Satire Is the Best Revenge

As we bask in our April Fool's Day triumphs ("I'm dumping you, Ken." "Oh my God! Where's my hanging noose?!" "Kid-ding!" "Oh, okay. But where is my hanging noose?"), many of us forget the critical place humor has in our society. Many of us also forget where we left the clicker, but I digress.

We don't usually associate comedy with agonizing moral decisions (unless it's whether to see Burt Wonderstone or to hold out for Hangover 3). But satire has a long tradition of affecting the public discourse.

In 1729, Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal caused an immodest uproar for suggesting Ireland end both poverty and hunger by having the government sponsor eating poor children. (I understand this was also in Eric Cantor's recent budget proposal, although it was to be funded entirely by corporations.)

In 1852, two British noblemen challenged each other to a duel and decided to share a taxi to the field of battle. Word got around and the idea was so comical that a witty article in The London Times humiliated them both and made theirs one of the last duels in English history. The Pilgrims broke transgressors with stocks and pillories; now Jon Stewart pillories stock-brokers.

But shaming in the Oh-Tens is tricky; shamelessness is kind of the defining characteristic of our age: shame = notoriety = celebrity, which everyone wants. The recent controversy over a New York City ad campaign aimed at humiliating pregnant teenagers called into question the usefulness and morality of shaming itself.

Also, you probably haven't noticed but our society's divided in its judgments about what's moral and what isn't. (Although I've found that the people who disagree with me about morality are just wrong. Weird, huh?) That division works against the definitive moral judgments which give shaming its power. British author George Meredith: "The satirist is a moral agent working on a storage of bile." Nowadays there's lots of bile but not so much agreement on morality.

Satirists themselves disagree about its usefulness. British comedian Peter Cook talked about "those wonderful 1930's Berlin political cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Adolph Hitler." Terry Gilliam of Monty Python says "If people are laughing, they're not getting angry; it's a diversion not a solution." Satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer believes it's mainly good for the egos of people who agree with the satirist.

But that itself has some value; if, for example, I knew for sure that other people found the attention paid to anything with the suffix "dashian" to be in some way risible, I would feel better. And I believe that me feeling better is something our society should cherish.

Just as people disagree about moral principles, societies disagree about moral standards. Let's talk farting. (And please note I said "talk".) In America, farts are funny (or so I'm told) but in Afghanistan they're considered tremendously offensive. In 2011, and this is not an April Fool's joke, the U.S. Marine Corps issued an order to its troops in Afghanistan which banned audible farting. For soldiers who break the rule by breaking wind, wouldn't you like to be at that court-martial? ("Your honor, I'd like to enter into evidence this air-sample...")

Not just satire but comedy itself begins with mocking. Plato and Aristotle said all laughter was wrong because comedy is inherently cruel (something many people still believe, especially me when I think about Ken Magnuson in 8th grade gym class).

The idea that laughing at someone indicates moral failing may seem outdated but in fact mocking can be a moral judgment. Defining a characteristic as a flaw is taking a moral stance; if you say "I don't like her because she's greedy", you're saying greed is bad. (Does not apply to those employed by a hedge fund.)

Of course value judgments are hardly universal. A comedy writer friend went through a coke phase in the 80s and while he's happy to make fun of the disabled and people whose political or religious beliefs are different from his, he can't abide cocaine jokes. The former president of The Onion, Sean Mills, says the angry letters he gets are always the same: "I love it when you make a joke about murder but if you talk about cancer, my brother has cancer and that's not funny." Which gets us to Mel Brooks' immortal "Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

So are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert merely presiding over stroke-fests for the like-minded or does mocking actually change anything? Ask a dictator: there's never been an authoritarian state that allows satire.

But maybe we're asking the wrong question; maybe it isn't whether satire changes things but whether it, like all comedy, opens minds by giving a new perspective, making people think.

It's a rare painting or sonata or novel or movie or comedy sketch that effects social change -- what artists hope is to make you examine your assumptions, and that can lead to action. As Helen Keller said, "People don't like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions."

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