Day 6

Why, maybe, it's a wonderful time to be alive, according to satirist Alexandra Petri

In her new book, Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why, Washington Post satirist Alexandra Petri makes the case, tongue firmly in cheek, that despite what one might hear from naysayers, everything is OK in the world.

Petri's new collection of essays is Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why

Alexandra Petri is a humour columnist for the Washington Post. (Lisa Allen)

In her new book, Washington Post satirist Alexandra Petri makes the case, tongue firmly in cheek, that despite what one might hear from naysayers, everything is OK in the world.

"They want to fill your head with lies — for instance, that outdated horrors are still occurring, and, in addition, new bad things are happening, and if it were not for the ability to order pizza on your phone without speaking to another human being, there would be no good arguments for the present at all," she writes in Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why. "This is simply not true."

The essay collection tackles everything about the time in which we live, from U.S. President Donald Trump's first federal budget to conspiracy theory QAnon, and includes her selected writings from the Post.

Petri, who is known for her ability to express our feelings, our frustrations and our angst with a tinge of humour, spoke with Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong about what it means for the book to be released amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below is part of that conversation.

As I read through the book and you go through those [essays] … I thought, "Oh, my God, I'd completely forgotten about that episode." What was it like for you to go back through, reread them and pick them for the book?

It was fun because the weird thing was some of them, I'd totally forgotten the incident behind them, and some of them we thought, at the time, it felt like this is the biggest thing that could possibly be happening. And now, it just feels so completely remote and from another world. So it was a combination of, like, nostalgia for the frying pan that we used to be in when you're sitting in the fire now.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable with people positively impacted by law enforcement on July 13 in Washington. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

I want to ask, in particular, about one of the essays you wrote about Donald Trump's first budget, in which you break down the budget by department, including the State Department, which — and this is a quote from the column — would spend more money on "guns and F-35s and other cool things that go boom and pow and pew, pew, pew." 

That column was actually shared as an actual accurate news story by the White House. How did that happen?

I don't know. Someone blundered. That's how that happened. But the longer version of that is that it got sent out in the morning as this, "Hey, the Washington Post is really praising the president's budget." 

I guess somebody saw the headline and thought, "Wow, he's finally getting the treatment that he deserves and has long merited from this newspaper, and I'm just glad that what we always hoped would happen when he was elected president is finally happening." And then they didn't bother reading past the headline, because once you get to the pew pews, the onomatopoeia gives it away that it's not maybe the most sincere or professional assessment of the budget, or even a correct assessment of anything. 

So it was very exciting to become real news for like a brief flickering, shining moment.

It's not like comedy is like, 'Oh, isn't it funny that this is happening?' It's like this shouldn't be happening.- Alexandra Petri, satirist for the Washington Post

But I mean, there's a prescience to not just your reflection on how time had sort of worked. That same column also said there were going to be cuts to the health department because "in the future, we will cure diseases by punching it, or if that fails, by sending drones after it. Also, we will buy more planes and guns to shoot airborne viruses out of the sky." That was written in 2017. Any thoughts on that, given how things are going right now in tackling COVID in the U.S.?

That seems to be the plan, and I'm disappointed that they're listening to me and taking me so seriously because I do not think it is a good plan. 

And I mean the same thing with sort of the question of how are we going to reopen the schools? And it's like, well, as before with the problem of school shootings, everyone was like, "Well, why don't we just do nothing? Maybe doing nothing would work. Have we considered doing nothing?" 

Or maybe, "What if we gave people equipment that was wrong for this? Would that help?" 

All of these solutions where it's like if we gave people more weaponry and sort of prepared them less, could that be a better way of dealing with this? 

There's that old quote about how America will eventually do the right thing after first trying all the other things, but I wish that wasn't the governing philosophy we're embracing because it seems not optimal, she said in a grand understatement.

You're right in that one of the difficulties, this is a quote, "of being alive today is that everything is absurd, but fewer and fewer things are funny." And yet you do write about gun violence, about school shootings, about #MeToo, women's rights, Black Lives Matter. How do you write satirically about something that really at its core isn't funny?

I think you have to take it seriously. 

I was reading some — oh, now I'm forgetting his name, but he was one of those ancient Roman guys. I mostly used his book to kill a bunch of mosquitoes and then I haven't picked it back up, and I'm now forgetting his name. 

But he said it was difficult not to write satire because if you looked at everything that was going on, you were so absolutely horrified by it that all you wanted to do is sort of shake everyone around you and try to convince them that these things should not be happening. And I think that's the impulse that's underlying. 

It's not like comedy is like, "Oh, isn't it funny that this is happening?" It's like this shouldn't be happening. This should be a joke that someone has made, not a reality that we're living in. 

So trying to sort of turn the snow globe back inside out is what underlies everything that I'm trying to do. 

And now I'm going to Google him because I'm sitting here at a computer, and I don't want to embarrass myself, not remembering my Roman satirists. Juvenal! Juvenal, of course.

Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why is Petri's book of essays. (W.W. Norton and Company)

Baked into the humour and the analysis that's a deep and important part of that, I have to say, Alexandra, I get a sense of optimism from you. How are you feeling about the rest of 2020 that lies before us?

I mean, I think there is an optimism in maybe all satire because you wouldn't be saying this if you didn't think it was fixable. 

Fundamentally, you're like, "This is wrong." It's like in a fairy tale where you see a horse is stuck with its head in a bowl of coals, and you're like, "This shouldn't be this way. Let's turn this around," and you just fundamentally think that if you can maybe put it in the right words, people will want to turn it around. 

So I think it is an act of hope to try to say, "Hey, we're through the mirror here. This is the upside down. Let's see if we can wangle our way to something slightly improved," which is a very low-key way of putting it. 

I think if you don't think change is possible, then there's no point in complaining or making jokes except toasting your marshmallow while the world burns. But you're hoping someone will come and throw something on the fire instead of just putting a marshmallow next to it.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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