The mixed effects of political satire

Readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (as well as other satires) and frequently link to them if I happen to think them funny and informative. But each of them has his faults. Colbert seems to idolize the military while Stewart is terrible when directly interviewing powerful political figures or news media bigwigs like Brian Williams or Fareed Zakaria, so much so that I don’t even bother to watch those segments anymore. Stewart is best when he has on writers and artists and academics who are experts in some field. In fact, a rule of thumb that I have developed is that the less familiar I am with the name of the guest, the better the interview is likely to be.

But over and above those specific issues, there is the more general question of whether political satire does harm or good when it comes to political activism and social change. Does it serve to get people angry about the issues it exposes and inspire them to become involved in change movements? Or does it sublimate action into apathy, lulling people into thinking that just because they have laughed at the culprits and feel superior to them, they have satisfied their civic responsibility. In other words, we become jaded world-weary cynics, comfortable in our superior knowledge of the wrongs in the world, and feeling superior to the idealists who are actually in the front lines trying to make the world a better place.

Should satires strive instead to make people into political activists? I don’t think they can, frankly, because good satire by its very nature requires a certain amount of ironic detachment to prevent it from getting preachy. So its audience will tend to be those who already share that sensibility, rather than serious activists who might even be annoyed at the attempt to layer humor on to what they see as serious issues. I suspect that those who like political satires are more likely to contribute money and sign petitions and not so much to demonstrate in the streets and volunteer for campaigns and causes.

But the more serious issue is whether satire actually suppresses the desire for activism. In authoritarian societies with a controlled media, satire may be a way to slyly get subversive messages to the public and thus inspire activism. But in societies like the US with less overt censorship, does satire actually hinder the achievement of democratic and social justice goals, as Nick Meador argues?

This is the difficult but important question to which I don’t have a ready answer. I am unaware of any empirical studies on this issue but reader Joseph sent me a link to a good article by Steve Almond that explores this question in some detail.

I suspect that the answer is a mixed bag. I think that political satire is a way to get people to become more aware of political news and views that they do not get elsewhere. This is because the set-up to the satire requires filling in the audience with some basic information and to really appreciate the humor, you need to know what is going on. For example, I think that Stephen Colbert’s set of shows on how Super PACs work (for which he won a Peabody award) exposed the role of big money in politics far better than anything else that I had read or seen. It would be interesting to see if Colbert can do a similar exercise with offshore accounts.

People enjoy watching comedy and if that is the vehicle used to get them better informed, then it cannot be entirely bad.


  1. says

    Good morning Mano,

    Satire is a mixed bag. Did Jonathan Swift bring about change? I don’t know.

    I am aware, however, of one bit of brilliant satire that brought down an insidious organization and transformed the vile and bigoted members into clowns worthy only of laughter.

    Read on for the story of Stetson Kennedy, Superman and the Klu Klux Klan.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  2. astro says

    But in some way we are in a repressive country. Satire is especially necessary given the utter corruption and ineffectiveness of the main stream medie. The satirists are now the ones doing the media’s job. That’s the shame

  3. zekehoskin says

    Satire alone is not enough. Tom Lehrer mentioned the wonderful satire of the late-1930s cabaret scene in Berlin and how effective it was in preventing WWII.
    Still, it works better than preachiness to bring any notion of an opposing viewpoint into the notice of the blinkered. Mr Gilbert’s lyrics (with Sir Sullivan’s melodies, of course) managed to mention the inefficiencies of British Politics to people who would never have listened to reasoned debate.
    I honestly doubt that well-done satire can do any harm. Sure, some of the people who already disagree with whatever is being lampooned will become a bit smugger, but more of them will be energized to take action.

  4. invivoMark says

    Jon Stewart also utterly failed when interviewing professional insane person Annie Jacobsen about her Soviet-Nazi-Children UFO crash in Roswell theory, by treating her like a perfectly rational human being.

    And he failed when reporting on the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, by coming down almost entirely against the protesters. We were fighting for values he’s supposed to be standing for, but his pieces on the protest basically undermined everything we were doing, and the portrayal of the protest was only a little bit better than Fox News’ blatant lies and misdirections.

    I take everything on that show with a lot of salt. You don’t realize how bad the lies are until you’re the one being lied about.

  5. Leo says

    This. I may not have been watching much of the Daily Show back during the protests in Madison (actually, I really don’t watch the show anymore except for clips I see on blogs), but I have had similar feelings when he makes fun of atheists. Or, it may have been on this blog, where he failed on science when interviewing an “accomodationist” with making belief in dark matter (he said “anti-matter” on the show) sound as much faith based as religion.
    I fear Stewart will make fun of anyone just for the sake of making fun of people. In which case, I do fear his form of satire can do more harm than good. When he does this kind of stuff, he’s essentially promoting the golden mean fallacy, where if you’re not in the middle (or perhaps a bit left of middle, in his case), you’re not cool. Anyone on the fringes is a target for humiliation. It doesn’t matter if those on the fringes are justified to be where they are.
    Now, this doesn’t mean satire can’t be useful. But that satire probably has to have a political goal in mind to be so. With Stewart, his satire is probably more for entertainment purposes only.
    Or maybe my judgement is clouded right now from a long day at work and other frustrations…


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