by Theodore Dalrymple
Satire these days is prophecy. Moreover, satire is becoming ever more difficult, if not impossible, because policy so soon outruns it in absurdity. My late friend, the eminent economist Peter Bauer, used to say that the only genuine unemployment these days is among satirists.
The problem obviously goes back some years, for Peter Bauer died in 2002. In fact, I first noticed it in 1994, when I published a novella, the fictional self-justification of a serial killer who used all the arguments of liberal penology and sociology to prove that he was morally far superior to any of the readers of his tract.
To my surprise, a reviewer whom I had had previous reason to respect thought that my satire was a straightforward essay of moral philosophy, that I really thought that a serial killer was not worse, perhaps better, than the average citizen.
By coincidence, one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers published a memoir very shortly afterwards that almost exactly mirrored by novella in its argumentation. Satire so quickly becomes reality that it is difficult any longer to recognize it as such.
This week, my attention was caught by a terrible crisis within the small world of American ornithology and birdwatching. According to a survey carried out in 2011, 93 per cent of American birdwatchers were white and only 4 per cent were black.
It is a sign of just how racist America is that it has taken ten years since the publication of the survey for something to be done about this unjust disparity.
Birdwatching Prevention Officers
There are several possible ways of solving the problem, of course. The easiest, at least conceptually and on paper, would be to prohibit birdwatching altogether. If there were no birdwatching, there could be no racial disparity among birdwatchers.
I recognize, of course, that there might be some slight difficulties with this proposal. The first is in the definition of birdwatching. How long do you have to look at a bird before it becomes birdwatching? Do you have to seek birds out or is a chance encounter sufficient to constitute the crime of birdwatching?
Furthermore, there might be some problems with enforcement. How do you ensure that people do not surreptitiously or illicitly watch birds for longer than, say, the permitted ten seconds?
In towns and cities, no doubt, video cameras could take care of the problem, but in the countryside or wilderness?
There would have to be birdwatching prevention officers, with telephoto lenses and powers of arrest. Still, we are in debt so deeply that another few thousand public employees wouldn’t make all that much difference. But whether they would make any difference to the incidence of birdwatching is another question.
What would be the right punishment for illegal birdwatching? I would suggest a period of forced labor in a battery chicken farm. The punishment, after all, should fit the crime.
Another approach would be to have selective repression or removal of white birdwatchers so that the ratio of white to black birdwatchers improved.
Or alternatively, young black people could be dragooned into birdwatching, and not allowed to desist until they could prove that they had seen and identified a certain number of species.
I should here point out, perhaps, that I am not against encouraging young people to birdwatch.
Once in Brazil, in a town that was neither very rich nor very poor, I visited a school in which the teachers were trying to get their pupils to take an interest in the natural world around them, and to raise their gaze sometimes from their screens that told them what their friends had had for breakfast, what was the best colour lipstick, and so on, to the natural world about them, which, of course, was luxuriant.
They did so by posting pictures of the astonishing and dramatic birds of the district on the school’s interior walls. Whether the effort was successful I do not know, but it seemed a laudable one to me.
And if the attention of young black men could be turned from hip-hop culture to ornithology, I think it would be all to the good, nor would any decent person try to discourage them.
It takes some determination to see in birdwatching not an innocent and harmless pastime (though I gather that birdwatchers can be highly competitive), but a manifestation of social injustice, that injustice being one of the reasons that there are, comparatively, so few black birdwatchers.
Another is the names given to many species of birds, usually according to the first person who described them as a separate species. It turns out that some of the names were those of Confederate, and presumably birdwatching, generals or former generals, or other undesirables.
As one black birdwatcher put it, “The name-change movement is part of a growing awareness that bird-watching needs to be more inclusive.”
Another said that “Morally repugnant people’s names don’t tell us anything about the birds.” Of course, it is usually possible to find something repugnant in anybody’s life.
This seems to me to be a case of creative indignation: if morally repugnant people’s names don’t tell us anything about the birds, then neither do the names of moral exemplars, if such there be in an age of universal moral suspicion.
Hence it is not the fact of naming the birds after an individual that offends, but the moral defects of the person whose name is thus employed.
Moral indignation is, of course, one of the most pleasant emotions known to mankind, and unlike most other pleasant emotions it can endure almost indefinitely, no doubt with a little renewal from time to time by the finding of something else to be indignant about, a kind of top-up as to a glass of wine.
Moral indignation is very reassuring. If you are indignant, you can’t really be wrong and must be generous-spirited. Moral indignation is therefore both intoxicating and addictive.
That is why, when the birds have been renamed and all demographic groups are equally represented among the birdwatchers (there are endless possibilities for disgruntlement here alone, I need hardly point out), the whole caravan will move on.
What about the botanists, the mycologists, the ichthyologists, the entomologists, the herpetologists, the palaeontologists? There is so much still to be done.
First published in the Epoch Times.