COLUMN: Evaluating the Value of Political Satire

The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), June 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

COLUMN: Evaluating the Value of Political Satire


The advent of television has completely transformed many industries, not least of all the news industry. Of note is that it has fostered the emergence of televised infotainment and political satire, epitomized in shows such as the "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

What is to be thought of this development? Some argue that this change is beneficial as it increases news literacy among the younger generation. Others argue that this is simply a dumbing-down of news. In fact, political satire by its nature has a unique role to play in political discourse, but this very nature also limits its use to a rather narrow scope.

To understand this, one must first comprehend the nature of satire. Strolling through the Library of Congress in the summer of 2014, I happened upon a sharp contrast created by two exhibits in adjacent rooms.

One room was dedicated to the American composer and pianist George Gershwin and the fine music associated with him. The next exhibit covered political satire and its history in American politics.

With clips of stand-up routines and information on comedians such Mort Sahl and Bob Hope, the room initially seemed to be the antithesis of the refinement produced by Gershwin.

Whereas Gershwin created beautiful music that built others up, the comedians seemed best at tearing down with their sharp wit. Gershwin's work was inherently constructive, but the satirist's work was inherently deconstructive.

This accords with what scholar Lisa Colletta observes about irony, which also applies to satire, "Traditionally, irony has been a means to expose the space between what is real and what is appearance. revealing incoherence and transcending it through aesthetic form and meaning of a work of art." Political satire has a distinctive capacity for exposing the ironies, follies and hollow machinations of politics, and this in turn gives it a unique place in public discourse.

However, one must also realize that satire by its very nature has certain limits that ought to constrain its use. Because satire's main task is to criticize farce, its capacity is essentially a negative one, the power to tear down, as opposed to a positive one, the power to build up.

This necessitates that the satirist take caution to not apply art to every object on the horizon. Solely deconstructing leaves one with a barren wasteland filled with the sand of pride and the burning heat of cynicism.

For this reason, deconstruction must be undertaken with a view to construction. One ought to criticize with the hope of making things better. …

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