Sunday, September 27, 2015

Humor, satire, ridicule and politics

Rick Perlstein weighs in on a persistent question about the effect and usefulness of satire and mockery against demagogues and dictators in What Ronald Reagan Teaches Us About Donald Trump Vice 09/25/2015. He argues that Charlie Chaplin's famous 1940 movie The Great Dictator lampooning Adolf Hitler was actually helped Hitler more than hurting him.

He refers to the judgment of Ron Rosenbaum in Will They Never Learn? 11/29/2006, who wrote:

... there is no more trivializing, over-rated, treatment of Hitler than Chaplin’s dimwitted, laboriously unfunny Great Dictator. Yes Chaplin made some funny movies, but when he tried his hands at politics Chaplin made a movie that did nothing but help Hitler because he made him seem like an unthreatening clown just at a time, 1940, when the world needed to take Hitler’s threat seriously.

Yet Chaplin’s film makes it seem like Hitler was nothing but a harmless fool (like Chaplin, same mustache and all). And he made it at a time, during the Nazi-Soviet pact, when the world most needed to mobilize against Hitler’s threat. And yet Chaplin, to his eternal shame ended the film not with a call to oppose fascism, and its murderous hatred, but rather – because he was following the shameful Hitler-friendly Soviet line at the time – ended his film with a call for all workers in the world to lay down their arms–in other words to refuse to join the fight against fascism and Hitler. [emphasis in original]
Rick uses The Great Dictator as a lead-in to his main topic, a caution against taking Donald Trump too lightly, referring to people who regarded Ronald Reagan that way as a cautionary tale.

It's an interesting history. And I'm basically in agreement with him and his conclusion, "But more than that, Reagan, and now Trump, reveal our own tendency to repress our fear of demagogues by dismissing them. And ultimately, it's all about us. Follow the bouncing beach ball. Take demagogues seriously. Voters love them. And they're only a joke until they win." (my emphasis)

I doubt that Rick Perlstein thinks very favorably of Herbert Marcuse's work, although I don't really know. But in his 1972 book Counter-Revolution and Revolt, Marcuse wrote, referring to conscious radical left strategies of mocking the existing order:

Liberation here is having fun within the Establishment, perhaps also with the Establishment, or cheating the Establishment. There is nothing wrong with having fun with the Establishment - but there are situations in which the fun falls flat, becomes silly in any terms because it testifies to political impotence. Under Hitler's fascism, satire became silent: not even Charlie Chaplin and Karl Kraus could keep it up.
In that passage, Marcuse is making is actually conflating the life-practices of communes, which were enjoying a surge in popularity as an alternative lifestyle, and satire in literature and film. He is actually fretting in that argument that such popularity was contributing to withdrawal from political activism. As he wrote immediately preceding the sentences just quoted, "They [the communes] continue to be possible nuclei, 'cells,' laboratories, for testing autonomous, nonalientated relationships. But they are susceptible to isolation and depoliticization. And this means self-co-option or capitulation: the negative which is only the reverse of the affirmative - not its qualitative opposite."

Marcuse is actually making a very similar point to Perlstein's, for all the differences in underlying assumptions there may be. Since Donald Trump's popularity in 2015 so much resembles that of George Wallace's in the 1960s and 1970s, and Marcuse refers to Wallace's popular support in that same book as evidence of "a proto-fascist syndrome" at work, it's likely that were he still around today, he would share Rick's concerns about trivializing Trump as a political figure.

Marcuse also emphasized in that work the point that, despite the rhetoric and genuine fears of the radical left and many liberals in 1972, many of which he obviously shared, the Nixon Administration, he wrote, "is not a fascist regime by any means." (emphasis in original) A topic worth exploring elsewhere. But I'll note here that the Republican Party in 1972 not only harbored proto-Trump Democratic convert, Vice President Spiro Agnew, but had senior elected officials who were actually moderate and even some who could legitimately be called liberals, like Oregon's Mark Hatfield and New York's Jacob Javits. The Wallace brand of "proto-fascism" was largely a phenomenon of the Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party. The party-based ideological alignments of today are qualitatively different. And therefore more conducive to the possible of the further advance of authoritarianism in the Republican Party.

On the Great Dictator matter, as Marcuse indicated and Perlstein states, "Chaplin [later said] that had he know about the horrors Hitler was responsible for at the time, '[I] could not made have fun of their homicidal insanity.'"

Karl Kraus (1874-1936) was a Viennese satirist, publisher of a magazine called Die Fackel from 1899 to 1936, and such works as The Last Days of Humanity. I enjoyed this graphic novel version of the latter published in 2014:


Marcuse in the quoted comment on Kraus is presumably referring to the caution Kraus begin exercising in published satire critical of Hitler and the Nazis after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. And maybe to his 1934 book, Warum die Fackel nicht erscheint (Why the Fackel Isn't Appearing).

I share Rick's concern that because Trump sounds like a clown, people opposed to what he's advocating may not take him seriously enough.

That doesn't mean to me, though, that all spoofing or mockery of Trump's posturing are damaging. And Rick's piece got me thinking about the various ways we use humor in politics.

Some political satire is just funny because it expresses a general truth, even though that truth could be spun different ways.

For instance, one of my Facebook friends shared this photo without any mention that it could be a satire. And I really don't know whether it's fake or not. But in this case, it's funny either way.


It's supposedly a poster in support of Michael Häupl, the social-democratic (SPÖ) mayor of Vienna. It says, "We want you to vote for the SPÖ. Otherwise you can kiss my ass." The German version is actually a touch nastier than the American one. But that's close enough.

It's funny because it refers to a near-universal pretension in political campaigns, that every candidate is showing the deepest respect for the general good and for all their potential voters.

On the other hand, some alleged humor is actually political propaganda. A good sign of this version is that no one but partisans of the position think it's funny. Rush Limbaugh's brand of "humor" is pretty much exclusively of this kind. But his "humor" is not just partisan but plainly mean-spirited. The late great Molly Ivins described his still-typical style 20 years ago in Lyin' Bully Mother Jones May/June 1995.

Other kinds of political humor are partisan but not mean-spirited, which means they will mainly be popular with those in general ideological agreement, but can also be entertaining or even persuasive. Molly Ivins herself could serve as an example. Esquire's Charlie Pierce is a current example, with his Menckenesque style displaying his solid political analysis. But while the humorous is a key part of the style of both, their emphasis was on the political.

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart could be seen as variations of this type, but in their case they are comedians who found a major niche doing political humor.

Then there is comedy generally, ranging from the club versions to Saturday Night Live, plays, movies and TV series. Politics comes into these at various times, sometimes hitting on political themes, typically leaning toward the provocative but often designed not to tick off the audiences by being too overtly partisan or nasty. Much of this probably has little or no political significance.

One growing field of political humor that I find particularly problematic is the increasing merger of politics and show business. The White House Corrrespondents' Dinner is the most prominent example of this, in which the President plays stand-up comic to Beltway Village media types and various Hollywood celebrities. Such events not only blur the boundaries between the press and the politicians they theoretically covering with a critical eye. It also contributes to the blurring between politics and show business. And both trends contribute mightily to the depoliticization of public affairs and even politics itself. It substitutes spectacle for substance. Much to the advantage of the Establishment that Marcuse was writing about in 1972.

Ridicule and mockery do have their place, even in dictatorships. They may have been more risky in, say, East Germany than they are in today's Germany. But cynicism and humor are part of the way humans cope with the miseries and frustrations of political life.