The Fine Line Between Satire and Insensitivity

Calvin Trilling

Is it funny or is it offensive? With comedy I often stop to question whether or not what I am hearing is objectionable, though it is being said in the name of satire. The outrageous quality of comedy is what makes it so funny, and yet there is a fine line on which the comedian must tread carefully. If the two sides one must walk between are agreeable and distasteful, Calvin Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” lands heavily upon distasteful. While many have gone back and forth over the meanings and intentions of Trillin’s poem, the use of rhetorical questions within “Provinces” creates an imperious tone that, regardless of satirical value, must be seen as offensive.

In her article “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire,” Katy Waldman critique’s “Provinces,” arguing that Trillin’s poem and the negative feedback it received “place the entire genre of satire on trial” (Waldman 2). We do not know Trillin’s intentions, Waldman argues, and so we cannot say for certain that the poem is not a work of comedy, that the poem is certainly racist. Waldman acknowledges the multiple understandings of Trillin’s work, stating that the poem is well intentioned but culturally unaware; in short, that it is bad satire. Drawing of Man LaughingHowever, far from satirical, the rhetorical questions the narrator poses in “Provinces” are just plain derogatory. Even the title, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” a question which the narrator continues to ask throughout the poem, trivializes Chinese culture, suggesting a lack of value in the many regions of China. The use of rhetorical question gives this line a sarcastic tone, belittling the many aspects of Chinese culture that have made their way to the United States. It seems, almost, to imply that there are too many Chinese provinces, too many aspects of culture to keep track of. This sense of American entitlement, white entitlement, is furthered by Trillin’s use of the word “they.” As Waldman points out in her critique, the use of “they” and “we” essentially “others” those who are Chinese. To ask whether they have run out of provinces yet suggests that these provinces are items that the Chinese supply to the United States and that they are simply there for white enjoyment.

It is true that most satire walks a thin line, yet it is not fair to the art of satire to write off Trillin’s cultural insensitivity as merely a weakness of comedy. To call Trillin’s poem to be a piece of satire-gone-wrong is to excuse the ignorance withinB6

Works Cited

Trillin, Calvin. “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?.” The New Yorker, 4 April 2016.

Waldman, Kate. “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire.” Browbeat, Slate, 12 April 2016.

One thought on “The Fine Line Between Satire and Insensitivity

  1. Great overview of the poem’s reception. As you mentioned in your second-to-last paragraph, the use of the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘we’ certainly do create a large divide between the Chinese and the Americans in this poem, calling up questions of othering and fear of the exotic that make the work a bit more uncomfortable overall. However, I notice that many of your arguments do appear to be based on the author’s supposed ignorance of the Chinese culture, which, as we learned from the end of today’s NPR interview, is not the case… Trillin has a wide and concrete understanding of the cultures he is commenting on during this piece.
    But rather than diminish any of the points you made during your post, this new understanding instead opens new questions that further complicate the controversy of “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”. Despite the comedic lens applied to the piece by the rhyme scheme and meter that I mentioned in my post, many of the post’s readers certainly interpreted these callouts as offensive and degenerate. So, how did Trillin, a man with a supposedly intelligent understanding of Chinese culture, not understand the deeply offensive nature of his work? Perhaps he intended for the cartoonish meter to totally carry the poem out of the realm of ethnocentric racism? If so, I agree with you that he totally failed… and perhaps the root of his failures lies not in the speaker’s apparent ignorance of the Chinese culture, but in the poem’s inability to offer anything other than this offensive, blubbering ignorance.

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