 1976, he proposed ‘Art’s Gun Control Plan’: a federal mandate to amputate everyone’s trigger fingers at birth. “The Constitution gives everyone the right to bear arms. But there is nothing that says an American has to have ten fingers.”
Noting that it was estimated that the cost of killing every Viet Cong soldier was $332,000, he proposed that instead of bombs, the Pentagon should drop recalled American automobiles on the enemy. And he had one of the many imaginary experts he created, Dr. Heinrich Applebaum, muse about the uses of history: “You can’t learn from history unless you rewrite it.”
Funny Business: The Legendary Life and Political Satire of Art Buchwald, by Michael Hill, is a biography, not a compilation, and alas, examples of Buchwald’s satire appear only occasionally throughout the work. Still, it is entertaining, illuminating, and full of history as refracted through the life of one of its finest chroniclers. We follow him through multiple presidencies and a variety of DC, Hollywood and New York social circles. We read his entertaining letters. We read about the lawsuits brought against him, and of the time he infuriated J. Edgar Hoover with a column stating the FBI director was actually “a mythical person first thought up by the Reader’s Digest...They got the word ‘Hoover’ from the vacuum cleaner—to give the idea of a clean-up; Edgar was the name of the publisher’s nephew, and the J. stood for jail.” We also learn of his lifelong battle with depression, something he only acknowledged later in life.
The book makes me wonder how Buchwald would feel—or fit in—in today’s era of vicious polarization. On the one hand, he fits in perfectly with the greats of today. But on the other hand, he had a sense of ethics that kept him from crossing a line into viciousness. Here is how he explained it in the 1960s:
It is criticism with a difference. You don’t satirize innocent weaknesses, sufferings or misfortunes, nor would you criticize a man for being born lame or losing a child through some act of nature. Some satire is designed to knock the wind from your sails. Other satire will reduce the object to ruin. The trick of satire is to unmask the victims and show them as they really are. But the trick in satire is to do it cleverly so the intended victim will not be able to protest without giving himself away…. The best way to do this is to abuse people and make them laugh while you’re doing it. It indicates that the writer is just having a good time and he’s really your friend. The abuse will stick.
Buchwald grappled with political correctness even in the early years, and expressed a disdain for some elements of the Left to take themselves too seriously. “The extreme Left is very ridiculous right now, just as ridiculous as the extreme Right,” he said in 1969. “But when you make fun of the Left you find all the people who believed in you suddenly turn against you and say you sold out and everything. That’s where it takes a little more guts.”
Buchwald’s many books now seem to be out of print, unfortunately. I hope his publisher will consider issuing reprints now that this fine biography is there to rekindle an appreciation.
THIS WEEK’S NEW HARDCOVERS
The Earth Is All That Lasts: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and the Last Stand of the Great Sioux Nation, by Mark Lee Gardner. A magisterial dual biography of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the two most legendary and consequential American Indian leaders, who triumphed at the Battle of Little Bighorn and led Sioux resistance in the fierce final chapter of the "Indian Wars."
The Desperate Hours: One Hospital's Fight to Save a City on the Pandemic's Front Lines, by Marie Brenner. Award-winning journalist Marie Brenner, having been granted unprecedented 18-month access to the entire New York-Presbyterian hospital system, tells the story of the doctors, nurses, residents, researchers, and suppliers who tried to save lives across Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn and the northern periphery of the city.
Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic, by Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin. The true story of the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam, which set sail with a deadly and little-understood stowaway—COVID-19—days before the world shut down in March 2020. This riveting narrative thriller takes readers behind the scenes with passengers and crew who were caught unprepared for the deadly ordeal that lay ahead as they were denied entry to port after port.
An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, by Ed Yong. The Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every kind of animal, including humans, is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of our immense world. Ed Yong coaxes us beyond the confines of our own senses, allowing us to perceive the skeins of scent, waves of electromagnetism, and pulses of pressure that surround us. We learn what bees see in flowers, what songbirds hear in their tunes, and what dogs smell on the street. We listen to stories of pivotal discoveries in the field, while looking ahead at the many mysteries that remain unsolved.
Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods, by Lyndsie Bourgon. This book takes us deep into the underbelly of the illegal timber market. As she traces three timber poaching cases, she introduces us to tree poachers, law enforcement, forensic wood specialists, the enigmatic residents of former logging communities, environmental activists, international timber cartels, and indigenous communities along the way.
What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health, by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé. The authors take us far beyond the well-worn adage to deliver a new truth: the roots of good health start on farms. What Your Food Ate marshals evidence from recent and forgotten science to illustrate how the health of the soil ripples through to that of crops, livestock, and ultimately us.
All book links in this diary are to my online bookstore The Literate Lizard. If you already have a favorite indie bookstore, please keep supporting them. If you’re able to throw a little business my way, that would be appreciated. Use the coupon code DAILYKOS for 15% off your order, in gratitude for your support (an ever-changing smattering of new releases are already discounted 15% each week). We also partner with Hummingbird Media for ebooks and Libro.fm for audiobooks. The ebook app is admittedly not as robust as some, but it gets the job done. Libro.fm is similar to Amazon’s Audible, with a la carte audiobooks, or a $14.99 monthly membership which includes the audiobook of your choice and 20% off subsequent purchases during the month.
READERS & BOOK LOVERS SERIES SCHEDULE