Art and Politics

The Personal and Political Significance of Political Satire

Andrea Hajek’s post on the seamy side of satire and the Italian elections  and Iddo Tavory’s post on humor and the social condition got me thinking about the promise and perils of political humor. This has fascinated me ever since I made it a nightly habit to tune into Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart as a refuge from the madness that were the George W. Bush years.

I have wondered: why has my regular dose of political satire seemed so essential to my mental health? Why has it been so appealing to so many of us? On the other hand, I didn’t want to spend too much time wondering. Most scholarly accounts of humor seem to miss the point, and they are decidedly not entertaining. I feel like responding to the authors of such serious reflections: please just relax and enjoy.

But Iddo’s analysis, which is part of our on-going dialogue on the social condition, seemed to hit just the right notes: it moved our deliberations on the social condition forward, as it helped me understand important developments in global political culture, and it had a light informative touch, focused on a joke. A Jewish father warns his son not to marry outside of the faith, finding confirmation in his warning when the son’s new wife takes the faith too seriously, insisting that her husband no longer work on Saturdays, both the Jewish Sabbath and the most important day of his father’s business week.

The joke is funny in the telling. Social structure as it is manifested in interaction makes the “funny telling” possible. Social structure – the family, religion and the economy – informs the structure of the joke, which sets the stage for the performance. As Tavory maintains: “If we attend to the structure of humor, we can see that jokes work precisely because they shine light on dilemmas that are built into the social fabric.”

Political satirists work with this, for better and for worse. They provide momentary liberation from the unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) when they highlight the tensions we must live with, mocking easy, or foolish or dictated answers, the positions of the other, the distrusted, the opponent, the enemy, and even with friends, families, loved ones. But when they take their own answers too seriously, with too much self assurance, they skirt with danger, the danger we now see in Italy, but can be found in many other times and places.

I remember having a sick feeling watching Poland’s famous satirical cabaret, Piwnica pod Baranami in Krakow in the early 1970s. The cabaret was past its prime. In 1956, it was one of the key creative locations where Polish Stalinism was sharply questioned and overturned. They questioned totalitarian authority. They expanded the possible, by mocking the dictatorial. But the show I saw was odd. The audience seemed to be enjoying itself, but the performance seemed quite racist to me. There was one anti-China joke after another (this at the time of the Sino – Soviet split). I understood, as a friend explained, that when they said China, they meant and the audience heard Russia, but the mocking of the Orient was off putting. So much so that it stays with me. I thought of it then as an example of satire growing old and stale, in marked contrast with the student theater I was then observing. But now, I perceive more, thinking about my discussions with Tavory. The satire was drawn too easily. It referred to the sorry state of living in a society where a foreign power stifled daily life, but that insight was just too thin. That the Russians, or the Communists, were to blame for everything wrong in Poland explained too much with too little. Rather than confronting the social condition and providing relief from its tensions, the satire turned away from textured experience and flattened it.

On the other hand, take Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart, please! (I’m echoing Henny Youngman here, just for fun) In their nightly shows, they illuminate. Mocking the dogmatic, they show how simple-mindedness stumbles over complexity, how the social condition is ignored. Colbert is more clearly aiming at the nuttiness of the right, through his Bill O’Reilly impersonation. Stewart tries to be more even handed, reporting absurdities wherever he sees them.

Not all their jokes work. Sometimes, it seems to me, Stewart mocks difficulties that he and his audience don’t understand. Nonetheless, unlike the Polish cabaret, he and Colbert work with tensions and ambiguities, posing questions, rather than providing easy answers. Posing questions, not providing answers is their democratic role, like that of intellectuals more generally, which I explored in depth in my book Civility and Subversion.

This was especially evident in their mock mass demonstration on the Washington Mall, “The “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” Stewart was for sanity; Colbert for fear. It’s interesting to note how many participants and observers wanted the rally to be partisan, and how the comedians understood that this wasn’t their role or their point. They weren’t working as propagandists for the Democrats, or just attacking the Republicans. They weren’t working with a clear political end. They were fake activists, extending their performances as fake newscaster and commentator. And as such, they revealed the transgression of the fine line between the serious and the comic by those who purport to be serious. The comics understand the difference, while so many in the news media and in politics don’t. Brilliant and funny.

But satirists may lose sight of their distinctive role, becoming convinced their jokes can substitute for serious political analysis and engagement. They may come to believe and convince their audiences, as I saw in Krakow many years ago, that their mocking illumination of the powers’ insufficient packaged answers to the questions posed by the enduring problems of the social condition is the answer. Thus, the Italian case: from a satirical V, “vaffanculo,” Day, (fuck them all day) to a party that won 25% of the vote, and has continued to follow the “vaffanculo” line. Hajek observed before the elections about the intentions of the leader of the anti-political party, The Five Star Movement: “It is indeed likely that Grillo has no intention to govern, but simply wants to obstruct other parties and bring about some kind of revolution.”

Humor responds to and illuminates “the social condition.” Herein lies its personal and political significance and power, why Colbert and Stewart speak to me as I endure my daily struggles, and why it can matter, for example, in the role satire played around the old Soviet bloc. It can be a survival strategy for persecuted minorities, Jews and blacks, for example, and majorities, women, or just anyone, for example, in Youngman, husbands and wives. And because humor and satire refer to both the concerns of daily life and greater social structure, the social condition writ large and writ small, they have potentially significant political meaning and impact. But, handle with care.

  • Grzegorz Lindenberg

    I suppose there is a difference between the role of satire in a democratic and an authoritarian society – and that is why you felt uneasy witnessing ’70s satire in communist Poland. The major role for a satire you watched was very simple: to make people laugh so they can discharge feelings of hatred and fear, And by making this in public it helped to create authentic (not state induced) social bonds – that was very important too, that feeling “we all think and feel in the same way, hating communists”. But there was plenty of “illuminating the social condition” type of satire in communist Poland too – e.g. look at all the increadibly popular in the ’70s cartoons by Krauze and Mleczko. My favorite: two guys are looking at pyramides and one of them says: “me and my brother in law can do much better when we are drunk” – making fun both of Polish traditional drinking culture and of the official propaganda that would boast of numerous dubious accomplishments of the communist regime.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    Indeed there were many subtle and impressive “Polish Jokes” in the good old bad days. Brilliant satire was part of everyday life and an element of great artistic work. When I lived there, then, I was in awe. But sometimes the humor missed the mark, it seems to me, creating too easily the solidarity you speak of, and in retrospect, anticipating some authoritarian trends in today’s Poland. But, certainly this is a matter of judgment and not a fact.