Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Political Effects of Satire

Did Saturday Night Live swing the election for Obama? Thomas Schaller asks about
The end of the satirical industrial complex? (Salon, 4 November 2008).
"Has any of this smart political humor had an impact on the candidates, the election or our politics? It may be safe to argue that comedy changes the national mood, but can it change the national political climate in more fundamental ways?"

and quotes Robert Provine

"Plato and Aristotle feared humor's power to undermine authority."

The word "end" is often ambiguous - it can mean either "termination" or "purpose"? So what is the answer here - does satire have a purpose?

"Plato and Aristotle feared humor's power to undermine authority," says Robert Provine, who distinguishes between "laughing with" and "laughing at" types of humor. "'Laughing with' is bonding, and what we do with friends and like-minded folks. 'Laughing at' is directed to others, as in ridicule and jeering. Recently, Palin has been tapping the 'laughing at' mode toward [Barack] Obama." Provine says 'laugh with' humor tends to be more effective, however. "Tina Fey may have a very real effect on the election outcome, and to a lesser extent, so will David Letterman, because their more gentle and devastating variety is more effective than the heavy-handed Palin sort. It may sway the uncommitted and influence the faithful."

There are precedents of course. In Britain, TW3 is sometimes credited with having helped finish the Conservative government in the early 1960s.

When Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Tom Lehrer said that political satire had become obsolete. As he explained later, "everything is so weird in politics that it's very hard to be funny about it" [Interview May 2000]. In another interview he complained that people didn't laugh at political jokes any more, they just applauded [Stop Clapping, This is Serious, March 2003]. In other words, it is just predictable entertainment for the people who have already made up their minds.

There are still some survivors from the TW3 generation pushing a line of intelligent satire, such as Bird and Fortune. But will they swing elections? And is that their purpose?

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