Political satire thrives in the United States. It flourishes in print, on the web and on stage.
“What’s bad for the country is good for us,” says political cartoonist Jonathan Richards. Corruption, absurdity, hypocrisy, injustice, pretentiousness, power-mongering, bigotry, racism, sexism, nepotism, cruelty, greed—all the malignancies of abused power, whether political, economic or religious, are legitimate targets of political satire in the U.S.
“Stupid, self-seeking public figures serve it up to us, ” continues Richards, who cartoons on line for the Huffington Post as well as for the daily Albuquerque Journal. Public figures who complain about satirical treatment—and they always do—get little sympathy in the U.S. “If you can’t stand the heat,” Americans say, “get out of the kitchen.”
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly last month, U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed the American Constitution’s prohibition against abridging free speech. “Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense,” he said. “I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day...and I will always defend their right to do so.”
American commitment to unfettered expression, informative, banal or offensive, is deeply rooted. In 1733, John Peter Zenger, a German-American publisher in New York, was charged with criminal libel for criticizing the royal governor. A jury composed of rebellious colonials ignored the judge’s instructions. They rendered a verdict of not guilty. Truth, they held, is an absolute defense against charges of libel or slander. Still, the battle for press freedom never ends. Flash forward to a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan established the actual malice standard which requires the injured party to prove that a publisher acted knowingly and in reckless disregard of truth or falsity. Since ignorance is a defense, angry public figures rarely win such cases. This tolerant legal regime protects cartoonists as well as word-wielders.
Political satire has animated American politics since pre-independence days. Benjamin Franklin, inventor, journalist and diplomat as well as a Founding Father, was mercilessly caricatured. Cartoons criticizing Abraham Lincoln’s person and presidency were scurrilous. Later in the 19th century the Fat Cats of the Gilded Age and their political allies were ridiculed by cartoonists with populist sympathies. Even the “good” World War II against fascism gave rise to satire. Bill Mauldin skewered pompous generals, clueless lieutenants, military bureaucracy and Army food through his “dogface” cartoons featuring Joe and Willie, a rumpled, unshaven pair of privates in the infantry. The absurdities of the air war against the Germans were lampooned in Joseph Heller’s unforgettable novel Catch 22. Herblock, adored for his political cartoons in the Washington Post, kept politicians, plutocrats, preachers and other self-aggrandizing hypocrites off guard for over a half century.
Sometimes contemporary satire is so subtle it’s hard to read. The Onion specializes in deadpan humor that’s especially difficult for foreigners to decipher. An Iranian news agency republished a story about a non-existent survey showing an overwhelming majority of rural white Americans would rather vote for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than President Barack Obama. The Beijing Evening News presented, as straightforward news, a story claiming that members of Congress were threatening to leave Washington unless the capitol building underwent a make-over that included more bathrooms and a retractable dome. The item was really a spoof about legislators’ misplaced priorities.
Meanwhile, the comedy troupe performing as The Capital Steps has been “putting the mock in democracy” for the past 31 years. Setting witty political verse to familiar tunes, these comics fill theaters coast to coast. “Take the Money and Run—for President,” the title of the current review, takes aim at the obscene amounts of money now pouring into presidential campaign coffers, a theme that’s evident in the print media, too. A cartoon in The New Yorker depicts a flag-flanked candidate opening his campaign remarks like this: “My fellow-investors.....” A New Yorker cover features a stereotypical plutocrat offering a lollipop to a baby in patched diapers.
Saturday Night Live is the granddaddy of televised political humor. Equally popular these days are The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Politicians are delighted to be invited for an on-air grilling by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Exposure to huge audiences is one draw, but there’s also this: Americans admire politicians able to give as well as take when it comes to word play. In a sports-loving nation being a good sport is almost as important as winning.
Political humor in the U.S. works like a home improvement commercial. “This needs fixing,” satirists imply. “Fix it up.” Eventually, the people do. They throw the rascals out. They pass a better law.