Monday, March 14, 2011

On Charlie Sheen and Global Times (and al-Jazeera, et al.)

I didn't want to comment on this. I think satire's best left uncommented on, lest you become, unwittingly, the butt of the joke (see: Alessandro; Alessandro, fallout to; my friend's buzz thread; those in bullet points below). But now that Global Times' Charlie Sheen piece is out in the way-the-fuck open, I think it's time for me to throw in a couple cents.

But first allow me this detour: Charlie Sheen is an American hero. Can we all agree on that? Not because he lives the social liberal's dream life with three blond porn stars, but because he's been able to say, clearly and resoundingly, FUCK YOU to an establishment that includes prudish CNN and Wall Street Journal types, overly serious journalists trying to "make sense" of him, conservatives who are disgusted by him and anything resembling non-missionary-position sex, and amateur psychologists all the world over. Charlie Sheen is to be enjoyed while he's still with us (I don't say this with insensitivity) because he's the sort of one-in-a-million personality who, given the platform to communicate with wider audiences, eschews the phony in favor of brutal honesty and entertainment as if to say it actually is possible to be yourself and absolutely right-fucking okay ... okay to be interesting, okay to be funny, okay to have a laugh at everything staid and cliched. Because surely we must recognize how much of our lives are spent wading through the marshes of cliche, right? That we live trapped in houses within houses built by predecessors and ancestors and god-knows-whom, and that people like Charlie Sheen (and poets) open a window ever so slightly and allow us a whiff of freshness. Surely we must understand that the opportunity to diverge from our lockstep march toward death is an opportunity that deserves to be celebrated -- not crushed by loathsome words like "mental" and "unstable." Yes, I know Charlie Sheen is a tragedy wrapped in a comedy, but in all honesty, we have him to thank for giving that to us. Giving himself. America has allowed him to do that. He's the epitome of America in so many ways.

So any news media that uses Charlie Sheen (and they're all using them, those sluts -- worse than any of the porn stars Charlie's loved) in any way that is in the "Charlie Sheen spirit" is off to a good start. So Global Times deserves kudos off the bat here. Charlie Sheen as vehicle for satire. Charlie Sheen as net to catch the hypocrites, even long-time "China watchers" who really, really should know better.

Remember when I implied up top that the best satire ensnares as much as it incites laughter? Well, here is a compendious list of GT's victims:
  • Shanghaiist's Kenneth Tan
  • At least three people on my friend's buzz thread, linked above.
  • Al-Jazeera's Melissa Chan
  • At least he admitted to being "punk'd": Foreign Policy's Daniel Drezner
  • Richard, Peking Duck (disappointing...)
  • Snark, NICE! (I might have to spell it out for him: "nice" is in all-caps = sarcasm): former Chairman of the American Society of Magazine Editors Robert Stein, who, instead of admitting he didn't get the joke, replied: "Yeah, as I remember. Chairman Mao had us in stitches for years."

Here's the thing with all these people: they failed to get the joke even after it was explained to them by a Global Times editor (from Shanghaiist):

The answer is, it’s a spoof column, with full editorial connivance, and was intended to amuse as well as gull a few “Western” readers who’ll believe either a) any mad crap a Chinese commentator says or b) failing that, that the Chinese are incapable of humour or being “in on it” and therefore must be having a prank played on them. Either view is patronizing and/or offensive, I think you’d agree but - even if you don’t - in this case, you’re wrong.

Kenneth Tan's response to the above was essentially: we're just a blog, don't get mad at us.

But Kenneth, you're a blog of some repute, and even after the joke was explained, the best you could offer in reply was a defensive-sounding, "Yes, it didn't quite cross our minds that your bosses were in on the joke. But seriously, can you blame us for that? Have you read some of the jackshit that's published on the other pages of your paper?" You're not necessary wrong for not assuming the best in people, but your tone conveys a strange lack of awareness of who the enemy is -- if there is one.

The other things you say -- which I'll spare you the humiliation of re-reading on this blog -- sound even more defensive. You're the Shanghaiist. You probably blog out of an office -- unlike me, I'm blogging in my pajamas right now. You have influence. Act like it.

And here's al-Jazeera's Melissa Chan: "And so The Global Times editors signed off on a piece ostensibly about Charlie Sheen, probably believed there was some merit to the argument for Eastern values, recognised the reality of how business and mistresses are dealt with in China -- and in doing so, published a piece that was also mocking The Global Times itself."

I learned my lesson a while back with Alessandro: don't assume. In this case, don't assume that Chinese people don't "get the joke." And certainly don't conflate, as people are wont to do, the dispassionate and seemingly unbreakable veneer of the authoritarian government that controls China with the people who inhabit this country. It's one thing to say the government doesn't like joshing around -- though didn't Wikileaks show us the goal of international diplomacy for basically every country is to establish as elaborate a facade as possible? -- but it's another to say that the Chinese just don't "get" it.

Alas, I fear if we delve further, we're going to lose some readers. As Thomas Roche of Techyum puts it in a good but sorta roundabout piece: somehow we've reached the stage of "a hoax within a hoax within a hoax." And that's not a good place to be.

Try as I might, I can't really angry at any one person. But I'm going to use Melissa as an illustrative case here. The target of the satire was not the U.S. It wasn't China, really. It was ... you ready for this, Melissa Chan? ... YOU! (I'm channeling the spirit of Time, please excuse me.) YOU, Melissa Chan! I think balloons are falling from the rafters! Confetti is rocketing up to meet them in starbursts of color! The lights are flashing, Melissa, the lights, the hot lights of fame and glory!!! You are winning!

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