Too much scorn buries the satire


American Hoax: Undercover in the USA (sort of)

By Charles Firth

Pan Macmillan, 2006

272 pages

$32.95 (pb)

Looking for some photo-ops in war-torn Iraq, Dr. Andy O'Keefe, an aspiring conservative scholar "with one mission in life: to work out how to describe America's role in the world without mentioning the word empire", dons the battle gear and smiles into the camera.

But Charles Firth, the Australian satirist best known for sending up right-wing shock-jocks on The Chaser and CNNNN, is having us on in American Hoax. For Dr Andy's Iraq is just a Hollywood movie set on a ranch outside Los Angeles. Neither is Dr Andy what he seems. Dr. Andy is, in bodily fact, Firth, posing as a right-wing pundit freshly armed with his CV-enhancing Iraq picture gallery.

While Dr Andy stumbles with a (real) visit to Iran in search of the next terrorist hotbed only to find a bunch of ordinary people who don't much like their government, another Firth alias, Edward McGuire, a right-wing economist (complete with his own fictitious entry on Wikipedia), tries to hoax the online world of conservative blogging and score an internship at the Heritage Foundation, the aristocracy of the US right-wing think-tanks.

Up to this point, Firth is on target, but with Bertrand Newton, a "bleeding-heart left-liberal" and advertising executive "dedicated to changing the world one ad at a time", Firth's satire descends into caricature. Having exhausted the potential of online activism ("as if there was no other way of expressing his politics except through electronic petitions and donations"), Bert tries to buy his way into the upper reaches of the left-wing movements by offering US$2.5 million of fictitious money as grants for advertising projects.

Now, the left that just wants your email address and your money while they do all the politics (lobbying) and you are left passively onlooking is worth a barb or two of satire, but Bertrand's complaints that he is finding it too hard to gain entry into the left-wing movements rings hollow. Anyone concerned with the issues, rather than just making a name for themselves, has to merely push at the many open doors — the demonstration, the meeting, the organising, the other activism of movement-building. Going undercover in the left just marks Bert as a phony.

Firth, however, would rather mock the committed than join in. Firth doesn't like left-wing "earnestness". Another Firth creation, Khorin al-Grant, a deaf-mute female Muslim poet who hoaxes, is described patronisingly as "the Arundhati Roy of America (without the endless rants about dams)" and could have been written by some inane student Liberal. Firth also makes fun of the revolutionary sects, deriding a Revolutionary Communist Party of America and its small anti-war rally in Washington, sweeping up in his mockery the sincere protester as well as sectarian organising strategy.

We need a left that can take a joke, but please don't throw out commitment along with humourlessness. Firth has little time for the right wing and its politics of war, greed and hate, but its left-wing opponents, too, become figures for mockery in Firth's hands. No hope arises from the ashes of scorn that bury right and left.

Nor does hope arise from another Firth character, the statistically average, low-income, sucker-gambler, beer-burping, Bush-voting Darryl Summers. Darryl is not ignorant (he knows the Iraq war is about oil), he just can't see a way out. Neither, alas, can Firth, whose laughs pierce the humbug of the right but also mortally stray into those who are trying to do something about it.