Satire is the best medicine

Monday, April 12, 2004

  • Al Franken

    Al Franken

Written by Scott Piatkowski

Ridicule is hardly a new tool in the game of politics. From “Laugh-In” to “Saturday Night Live” to “This Hour Has 22 Minutes”, people have been poking fun at politicians for years, with varying degrees of success. That said, the role currently being played by satirists in both the American and the Canadian political discourse appears to be far more significant than ever before.

Two of the top-selling non-fiction books of the past year were “Dude, Where’s My Country” by Michael Moore and “Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them” by Al Franken. Both authors have the ability to combine a compelling political diatribe with an acerbic wit. This is an important skill, given that political diatribes – no matter how compelling – aren’t generally in great demand as reading material. People like Moore and Franken provide the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. And, given how ill both the American and Canadian political systems are, that kind of medicine is badly needed.

Of course, the American political establishment doesn’t always appreciate the message conveyed by people like Franken and Moore. Not only that, but they also have a lousy sense of humour. Fox News, a major target of Franken’s book, decided to sue over Franken’s use of the term “fair and balanced” in the book’s subtitle, but their lawsuit was basically laughed out of court. Like the Liberals’ threatened lawsuit against the authors of www.paulmartintime.ca (a parody of Paul Martin’s own website), the resulting publicity was better than anything that Franken’s publishers could have bought.

Now Franken is turning to talk radio, a medium that has long been dominated (at least in the U.S.) by the right, and calling his program “The O’Franken Factor” (a play on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor”). He is expressing a strong desire to be sued by Fox again, in hopes of increasing ratings for Air America, the new liberal radio network (note that, in the United States, the term “liberal” still means “progressive”). In his premier broadcast last week, he sent out the following reminder to Fox and Bill O’Reilly: “Satire is protected free speech in this country, even if you don’t get it.”

In Moore’s case, in particular, one doesn’t have to scratch the surface very long to see that his satire is just a means to an end. His letters from American soldiers serving in Iraq (which you can view at www.michaelmoore.com), for example, are so poignant that I defy anyone – regardless of their position on the war -- to read them without being moved to tears.

On television, political discussion is dominated by programs such as “Rick Mercer’s Monday Report” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. While Mercer and Stewart are much more equal opportunity satirists (usually poking as much fun at the left as they do at the right), they routinely manage to discredit the mistruths and stretched truths put out by the Bush Administration and the Paul Martin Office (PMO). The question is: why should it be left to what Stewart himself calls “a fake news program” to ask the tough questions that should be the territory of so-called serious news programs? Perhaps that is why, as CBC’s “Disclosure” reported in February, more and more people (particularly young people) were getting their news from comedy/news programs.

In print and internet journalism, it is equally true that the satirists are the ones doing the heavy lifting of political analysis. Satire sheets such as The Onion (which has a far wider focus than just politics) often provide more accurate and cutting political analysis than the mainstream media, which followed the Bush line on Iraq so slavishly at first that at least one reporter has now offered an apology to his readers.

Cartoonist Dan Perkins (a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow) does a weekly cartoon called “This Modern World” which is mandatory reading for anyone hoping to understand the murky world of American politics. In a 2003 interview, Tomorrow commented that, “the cartoons are a way of -- how can I put this? -- allowing people to laugh at things rather than just get so angry that their heads explode. It’s admittedly bleak humor right now… We are so engulfed by absurdity I think at most times, but so much so right now. It’s just not a hard thing for me to do, to find humor in these situations.”

More recently, Tomorrow has pointed out that “it's awfully hard to satirize people who keep outdoing your best efforts”. And he’s right about the right; they really do seem to be bent on becoming a parody of themselves. By drawing attention to these follies, political satirists perform two equally important public services: they make us laugh and they make people in power squirm.

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