Application for European Union funds for use in developing Latvian satirical infrastructure
To: Mr Herman van Rompuy, Brussels, Kingdom of Belgium
Apologies if this is the incorrect way of addressing you, but I wasn’t sure if I should call you Chairman, President, Secretary General, or whatever so I felt friendly informality would be my safest bet. How is the weather in Belgium?
Excellent, but remember to take an umbrella. Anyway enough of the pleasantries, I want to get down to business. I write to you about a very serious matter: comedy. More specifically, satire.
As you must have been aware ever since you took up your present employment – and possibly even before, when you were in charge of Belgium – satire is one of the hallmarks of democracy. We might even go so far as to say that without the presence of regular and generous helpings of satire no democracy can consider itself fully formed.
While there can be no democracy worthy of the name without satire, at the same time satire itself thrives in an environment of restriction. In the most extreme forms this is outright censorship. The great Anglo-Irish satirists of the eighteenth century such as Sheridan, Swift and Goldsmith had the unreasonable whim of the Lord Chancellor to contend with if they wanted their works to appear on stage or in print.
In nineteenth-century Russia, Turgenev and Gogol bent their prose around the mighty pen of the almighty state Censor with an unscheduled trip to Siberia always at the back of their minds, while the introduction of the Hays Code to protect the morals of the American public from the depravity of Hollywood led directly to the awe-inspiring satire of Citizen Kane, the Freudian psychodramas the entire Film Noir genre and made a star of Mae West whose sex-charged innuendo, I am sure you will agree, Herman, is far more stimulating than a few flashes of chorus line legs in a Busby Berkeley revue.
The EU’s widespread application of regulations, directives, chapters, standards and the hundred other names you give to “rules” gives me hope that, like the Lord Chancellor, the Censor and Will Hays (a former postman, just as you are former PM of Belgium) you will have a deep appreciation of the importance of satire and the service it can and must render to society.
My dearest Herman, satire is more than sarcasm or mockery. It is not satire’s role to simply point out to the public that someone in power is an idiot. It is more subtle than that and both funnier and infinitely more powerful as a result.
It is not so different to the slave employed to whisper in Caesar’s ear: “Remember you are mortal.” Of course Caesar did become a god in the end, and even bagged the prime month of July for us to pay homage to him, so perhaps the slave should have been charged with whispering something a bit more satirical such as: “Remember you need to buy some carrots on the way home from the forum” or “Remember how roasted hamsters always play havoc with your stomach.” But then I suppose the slave would have been little more than an organic iPad.
Whatever. I would argue that satire’s role – even when it is at its most brutal – is essentially compassionate and humanistic. Its secondary function may be to tell those in power that they shouldn’t think too grandly of themselves. Its more important, primary function is to remind us, the public that those in power are exactly the same as us. They are not a breed apart. We can laugh at them because we see in them follies, self-deceptions and hypocrisies with which we are ourselves familiar. And in doing so we remind ourselves that they are not better than us, that their wealth, titles or prestige are no more than stage dressings that can be pushed over at any time.
Before I get on to the main thrust of my letter – which, I inform you in advance, will be to ask for a large amount of cash – I would like to point out another crucial fact concerning satire, one with clear implications for the European Union.
If we look to the east, to the nominal republics of Central Asia and beyond to China and North Korea, what do we see? Not a lot of satire. Make even a passing joke about Turkmenbashi or the Dear Leader and you risk a lot more than a ban, a fine, or having your licence suspended. You risk imprisonment, torture, even death. The people with power in those places will not tolerate being laughed at. That, I think tells us everything we need to know about them. Satire is the ultimate test of their humanity. If they lack a sense of humour, they lack humanity. They are not the sort of people we should shake hands with while smiling.
Perhaps you could consider adding a satirical standard to the demands you make of Eastern Partnership countries? In order to gain admission to the EU, countries must prove they have a fully-functioning satirical sector. After all there is nothing more depressing than having some sour-faced, serious stranger arriving at the door when your party is in full swing. Much better if that person has already had a couple of drinks and is full of good cheer when he shouts through the letterbox that he wants to be let in and has brought a crate of beer or access to a gas pipeline.
I always find it reassuring when, entering the study of some politician, I notice that the walls are covered with caricatures, the more savage the better. Yes, on one level this just shows the vanity which is – let’s admit it – a pre-requisite for a career in politics. I’m sure even Ghandi and Mandela checked themselves in the mirror before they addressed a crowd, and no-one winds up wearing ties like yours without spending a lot of time in the selection.
But those unflattering images in their fragile frames also prove that even when they believe they are in the right, these politicians acknowledge the right of others to view their actions as wrong. They also acknowledge that, viewed from certain angles, they can be regarded as figures of fun.
I do hope, Herman, that the walls of your office in the new 280 million euro building you championed at the height of the crisis in 2009 are covered with satirical images of yourself as Tintin, Jacques Brel and even perhaps the “damp rag” that rude Englishman Nigel Farage called you and for which he was fined 3,000 euros by the European Parliament.
Here in Latvia, which you have now visited 4 times, answering an average of 0.5 press questions per visit, we need similarly serious levels of investment in our satire. I have spent the last five years asking my Latvian friends for the name of their favourite satirical novel from the Latvian pantheon. This would be an easy question in most European states.
Shockingly, none were able to provide me with a satisfactory answer – I refuse to believe, as one person told me, that Lacplesis is actually a satire – so I decided to write one myself. I’m not saying it’s a startling masterpiece that ushers in a new era of Latvian literature – though if you will be kind enough to repeat that phrase in public I will definitely put it on the dust jacket – but perhaps it might make a few people laugh and even better it might prompt some Latvians to get so indignant that they decide to write something even better themselves.
Therefore please consider this letter an application for European Union Structural Funds for the development of Latvian satire. I think that with far less than 280 million euros we could build something really impressive, long-lasting, and above all, funny.
As well as providing a valuable service to democracy, it might even be economically advantageous. You like to talk about your European vision, long-term goals and our shared cultural values. Just imagine if such seed money had been provided to invest in Anglo-Irish satire of the eighteenth century: the immeasurable riches of Swift, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Congreve, Sterne would all now be held by the EU which could also take credit for bringing us Behan, Becket, Wilde, Joyce and O’Brien!
Irish satire is a readily available resource, though there are some concerns that it may have passed its peak production at around the time Father Ted was broadcast. In contrast, Latvia’s satirical potential, like heavy oil shale, has proven difficult to access so far. But now, here in this European union member state since 2004, we possess the technology, the know-how and the will to exploit this untapped wealth at our very fingertips. With your help Herman, we can make make it happen!
Please authorise release of suitably substantial funds for this purpose at your earliest convenience. You are welcome to deposit the money in my own personal account – where it can rest unmolested – if this helps to speed things up.