The publicly powerful get called lots of names.
Corrupt, evil, stupid, hack, greedbag, incompetent, unethical, immoral, liar, uncaring and on and on and on.
For “public servants,” elected or otherwise, a very blasé reaction is the norm. Even on the off chance you are not one, you expect to be called a criminal of some sort, though generalized public degradation is reacted to differently from specific accusations – being called a “thief” is very different from the local loved little old lady librarian standing up in public and saying they saw you knock-over the liquor store on Elm Street at 4:32 p.m. last Thursday, especially if it happens to be true.
What the noteworthy cannot abide, though, is being made fun of, being mocked, being the object of dismissive ridicule, and, especially, being the object of satire.
And that is why satire – in all its forms – is facing public execution.
Especially in light of the “Twitter files” revelations, it is not a coincidence that pointed satire is instantaneously crushed by the nabobs and solons and powers that be – they know it sticks. From Jerry Ford to Sarah Palin, from Jonathan Swift to Ben Franklin to Twain to Oscar Wilde to Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy to Christopher Hitchens, the targets and purveyors of close-to-the-bone satire all know the power of scalpel of public wit.
The best satire starts with the truth – in whole or in part – and adds intelligent humor to make its point much nastier – and more memorable – about some public awfulness. That is why both truth and humor – the foundations of satire – are attacked and oppressed and de-platformed and intentionally misunderstood and somehow branded “misinformation” – see here: https://thomas699.substack.com/p/i-am-a-misinformation-denier – so often: the baby must be strangled in the crib.
At its best, satire is an equal opportunity offender which is why it irks all aspects of the political spectrum, though the reactions tend to be different – the woke left becomes apoplectic and goes into censorious rage mode (see Babylon Bee) while the right, bless its heart, tends to try to address potential factual flaws and rationally argue the matter, and ends up completely missing the humor.
Without truth and humor and a reasonably intelligent audience, satire – and its irreverent cousin mockery – simply cannot exist and that is why all three are under such withering attack.
The targeting of satire is currently most obvious in its impact on the field of topical comedy. Funny smart insightful performers like Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr are regularly attacked for comedying outside the lines while workaday hacks like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel are heaped with praise for their important and brave and trenchant and aggressive … defense of the political status quo.
Suppressing dissent in general and satire in particular is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes throughout history. As the public will to freely mock its government can never be completely eliminated, the regimes accidentally breed a very dark very double meaning private “samizdat satire” underground culture as a sort of counter-balance to the “propoganditive” spewed by the government and its allies. (For an eye-opening and heart-rending dive into totalitarian culture, see here: https://issuesinsights.com/2021/12/02/refugees-from-communist-countries-are-the-canaries-in-the-coal-mine/ )
Other forms of public approbation may be attempted but they do not have the plasma-cutting bench effectiveness of satire.
For example, when you incredulously ask a politician “how can you sleep at night?” if they think they are doing the right thing then they’ll say “just fine.” If they know they are an actual crook, they will say to themselves “on a pile of money with many beautiful ladies” and simply ignore your indignity and get on with their day.
Shame is another tactic often employed with little effect for a simple reason – one cannot be shamed if one cannot feel shame.
And if one is capable of feeling shame, it is a personal aspect that can be easily disposed of, or at least trundled aside temporarily through rationalization – “yes, what I’m doing is bad but it’s my job and if I resign out of righteous protest my kids will have to go to public school so I’m only compromising this one time for the good of my family.”
Fifty compromises later, it becomes a reflex.
Since even before the United States was a country, satire has played an integral part of the American experience, especially in the relationship between citizen and government, ruler and ruled. Satire keeps the powerful in line as nothing else can, it is a leveler of unequaled power, and its imperilment is an actual threat to the fabric of our nation.
So make fun and keep making fun and always make fun – even if the empowered object of derision will pretend to ignore it the rest of society will not and then change can begin.
Thomas Buckley is the former mayor of Lake Elsinore, Cal. and a former newspaper reporter. He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more of his work at: https://thomas699.substack.com/