February 12th, 2005


Scratch a satirist, find a moralist

The Vice sex issue has hit the streets, with a Terry Richardson shot of Hiromix on the cover.

In the opening section YO WHAT IS UP (the graphic features a comedy trucker hat black guy and a comedy trucker hat white guy strolling towards each other, grinning goofily) there's a piece I wrote called Japan: These Fuckers Are Horny. (Actually, my suggested title was 'Sex in Japan With Factman', but, like, whutevah dude.) It's a guide to the prices charged in Japan for various sexual services. I invented the Factman character as an amusing cypher for Google; no way could this have been a first-person tale or even investigative journalism. I've never frequented commercial sex establishments in Japan or anywhere else. I've never paid for sex. (Well, not unless you count that time I paid Keiko to be my "personal assistant" and come round to "work for me" on Orchard Street every Friday... mmm, where are the Polaroids?)

I don't know what Chris Morris would make of Vice's Can You Say 'BJ' in Iraq, a short (and possibly made up) interview with a US soldier in Iraq accompanied by gory photographs of dead Iraqis. Morris' new series Nathan Barley premiered on UK's Channel 4 last night and most press reports have stressed that the satirist's claws have been retracted somewhat this time around. A big theme in Charlie Brooker's original TV Go Home Cunt episodes (the birthplace of the Barley character) was that the technowhizz kiddycult immorality of Barley and his Hoxton kin was obscene when juxtaposed with, for instance, suffering prostitutes in Columbia or shoe-making sweatshop workers. I'm not sure whether Brooker and Morris are suggesting that Barley's coke and trainer habit directly oppresses people in the third world, or saying that suffering and dirty work are real whereas people who work at magazines called Suga Rape are not. Perhaps they're just evoking a sense of guilt (Morris was, after all, educated by Jesuits).

Vice magazine is almost certainly one of the targets of Morris and Brooker's satire, but the fact is that they and Vice are really on the same page, employing the same techniques, equally interested in moral questions. Almost literally: when a British newspaper gave Morris his own column, he chose to make a spoof diary about a journalist with mere months to live. Vice is currently running I'm Dying Over Here, a column by a 52 year-old woman dying of breast cancer. The Iraq piece in the new Vice could actually have been written by Chris Morris -- the old, nasty Chris Morris, anyway. The ironic device of the insensitive reporter asking questions about sex of a soldier who's just trying to stay alive, the shock tactic of the photographs, the use of guilt and revulsion, are all Morris hallmarks. And all, in fact, deeply moral.

I speak with some, ahem, authority here: Vice publisher Gavin McInnes, weighing into the debate at Design Observer about the Vice Design Issue, said the other day "Momus is one of the softest guys I’ve ever met but sometimes I worry he’s the only person that truly gets Vice." McInnes also disagreed with those who thought Zev Borow's excellent article for New York magazine, The New York Hipster Exodus, was a simple attack on hipsterism. "That article is a little too sophisticated for most," said McInnes, "including perhaps, the writer. It was meant to be about the absurdity of the claim that NY is over (a claim that goes back to the 40s). Unfortunately, the gag was lost on almost everyone she interviewed."

Chris Morris, who made spoof documentaries about pedophilia and a dangerous new drug called cake, would certainly recognise that problem. When Morris filmed Phil Collins condemning pedophiles while wearing a T shirt that read "I'm talking nonce sense", he was making a moralistic attack on moralism and immorality, just as Zev Borow's article makes a hip attack on anti-hipsterism and hipsterism. Some thought Morris was on thin ice, using the serious subject of pedophilia as content for his comedy, just as Vice are using Iraqi corpses to fill the pages of a style magazine, or Benetton notoriously used a bloody newborn baby and a dead AIDS victim in posters to sell their sweaters. Personally, I think people who look always at vested interests and ulterior motives are guilty of "moronic cynicism". They're not seeing the big picture, and their keenness to see corruption as the bottom line betrays a misanthropy greater than any shown by the provocateurs they're attacking.

I've never understood the criticism of Olivieri Toscani's hard-hitting images for Benetton, just as I've never understood the criticism of Vice. I don't think any of the examples cited were using shock tactics for their own sake, or illegitimately. I think they're all trying to sensitize us to moral issues rather than desensitize us to violence. They all think that opening Pandora's Box is useful, because they believe, finally, in the ultimate rationality and goodness of people, and feel sure that, provoked into thinking about difficult subjects, people will make better moral choices. Gavin McInnes actually said this to me in all sincerity when we met in Tokyo last year. If you believe in human nature, you provoke in the belief that people will rethink moral issues and come to better conclusions.

If you look at what people like Toscani, McInnes, Serge Gainsbourg (and occasionally even that fellow known as Momus) have done with satire, I hope you'll find us closer to Chris Morris than to Nathan Barley. Scratch a provocateur and you tend to find a closet moralist.