I love the 4th of July. I always have ever since I was a kid. From stuffing my face with candy and apple pie while watching fireworks and singing our national anthem, I have only great memories of this holiday (even with the extreme “food hangovers”)!. Today, Americans celebrate with family and barbecues and some, like San Jose native and eating champion Joey Chesnut, celebrate with a hot-dog eating contest. I personally don’t “get” shoving a bunch of hot dogs down your throat to achieve some sort of “heroic” record book gluttony, but I admire his commitment to his cause.
One of the things I am most grateful for is that I live in a country that (for the most part) embraces free speech – the wonderful First Amendment that has given rise to political parody and satire. Political parody isn’t new and it isn’t uniquely American. Yet, buttressed by a new pioneering spirit, a desire for change and freedom and helped along by our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, parody flourished in America. And it took on an amazing “American” tone – one that challenges authority, punctures the bubble of pomposity and power, and calls out for change when the “Emperor has no clothes.” Parody has been and will continue to be a social conscience and critic that calls for progressive change when that change is needed. And, throughout, American history, political satirists have often been the loudest, if not funniest, champions for social change.
Parody is critical in a free country because it galvanizes civic discourse. We are allowed to criticize our leaders. In the 1730s before this country was, well, a “country,” a German publisher with the last name Zenger published a newsletter parodying the governor of New York. He was brought up on charges (even though he wasn’t the content editor). The prosecutor who gave up the case later documented, “I can find no jury that will convict Zenger.” Word soon got out and Zenger became a hero, with popular sentiment overwhelmingly on his side. Even before the First Amendment was penned, immigrants to the colonies made a decision: that there was something different about this land, and by God, they were going to do things differently here – and that included holding their leaders to account and pointing out hypocrisy when it surfaces. If Zenger were convicted, jurors rightly concluded, there goes any hope of being able to hold leaders to public account.
Then in the later eighteenth century when many of the founding fathers, known as “federalists” sought to consolidate power in a federal government, the anti-federalists fought back with parody for years in the public sector, taking their debate to the people. Of course, they would eventually lose the battle; yet, the anti-federalist exchange contributed to the development of parody and its role in civic discourse. Parody forced the concerns over elitist control out into the open and that necessitated a response from the federalist camp. They had to stand up in public and explain their side. They could not act in secret.
Satire became known as the unofficial, yet powerful “fifth estate.” The three branches of government form the first three, and the media, the supposed watchdog of the government, forms the fourth. Who watches the government AND the media when the media fails to do its job? Satirists and cartoonists. Because they can say things the media doesn’t- and those things matter.
In the 1860s, this country gave rise to humorist, committed political progressive, and social commentator, Mark Twain (plenty of social commentary in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and his good friend, the “Father of political cartooning,” Thomas Nast, a German immigrant. With his caustic wit and deeply radical progressive agenda, Nast’s talent gave rise to the use of political cartoons to spur debate among the people. He also used his talent to fight slavery and to vilify political leaders who stole from the people. His cartoons are credited with taking out Boss Tweed, whose corrupt team of leaders ran New York’s Tammany Hall. Cartoons had driven radical change in government. Tweed would later explain how he could talk his way out of anything in a newspaper, but “not them damn pictures! Them damn pictures!” Nast’s pictures also helped get radically progressive presidents such as Civil War hero, Ulysses S. Grant, elected. Nast also gave us the Republican Elephant and re-popularized the Democratic Donkey – a symbol that epitomized Jacksonian Democracy in the 1820s.
In the 1970s, Garry Trudeau won the first Pulitzer prize ever awarded for a cartoon strip for “Doonesbury.” His commentary on Vietnam and Watergate galvanized an entire nation and captured the disillusionment of a generation that lost faith in its government. He was also listed as an “enemy of the state” by Nixon. I wonder why! <sarcasm font sorely needed here>
Today, we have Jon Stewart – who in my opinion embodies the fire and conscience that Thomas Nast represented in his day. Stewart came to prominence against a backdrop of War. His satirical humor captured the frustration this country had with the Iraq War and an administration who felt it didn’t have to be held accountable for its use of power to the American people. Stewart punctured that bubble and held the administration accountable. WMDs, anyone? He pointed out hypocrisy and took not only politicians, but the media to task for not being tougher in asking the hard questions of the administration. And the administration was fuming. Bush and Cheney both refused to debate Stewart on his show. Yet, John McCain, a Republican whose views do not always match Stewart’s, was willing to go on Stewart’s show. In fact, he has been on the show to date over one dozen times – more than any single politician because he understands Stewart’s role as a popular social critic not just as one smart comedian.
Stewart went after the hosts of Crossfire, a CNN cable show that pitted extreme right views against those of the extreme left. Stewart maintained that these shows represent extremes and they ignore the real issues. Apparently, the head of the network agreed and Crossfire was soon axed. Today, Pew Research studies repeatedly show that more younger people get their news from Stewart than traditional news sources because they no longer trust the mainstream media. While Stewart maintains he is only a comic, few would argue that today he is a savvy social critic whose words matter and who many people trust with the “truth.” And that’s not a new concept. Remember Shakespeare’s wise fools? They were frequently the smartest characters in the stories, and often, such as in King Lear, the only characters who get away with telling the truth, and using humor to do so.
Today I celebrate political parody and its contribution to American civic debate. There are countries where cartoonists and satirists criticize their governments at great jeopardy to their lives and to their families’ lives. Here, we have that precious, yet contentious freedom. To all the cartoonists and satirists who do what they do to keep the spirit of debate alive, I salute you. Your work matters – you are the voices of our better selves, who act as the “truth” tellers when government and the media fail us. Without debate, government is never really of the people, for the people and by the people. Our civic debate would be greatly impoverished without satire.
As the great 20th-century satirist, Roy Rogers, observed, “It is a sign of the times when we take our satirists seriously, and our politicians less so.”
Amen, and here’s to our satirical freedom.