Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Politics of Comedy

Further to our discussion in the post "Humor Us," I found what follows in an article about the White House Correspondents Dinner in early May. "So Not Funny" by Richard Cohen at www.washingtonpost.com takes issue with Stephen Colbert's performance as the host of the dinner, which usually involves a prolonged roast of the president.

[Speaking truth to power] is a tired phrase, as we all know,
but when it was fresh and meaningful it suggested repercussions,
consequences -- maybe even death in some countries.
When you spoke truth to power you took the distinct chance that
power would smite you, toss you into a dungeon or
-- if you're at work -- take away your office.

But in this country, anyone can insult the president of the United States.
. . .
Bush himself plays off his reputation as a dunce and his penchant for
mangling English. Self-mockery can be funny. Mockery that is insulting
is not. The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said
on a dais with impunity.


I'm a big fan of speaking truth to power, but is the kind of confrontation that can get you killed or worse, fired, the only means of getting truth in power's head? What about the jester--the only person talking sense to King Lear in the play King Lear? What about "constructive engagement"? What if I want to speak truth to power and live to tell about it?

The biblical Esther spoke truth to power, I suppose, but first she fattened power up quite a bit--ironically while she herself was enduring a fast. She wound up getting what she wanted. How do we determine what posture to take toward power when power needs a good truth-speaking?

2 comments:

Pete Juvinall said...

I've always considered satire as one of the more effective channels for communicating truth not to leaders, necessairly, but more to the people they represent. I saw the Colbert speech and overall it was funny. I think what made it uncomfortable was really two things: truth and that simply no one was laughing. It was part roast of the president and part roast of the audience.

But should truth always be comfortable? Jesus said the world hated him and would hate his followers because they bring truth. There is a line between leaders involved in public discourse and those that we are directly responsible to.

There are also very dark black lines between satire that is seen in places like the correspondants dinner and in the local 'independent' newspaper that gets distributed in the community. I think the line revolves around the idea of honoring those God has put in charge over us.

How does satire work itself into a picture of an honored leader who needs truth spoken to them? Bono said of U2's achtung baby era music that humor was a powerful weapon. I think it's power lies in it's ability to sneak past our emotional defenses and touch us in places that we would normally keep guarded.

there's also a need for appropriateness. Would I mock my supervisor at work? Not a chance. My role is to serve them and to honor their authority over me to be an example of Jesus to them and to those I work with. Truth telling often comes in the form of a relationship and through trust. Ben Afleck said in the move 'Against all enemies': 'My job is to get the right information to the right people to make the right decisions'


Good discussion question...

Margaret Feinberg said...

humility is usually a heart-softener.