There is currently a renaissance taking place in political satire in the United States.
In the popularity of programs like The Daily Show, the admiration and loathing lavished on filmmakers like Michael Moore, the speed of a politicized viral video's distribution -- and the replication of cheekily ironic activist stunts -- the impact of subversive political humor is everywhere. And the ripples are being felt far beyond the realm of "entertainment."
Political parody, irony, and satire have not only surged in popularity in recent years, but they have become complexly intertwined with serious political dialogue. While some have argued that this blending of the serious and the satiric only serves to cheapen the discourse, it is in the realm of the satiric that some of the most interesting, engaged political debate is taking place. Consider Stephen Colbert's testimony (delivered in character) before Congress this past fall on the plight of migrant farm workers.
The pull toward the ironic, I believe, is directly related to the increasingly manufactured quality of contemporary public life. The public discourse available to us is overwhelmingly designed as spectacle, and one that rarely acknowledges itself as such. In an era of stage-managed and choreographed political showmanship and debate, today's new brand of political satire offers a satisfying opportunity to break through the existing script.
Political actors and corporate spokespeople are carefully groomed and rehearsed, and their armies of handlers are experts at getting their talking points on television, most of which are rarely investigated or verified. Seemingly everyone is aware that the "candid" moment of exchange between politician and citizen at a folksy roundtable has been meticulously pre-framed for us, but the news media rarely actually point this out. Meanwhile, public political discussion tends to be a difficult realm for anyone but industry insiders to break into, with the notable exception of the loud shouters who make for good conflict.
As these conditions have escalated, so too has the desire to poke holes in the spectacle, challenge the truth-value of statements made by elites, and shift the way in which issues are framed. It is no coincidence then that satirists are trespassing deep into the traditional political world, and that they are developing communities of loyal fans eager to hear their opinions articulated in a public forum.
The increasing centrality of satire and irony, whether in the mushrooming world of parodic news or in the specter of pranksters offering fake press releases on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, has caused many commentators to wring their hands. They worry on the air and in the blogosphere that the presence of irony signals a cynical distrust of politics and a lack of real engagement or sincerity.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
It is an overwhelmingly earnest form of irony and satire that is on the rise. Professional entertainers, political activists, and average citizens are responding to the political discourse around them, not primarily to malign the political process or debase particular high profile figures, but more often to make forceful political claims and to advocate action in the search for solutions to real problems.
As developments in technology have made it easier to pick up and take apart pieces of the media field around us, amateurs and professionals alike are drawing on satire as a means of entering into public debate, temporarily hijacking the discussion out of the hands of authority. Satirists are seizing the opportunity to enter the conversation by circumventing the standard conduits of political information and the highly stage-managed, predictably choreographed nature of current political discourse.
More importantly, fans are avidly coalescing around these forms, fervently keen to hear the critiques made, and drawing pleasure from the communal affirmation. Rather than engendering cynicism, as critics charge, the newly flowering realm of politicized satire is providing many with a sense of community and purpose notably lacking from organized politics in the twenty-first century.
In questioning the status quo and the standard political messages reverberating through the echo chamber, new and provocative discussions are being heard, which ultimately help foster a more meaningful and honest debate in the country.
Amber Day is assistant professor of media and performance studies at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., and author of the new book Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate (Indiana University Press).
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