More on 'Selling Taiwan to China': Satire, or Bad Joke?

Last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed proposing a land-for-cash deal: government officials in Beijing would write off America's enormous debt to China, and government officials in Washington would write off America's commitment to defend Taiwan. I wondered whether this plan was some kind of joke, and this week the author, Paul V. Kane, sent in a message explaining the "Swiftian" satirical intent behind his essay.

In response, one reader endorses the original plan:

I love the idea.

We get $1+Trillion USD for Taiwan.
We give every Taiwanese who asks:
a. A green card
b. Transportation to the USA
c. $10K in cash

Our economy would explode with the energy these refugees would bring.

Many, many others wrote in to note, for the record, that Taiwan was not actually ours to "sell." Another reader thinks that if the plan was satire, it didn't follow the rules of the form:

I protest, and in fact maybe even deplore, Paul V. Kane's invoking Jonathan Swift as his excuse for that plainly misleading NYT op-ed calling for selling out Taiwan. Newspaper irony requires a wink!...

True, an op-ed essayist has a right to use irony and satire. But because the venue context is daily, prosaic, earnest, hasty newspaper journalism, it seems to me that the author and his editors owe readers a pretty obvious wink of some sort -- some clue, some clear hint, that Jonathan Swift lurks.

It's worth noting that the Times's editors winklessly offered a news article just the other day presenting astrology-based travel advising as if it were legitimate -- thereby publicizing antiscience and conferring credibility on it....

Now, maybe the Times assumes that all readers already know that astrology is nonsense..... [But] it's a daily newspaper. People read it fast. The Times rightly, in my view, prides itself on error correction. That newspaper of record ought to take good care with this problem too, if you ask me.

And finally, a blogger based in Taiwan, Michael Turton, really unloads about the right and wrong way to write "satire." I have shortened this to depersonalize it, at least a little. But the tone underscores that the whole concept is not exactly a joking matter on Taiwan:

I suspect I'm the "Joe Blogger" whom Kane [refers to] in his letter to you. My piece on Kane is here.
Kane may have actually intended this as satire -- it certainly doesn't read that way, and there is nothing in his piece to signal the reader that he intends to satirize US Taiwan policy. Stupidity by itself is not a signal of satire, alas, the discussion about Taiwan issues is generally marked by stupidity and misinformation, especially in the media: almost every claim that he made in the piece has been advanced seriously in some major media venue. Thus a straight piece containing such abysmal nonsense in a major media outlet is not by itself unusual, considering the dreck that passes for analysis in the media. In writing "satire" Kane totally failed to understand the field, the target, the discourse context, and the audience....

I'd also like to point out that Kane is playing a completely disingenuous game, for in his letter he omits his actual behavior while crowing that his readers are foolish, yet the reason observers committed to taking it seriously is because Kane withheld any information that it was satirical from them.

Of course you were not the only person to suspect it was unserious; many people did.... Now, one week later, after much discussion of how incredibly stupid his view was on major blogs and websites, he suddenly comes out with the claim that it was all parody. This is an adolescent game; a humbler writer would have apologized for writing such a poor satire and attempted to understand where he went wrong so that an entire community of observers and analysts, who normally agree on nothing, all spoke with one voice on his "satire."

Note that in his letter to you he reiterates a debt/Taiwan deal and his point about the US navy being China's greatest asset. Though he is writing "satire" in fact, unable to give up the debate, he is still trying to sneak in his "satirical" points in by the back door.

In sum, over the last few days, Kane has had ample opportunity to privately or publicly contact people and say "this is a satire." As a popular Taiwan blogger I have an extensive list of contacts on Taiwan issues and AFAIK no one was contacted. Instead.... after letting a week go by, is now counting coup on everyone who responded, like a junior high schooler hooting at his classmates for failing to get his incredibly poor fart joke.

I will leave any further rounds to Kane and Turton (and will link to exchanges if they occur). At a minimum, this is a remarkable instance of an author saying he had one thing in mind and virtually every reader seeing something different.
UPDATE. A reader adds this how-to point about satire:

Satire works best when there is a wink to the reader late in the piece, so the reader's outrage builds up before he gets the joke (but he then should get the joke).  Jonathan Swift's wink is his statement that we can be assured his modest proposal is not made for personal gain.  To paraphrase: "Since my wife is past child-bearing years, we will have no opportunity to sell a baby of our own."
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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