The Arizona shooting has added more and more voices to the demand to restore civility to political discourse. Over and over we hear the demand to stop the vitriolic exchange of insults driven by mutual hostility.

What does this mean for political satire? By definition, satire is hostile and offensive. Even Art Buchwald, whose satire was relatively mellow and genial, said “Satire is malicious”.  Holding people up to ridicule is not a friendly act. It doesn’t seem consistent with the proposal to lower the temperature of political discourse. So should satirists now blunt the edge of their wit when commenting on political issues and leaders?

In fact, that’s exactly what happened after 9/11. Satire suddenly stopped. Saturday Night Live suspended its Bushism jokes. Cartoonists drew a weeping Statue of Liberty. It was, pundits intoned, “the end of irony.” Of course, the losses then were much greater than in Tuscon, and the threat was external not domestic. Still, at any time of national mourning caustic humor does seem to jar. This time Jon Stewart caught the mood of the moment by opening his program following the tragedy with a solemn, apparently unscripted, rumination on the media’s culpability in creating a dangerously overheated political discourse..

Still, the suspension of political satire after 9/11 lasted only a few weeks, and this time the pause has been still briefer. In fact, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and Onion magazine hardly broke stride in blistering their targets. In my view, this is as it should be.

Where Reality Outdoes Satire?

For one thing, it won’t be long before political debate will become as acrimonious as ever. It it true that the University of Arizona has announced the formation of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, with former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as honorary presidents, aimed at promoting "more civility in the political arena". And some of the most ferocious symbols, such as the rifle crosshairs on congressional seats, have been turned off. Still, angry accusations will continue to fly back and forth. They will be protected, as they should be, by the First Amendment. And we will need political satirists to help reveal their absurdity.

Then again, satire will be needed to rail against another aspect of the  tragedy in Arizona – America’s love affair with guns.. We do not know, will never know, precisely what political or other fantasies drove Jared Loughner to his crime. Of course, we could join those who are pouring over the list of his favorite books that he entered in Facebook. The twenty-two books on the list included Gulliver’s Travels, Animal Farm, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, all of which can be found in any bibliography of satire. But satire didn’t do it. A Glock automatic pistol did.

There is repeated evidence that, well before the tragedy, Loughner was deranged. Yet he was able to buy the Glock, and the accompanying 33-bullet magazine, in Tucson with no difficulty. Surely a rational response would be, at a minimum, to strengthen background checks on prospective gun purchasers and reduce the number of bullets in a Glock magazine. Yet all the news analyses tell us that there is no prospect any such changes will pass either house of Congress. In fact, the talk in some state legislatures is that we should all be free to carry handguns just about anywhere.

In the interest of full disclosure I should note that my origins in England, where less than five percent of the police normally carry guns, bias me against widespread ownership of handguns. Of course, America has a very different history, with a far different attitude toward guns, than the British – or, indeed, than most other countries. But for our lawmakers from both parties to be so intimidated by the National Rifle Association as to be unwilling to make it more difficult for crazed individuals to obtain automatic weapons with large magazines seems to me to be ridiculous. And whatever is ridiculous in politics is the natural terrain of satirists.

Some of them have already taken up the cudgels. Onion has mocked the near-absence of gun control laws in Arizona. The Statue of Liberty theme is back for cartoonists – this time with Lady Liberty’s face in the gun-man’s cross-hairs. These continue a tradition of biting comments on the subject by Herblock, Paul Conrad, and many other satirists. I’d be interested in hearing about any of your favorite examples.

As for my own further thoughts on the question, please tune in to "Guns Don't Kill People" in the “Offensive Songs” on this website.

Posted on Friday, February 04, 2011 (Archive on Monday, January 01, 0001)



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