•Simon is a young Bahamian with things on his mind who wishes to remain anonymous. His column 'Front Porch' is published every Tuesday in the Nassau Guardian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A brilliantly composed letter to the editor by Joan Thompson, President of the Nassau Institute, recently appearing in two dailies, should be used in C.O.B. freshman courses ranging from Introduction to Basic Logic to How Not to Write: 101.
The letter demonstrates, masterfully, how failed satire can turn into self-parody and how a scaffold of poor arguments collapses under the weight of false premises. Writing back to an editor, insisting one’s opinion was intended as satire, is akin to a stand-up comedienne having to remind the audience to laugh at her jokes.
In an explanatory note to the editor of The Tribune, the letter’s author notes: “The article was intended satire, not a serious proposal for a system of education. This was lost in the edited version of the original.” Unfortunately, the satire also failed in the original version.
That the writer should not be taken seriously was quickly confirmed as one read through the letter. Writing in The Tribune, Ralph J. Massey notes that the writer’s “criticism seems intemperate and ill-informed based on what was said and what occurred at the Education summit.”
A subsequent Front Porch will explore the absence of facts and logic in the letter, both the edited and unedited versions. Satire is very serious business to be handled with due care and attention. From the pen of an amateur it can go horribly wrong.
Ms. Thompson seems to have a limited understanding of the nature and potency of satire, which is the use of irony and wit to make a serious case on a given matter. Indeed, because she insists that her proposal is satire, it needs to be taken quite seriously, especially since she is suggesting that these are the sorts of statements the Prime Minister should be making on public education.
To wit: “Initially some of the existing school buildings will be leased annually at favourable rates with renewal option up to Five Years. On approval of the Business Plan, rental arrangements for existing schools will be entertained.
“It is anticipated that the resulting ‘private schools’ will become self-sustaining as market forces come into play as they are not required to compete with a state education monopoly. The competition for pupils at affordable rates to the parents will raise the level of proficiency unachieved by the state-run schools.”
Forget the basic lack of understanding of the multiple reasons behind many of the failures in public education systems at home and abroad, where exactly is the satire in this and other similar suggestions? Why else offer such specific suggestions and proposals, unless one wants to be taken seriously?
What might the reaction be if a politician, after issuing a scathing attack on a group of people then offering specific ideas on a related policy matter, doubled back and insisted it was really satire and should be seen in that light? Not only does a politician not enjoy such a luxury, he or she would likely be lambasted as hypocritical, untrustworthy, conniving and unprincipled.
Perhaps, charitably, the best literary term that describes Ms. Thompson’s letter is fantasy; at worse, it falls into the genres of farce and folly.
The letter does succeed in exemplifying a jumble of illogic, including but not limited to gross generalizations, partial analysis, selective quotation, and a carnival of contradictions for which some pundits mindlessly attack politicians while failing to notice the planks in their own eyes.
To quote the letter: “Words are cheap, and none are cheaper than those out of the mouths of politicians. Caught up in self-congratulatory language the true and unadulterated meaning of their words is obscured by the emotive style of their delivery.”
Not only does this scapegoat all politicians – similar to such nonsense as, all business people are greedy, or all blacks or whites are, fill in the blank – it also falsely claims that politicians do not have to be responsible for their words.
To make such a false claim, while attempting to hold the Prime Minister responsible for his words, is a cheap shot, unworthy of any serious commentator, much less the President of a think-tank that wants to be taken seriously.
Of course, words do matter, no matter their source. Which is why it is quite puzzling that someone so exercised by the misuse of words by politicians would be so intemperate, cavalier and misleading in her poor choice of words.
Perhaps the think-tank’s President can explain these different versions of her letter. The version in The Nassau Guardian reads: “A Prime Minister with a vision for an educated citizenry, instead of praising failure might have made the following announcement:”
Yet the version later published in The Tribune and also posted on the think-tank’s website reads: “A Prime Minister with a vision for an educated citizenry, might have made the following announcement:”
What happened to the words, “instead of praising failure”? Was this a typo in The Nassau Guardian? Did the writer change her mind? Or is she responsible enough for her words to explain the glaring discrepancy? Imagine what the author might have said had a politician’s words evolved mysteriously from one version of a statement to the next.
Whatever the case, The Guardian version of the letter obviously mischaracterizes the Prime Minister’s statement. Here are the words from the Prime Minister the author quotes.
“Regrettably, our success in getting every child into a classroom has not translated into every child having achieved his full potential. When, in the first half of the 20th century, most children completing primary school could read and write, today too many students leave our secondary schools only semi-literate and semi-numerate.”
While most people would read this as the Prime Minister criticizing the failures of public education, some mysteriously twist this into praising failure. Once again, were a politician to have uttered such nonsense he or she would be clobbered by the very same pundits who feel free to author such nonsense.
Perhaps the Prime Minister is due an apology. Ms. Thompson should also be careful about playing the victim with laughable statements such as: “Anyone daring to challenge this nonsensical obfuscation of the truth about public education will be regarded as a heretic and banished from polite society. So be it.”
Not only is this hyperbolic overreach at its worse, it is also untrue. Scores of people, including the Prime Minister, have challenged the public education system without being banished from polite society. In fact, such criticisms are so commonplace that Ms. Thompson will not enjoy the luxury of being considered a heretic.
A central problem with Ms. Thompson’s letter is not her concerns about public education, which many people share, it is her “naive and theoretical” ideas on how to resolve these problems that are questionable and simplistic, whether intended as satire, or not.
Perhaps more public commentators should hold themselves half as accountable as they do the politicians they too easily deride from the comfort of ideological cocoons in which facts and realistic policy proposals -- rather than failed satire --seem to be unnecessary distractions.