Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Weapon of Mediocrity

I normally do not pay much attention to the "Insight" section in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, just because there are usually much better sources of analysis available. Today, however, I have to give the Chronicle credit for the pride of place they allotted to an adaptation of material by David Wallis from the book he edited entitled Killed Cartoons: Casualties From the War on Free Expression; my only regret is that the priority the article received in print was "buried" much more deeply on this morning's SF Gate home page. Well, you can't have everything.

The effective use of satire has always been one of my favorite subjects, particularly when effectiveness is a matter to getting "too close to the comfort of reality," as I recently observed about a post to Assimilated Press. What is particularly valuable about Wallis' project, however, goes beyond his decision to compile an anthology of spiked material by giving voice to the cartoonists themselves. It is through these comments that the reader can once again experience the power of what I recently called "The Memorable Sentence." In my opinion the most memorable of the comments came from Milt Prigee, who recalled the advice from an editor at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington:

If you want to survive at this paper, you've got to stay under management's radar. Don't do anything good. Don't do anything bad.

This says it all: Nothing kills critical thinking like mediocrity. The sharp point of the sword of the effective cartoon may be its ridicule, but the keen edge of the blade resides in the power of that cartoon to provoke reflection. Drawing upon the historical examples that Wallis provided, one can conclude that both Adolf Hitler and J. Edgar Hoover agreed on one thing, that the true "enemy of the state" is the reflective reader. Limited to text, rather than images, Kurt Vonnegut may have done the best job of characterizing the extent to which mediocrity can be a "weapon of mass destruction" in his story, "Harrison Bergeron" (which I first read in Welcome to the Monkey House and was eventually made into a not-particularly-good film). Vonnegut wrote this story in 1961; and, as far as I am concerned, we need to be reminded of its words every year.

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