The power of satire
Satire is more than funny; it’s subversive. From the fifth-century Greek playwright Aristophanes to “Saturday Night Live,” Voltaire to Stephen Colbert, satirists expose folly, corruption, and hypocrisy.
Whether through a late night television joke, an “SNL” skit, an editorial cartoon, or a bit of cheeky political theater, satire provides a voice and a respite for the frustrated. Satire can also inspire the satirized to change. Laughter, like a spoonful of sugar, helps the medicine go down. Whether we find it funny or not, satire is powerful political speech that should not be taken for granted.
Case in point: The Independence Institute filed a new ballot initiative, called Fix Our Damn Roads, to require the Colorado legislature to allocate existing funds in the state budget to pay for roads rather than raise taxes. With a wink and a smile, the gesture sends a more powerful message than a policy white paper could.
Conceivably, the Fix Our Damn Roads initiative could make its way through the complicated process to get on the ballot and provide a competing solution to a sales tax increase initiative. So is it a threat or a satirical object lesson? Probably the latter. Jon Caldara, the Institute’s president and master of political theater, has said he’d prefer the legislature do the right thing, as he sees it, and can the tax increase. Is it working? Is it a coincidence that lawmakers are now considering other legislative options to the tax increase?
Lawmakers may not be laughing, but what can they do? Joel Warner, the Colorado-based author of “The Humor Code” (along with University of Colorado professor Peter McGraw), notes that, “In times and places where other means of resistance and opposition are hard to come by, satire has proven to be a potent tool. Skillful satire leaves its targets in a no-win situation: They either have to look the other way as people ridicule them, or complain about it, thereby proving they can’t take a joke.”
In the face of satire, lawmakers can grouse about it, perhaps via Twitter (Overrated satire! Sad!), ignore the joke, or change direction. Unfortunately, there’s another option: silence the court jester. There are many places around the world where speaking truth to power, even obliquely through satire, is not tolerated. Freedom of speech is not a right but a privilege extended to those who conform to government expectations.
On Tuesday, Denver’s Mayan Theatre will feature a screening of “Tickling Giants,” the story of Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” who dared lampoon Egypt’s dictators and state-controlled press. The film tracks Youssef ’s journey from heart surgeon and part-time YouTube political commentator to the talk show host with the most popular television program in the Middle East, averaging 30 million viewers per episode. Through humor he exposes the corruption and vanity endemic to Egyptian politics, government and its sycophantic media. Yousef and his staff display a kind of courage not required of U.S. political commentators as they face threats by the Morsi and el-Sisi governments, angry clerics, angrier mobs, and even their own television station.
Tickling Giants is more than an entertaining film about an exceptionally funny man or a touching portrait of Egyptians as they struggle through the Arab Spring and its aftermath; the film is a poignant tribute to free speech and the subversive power of political satire. No one will leave the theater without a deep appreciation for the free speech protections Americans enjoy that let us so freely laugh at our leaders and ourselves. Krista Kafer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-host of “Kelley and Kafer,” which airs 4-7 p.m. weekdays on 710 KNUS.