Thursday, June 14, 2012

Political humor should--at the very least--be funny

Many of the great literary political satirists--like Twain, Swift, Rabelais, and of course Chaucer--were funny. Very funny. Sure, their style of humor could sometimes verge on the tasteless, dark, or obscure, but it was still funny, if you understood it. And that, I think, applied to people on every side of an issue, or person, or persons being satirized.

Recently, on the Facebook page (like us on Facebook!) for this blog, I shared a bit of political satire--in the form of a picture--that was quite funny. It was a take off on the Game of Thrones series on HBO, with various characters being equated to various current political leaders. Here it is:

As frequent readers of this blog are no doubt aware, my sympathies--when it comes to politics--are not with the current Administration, nor with many current leaders of the Democratic Party. Nor are they with several of the now-failed GOP hopefuls. And there's little doubt that in this bit, Obama comes off looking the best (followed closely by Gore), when it comes to actual politicians. Stephen Colbert--as Tyrion Lannister--is completely unscathed. Bush and Paul look pretty bad, but so do Romney and Gingrich. But the point is, there's real, actual humor here, effective satire. To not recognize it--whether it's "true" or not--is to be clueless.

Now when I shared the pic, I also noted that Cheney could have been added too, as Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch (for those unfamiliar with the show and/or books, the Night's Watch is charged with protecting the realm from outside enemies, monsters that few believe exist and men that few believe are actually dangerous). That's Cheney to a tee, warning against the dangers of "the others," insisting on a need for a bigger military, taking himself way to seriously, etc.

The Game of Thrones lesson aside, the point remains: it was real political satire. Funny political satire. And sure, it can sting for some, but that's its purpose. In short order of my sharing, I received comments from people--fans of my blog--who were apparently so offended by the pic that they were "unliking" my page. Whoop dee doo. Here's another pic I shared, equally funny and equally successful as real political satire:

Don't tell me that's not funny! It's freakin' hysterical. Even a hardcore Gingrich supporter should be able to see the humor. But let's get back to the written word. Back in the 18th century, there lived an Englishman by the name of Samuel Johnson. Less of a political satirist and more of a wit, Dr. Johnson nonetheless offered many vicious and biting--and hysterically funny--quips about people, including political ones. I mention him as a prelude to Ambrose Bierce and his Devil's Dictionary, for satire is often more of a well-delivered insult, than it is anything else.

Bierce's book--published in 1906--took things to a whole new level. No point of view, no issue was spared. Brutal, Bierce was, yet also quite erudite and clever. For instance, "admiration" was defined by Bierce as "our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves." Thus, we admire only those who are like us. Truth, by and large. And harsh: no one wants to admit this is the case when they declare their admiration for another.

A much nastier example of Bierce's humor was his definition for "African." He defined it to mean "a nigger that votes our way." Once again, truth for a great majority of those opining on politics in Bierce's day: supporters get the nice labels, enemies get the bad ones. And it's not that Bierce's observation is unique or uncommon, it's the way he conveys the observation that marks his effectiveness as a satirist. Dark humor to be sure, gallows humor oftentimes, but humor nonetheless.

In the current world, there is a website--and newspaper--that would do Bierce (and Swift, and Twain, etc.) proud: the Onion. A recent headline there: Romney Spends Most Of Factory Visit Yelling At Employees To Work Harder:
According to company officials, Romney proceeded to outline how dozens of jobs across the paper mill were unnecessary, noting that terminations would be required because, while there were much-needed managerial roles to be filled, current employees "lacked even a basic education" and could not seriously be considered for them.
"See, if I were in charge, I'd probably just move the entire plant to Taiwan and save us all a big chunk of change," Romney said. "It's stupid to overpay a massive, bloated staff like this when someone faster and younger can do all this overseas for a fraction of the price. That's just common business sense. You'd seriously have to be an idiot not to see that, but hey, maybe that's exactly what I'm dealing with here: idiots." 
"Thanks for all of your support again, guys," Romney added as he left the factory.
See? Funny. And what's being mocked is not Romney, but rather the caricature of Romney used so frequently by those who wish to criticize him. Unfortunately, this point is lost on many (just as many would no doubt see Bierce's definition of "African" as evidence of his racism when it is exactly the opposite).

This is a problem satirists always face, have since time immemorial. Still, even from the point of view of those misunderstanding the Onion piece, it's probably still funny. Which brings us to our final bit, this article at Mother Jones by Tim Murphy. Entitled "Mitt Romney: The Devil's Dictionary," it's an attempt to apply Bierce-style wit to words uttered by Romney, to define the words in new ways, as a means of mocking or criticizing Romney (or both, I guess). Murphy has a disclaimer, too:
Unlike the original Ambrose Bierce offering, we can't promise that it will be clever, witty, or darkly humorous, but it is, nonetheless, a dictionary.
That's actually newspeak for saying exactly the opposite; it's self-deprecation for the sake of appearing humble, something Bierce (not to mention Twain and Swift) would have seen through in a heartbeat. Murphy is really saying that he thinks his offering is all of those things: clever, witty, and darkly humorous. He's just too classy to pat him self on the back he does it indirectly.

Let's look at a sample, shall we?
Pizza n. 1. An American dish comprised of a doughy crust, tomato sauce, and cheese, in which the cheese has been scraped off.
Wait, what? Follow the link on the original (not reproduced here) and you'll get a story from last year about an e-book on the 2012 Campaign in which it is revealed--shocker of shockers!--that Romney like to pull some cheese off his Pizza, though it's unclear if this is because he like to eat it by itself or because he doesn't want to eat all that cheese.

If the former, so what? Who doesn't do that from time to time, especially when the cheese has melted off to the side? If the latter, then isn't it an "attaboy" moment, with Romney carefully avoiding too much dairy in his diet? But either way, WHERE'S THE STINKING HUMOR? Where's the wit? Where's the biting insult? Where's the mockery? Where's anything, apart from a banal observation?

From The Ponds of Happenstance Dictionary:
Journalist n. 1. a fool suffered by other fools because another fool gave him (or her) a column 2. Charles Krauthammer
Cheers, all.