Sunday, January 29, 2017

What's up with Political Satire?

Just this morning I listened to one of Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History podcasts about "The Satire Paradox."

Malcolm Gladwell started with a story about Harry Enfield, a comedian and political satirist back in the 1990's, during the Margaret Thatcher administration in England. Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, another writer and comedian, created the character of "Loadsofmoney" to satirize the way Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had "unleashed American style capitalism on the UK." Thatcher was changing England, upending British socialism and creating an environment where characters like Loadsofmoney were the norm. Loadsofmoney was an obnoxious and ignorant character, constantly flashing his wads of money at everyone.

The interesting thing is that people on both sides of England's political spectrum reacted positively to the Loadsofmoney sketch. The people who supported Thatcher used Loadsofmoney as a reference to how England was progressing, and those who did not support Thatcher referred to Loadsofmoney with disdain, sighting him as an example of how Thatcher was corrupting England.

Gladwell asks Harry Enfield what impact he thought the sketch has, and his response was: "Generally it's just about questioning what's there because we're allowed to question what's there. But it doesn't ever change anyones mind." And this is where Gladwell introduces what he calls the "Loadsofmoney" problem: political satire makes no real difference. Social scientists have discovered that politically motivated comedy tends to actually reinforce people's prejudices and opinions. It doesn't change any minds, just entertains the audience.

Listening to the story of Loadsofmoney reminded me that I've seen this sort of satire in the recent election: in Alphacat's "Back to Back" political parody video Alphacat impersonates Barack Obama and, with the help of Drake's soundtrack, satirizes Trump. Phrases like "Back to back like Trump's divorces" and "Trumps the kind of dude who mocks the worlds poor. But is the world poor or your soul poor?" implies that Obama is not a fan of Trump.

Evidence to the power that political satire carries is that this video is more memorable to me than anything Obama might have really said on the topic.

The political scene has become this ambiguous environment, where politics is humorous and comedians use political situations as tools to get the audience to laugh. Those who create characters to satirize politicians understand the intellectual background and purpose of their creation, but we don't. We lack the same intellectual backing to understand exactly what is meant, and we interpret it with the influence of our own viewpoint. I see this in myself, there's a gap in between my knowledge of the political scene and my knowledge of the jokes about the political scene.

This raises the question if Malcolm Gladwell is right in saying that satire is not shaping or enhancing our political views, are we devolving into people who laugh off real issues? Is this sort of mass media communication system keeping us from seeing the intellectual stuff behind it all, the stuff that really matters?


  1. Good work listening to podcasts! Gladwell's are great: I loved this first season.

    Your comments about the Obama video make me wonder how the paradox plays out for that particular example. You like the video because it spoofs Trump, but the things it says about Trump are (more or less) things that Trump supporters praise in him? And when they watch the video, they see a funny spoof of Obama?

    Is the problem that satire now plays to fun laughs instead of sad/dark ones? I'm thinking about the classic example of political satire, Jonathan Edwards' "A Modest Proposal", which argues that the solution to the problem of poverty is that we eat children. This is extreme enough that we can laugh, but when we start to think, we realize its commentary power.

    In this regard, the humor in John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" cannot be mistaken as funny, because it is BITING more than it is LAUGHING. This is perhaps, as you say, our "mass media" culture, where anything that we see is shaped to attract eyeballs, and so tempers its attitudes. We don't like to watch stuff that makes us uncomfortable, and these days, it's too easy to flip the channel.

  2. Also, don't say "begs the question" when you mean "raises the question."