Satire is one of the most difficult genres to execute. When done poorly — as the SkewNews piece on the demise of the cent and nickel (see Paul Gilkes’ Dec. 17 Coin World article) — the audience is shortchanged, literally.
Some background: SkewNews.com staff writer Henry Wallen published his piece on Nov. 29 on the Sutori.com website. He has since issued a retraction. You can read the retraction — and the original post — at this website: http://skewnews.com/penny-and-nickel-coins-to-be-phased-out-in-2013/.
In his various explanations, the author said it was “a political article,” “fiction,” and “parody.” It is none of those. And it certainly isn’t satire.
Satire has distinct characteristics:
1) An understated or double-entendre title.
2) An unreliable voice.
3) A disclosure that everyone believes may be true — but refuses to discuss.
These tenets were established in 1729 by Jonathan Swift in his masterpiece, “A Modest Proposal,” whose full title was: “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.”
His proposal (which was anything but “modest”) features that understated title, the voice of a member of the House of Lords, and an ugly truth — England was devouring Ireland economically but few were willing to acknowledge that in royal government.
“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout. ... I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”
Note: For those interested in Swift and numismatics, or who collect William Wood farthings and half pence, read Swift’s “Drapier Letters,” a series of pamphlets denouncing privately minted coins for distribution in Ireland.
Back to SkewNews. The post about the cent and 5-cent coin’s demise went viral to such extent that the U.S. Mint contacted Coin World with a request to inform readers that the coins were not being discontinued. Clearly, that writer had touched a nerve — numismatic neuropathy, I call it — usually indicating a topic rife for satire.
Case in point: Each year in my town the local coin club sponsors one of the biggest shows in Iowa, Coin-A-Rama. Dealers typically give in change (especially to children) presidential, Sacagawea and Anthony dollars and, on occasion, Eisenhower copper-nickel clad dollars, Kennedy copper-nickel clad halves and $2 bills.
Then those kids, impatient with parents on the bourse, go to the local McDonald’s a few blocks away and try to buy burgers with odd-looking money — only to encounter new cashiers who question whether these are counterfeit coins or car wash tokens.
What to make of a coinage and paper currency that the general public doesn’t recognize as money?
Now that’s a possible satirical topic.
The SkewNews piece wasn’t political commentary, either, as the writer initially claimed. But it could have been.
Want to see how satire cuts? Because examples below might touch a nerve, I had better note that they do not represent my views or those of Coin World, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, the U.S. Mint, Iowa State University or any other entity:
➤ How about a Barack Obama “Hard Times” token with the motto reading, “Millions for tribute but not one cent for defense”? (For those unfamiliar with Hard Times tokens, the motto used on several of them reads: “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”)
➤ How about a Mitt Romney coin outsourced to China with the alloy being 47 percent tin and the logo reading E Pluribus Nonnullus, or “out of many, some”? (For those unfamiliar with E Pluribus Unum — or “out of many, one” — it depicts the unity of our country.)
➤ Speaking of unity, how about a congressional medal celebrating the spirit of compromise in the House and Senate? (If you have an idea for the design of such a medal, send a letter to Coin World!)
Satire has its place in numismatics. Unfortunately, SkewNews missed the memo about what qualifies as parody in its unfortunate piece about the demise of the cent and 5-cent coin.
Kudos to Coin World and the U.S. Mint for setting the record straight.
Michael Bugeja is a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, “Home Hobbyist,” columnist for Coin World and writer of “Coingrader Capsule” for Coin Update News.