Parody as Political Intervention:
A Case Study of Billionaires for Bush
is rather like saying something
whilst at the same time putting inverted commas around what is being said. The
effect is to highlight, or 'highlight,' and to subvert, or 'subvert,' and the
mode is therefore a 'knowing' and an ironic-or even 'ironic'-one.
The Politics of Postmodernism
A certain degree of apprehension has always accompanied the integration of humor into political discourse in Western culture, given that, in the words of George Orwell, "every joke is a tiny revolution." Upsetting the accepted order of life has been the immortal mission of fools, clowns, jesters, and comedians across space and time. According to Wes Nisker in his poetic expositions of Crazy Wisdom, these characters "spread doubt about our beliefs, our abilities, our motives, our institutions, our sanity, our loves, our laws, our leaders, even our alliteration" (1990: 19). Historically, comedians have used humor as a process of revelation, not necessarily by pinpointing the truth, but rather by exposing the foibles and oversights of their time.
The function of humor, however, is not limited to the social and political motivations of the practitioner. Otherwise, there would be no reason to crowd around a street mime or stand in line for tickets to see a professional comedy routine. Even more basic than its ability to highlight social and political absurdities, humor's primary function is to entertain an audience. It is commonly recognized, for example, that the court jesters of medieval Europe were responsible for lightening the mood of royalty during times of social upheaval for the kingdom. Furthermore, comedians often entertain audiences by demonstrating their ability to spontaneously generate creative and clever plays on language. Overall, humor and wit are art forms that possess the potential to evoke delight and wonderment in their patrons.
The association of humor with entertainment is precisely the reason political humor is seldom recognized as a valid form of political discourse. Humor is thought to trivialize the gravity of political issues, especially in dealing with war, poverty, and injustice. A familiar tenet of modernist Western culture is that humor is for the masses, politics for the competent. To bring popular appeal to the realm of politics is to degrade the quality of political debate.
In the past decade, however, the United States has witnessed a surge in the use of humor, and in particular parody, as political commentary, engagement, and resistance. A Pew Research Center study released in January of 2004 showed that 21% of people polled under the age of 30 "regularly get [presidential] campaign news" from comedy programs such as Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show (Pew Research Center, 2004). The growing pervasiveness of the Internet as a legitimate vehicle for public discourse has also provided popular and accessible means of integrating humor into the political process of this country, particularly through parody sites such as Whitehouse.org, the Borowitz Report, and the Onion. Barbara Warnick, a professor of Communication at the University of Washington who analyzed Bush/Gore parody sites during the 2000 presidential campaign, noted that successful political parody sites "carved out a textual space through interlaced patterns of reference and allusion, and they designed messages that developed progressively and produced a convergence of thought and ideology" (Warnick 2000). Within a wide range of praise and criticism, academics and theorists of politics, humor, and new media have recently begun to recognize parody as a valid form of political discourse.
I intend this paper to serve as an analysis of humor and parody as political commentary and resistance by examining a) why parody is increasingly appropriate to our times and b) how the mechanisms of parody succeed in engaging and activating the public. In this sense, I will consider both the 'external' and 'internal' social relationships associated with parody: the relationship between parody and postmodern spectacular culture, as well as the relationship created within an act of parody between performer and spectator.
This paper will also serve as a case study of Billionaires for Bush, a New York City-based Political Action Committee (PAC) that uses humor and parody as tactics for political activation and education. I will examine how the Billionaires for Bush use parody to achieve their ultimate goal of detracting from Bush's popularity and exposing the detriment of his economic policies. I choose not to approach this analysis with the intention of either supporting or opposing the use of parody in political discourse; rather I wish to determine roughly what objectives of a political resistance movement can be achieved by Billionaires for Bush-type activism, while also highlighting its possible limitations.
Problematic Search for Political Truth in Postmodern Society
live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less
- Jean Baudrillard
Simulacra and Simulation
Political activism has perhaps found its greatest antagonist in the culture of postmodernity in postindustrial Western society. The relativity of "truth" becomes all too apparent in a country overly mediated and inundated by images and information extending from endless perspectives. As mass communication and the mass media propagate a world of signs, symbols, and icons, we are left to supplant our sense of reality and history with an amalgamated collection of simulations that present only a manufactured semblance of truth.
One basic principle of applied postmodernism, then, lies in its fundamental questioning and skepticism towards all ideological positions and claims to truth. Political action, when steeped in ideology, consequently encounters its defeat in postmodern culture. Furthermore, the death of the "subject" as an outcome of infinite relativity implies the death of the self-conscious and capable agent, a condition that again renders problematic the possibility of political action. Indeed, postmodernity lends itself to a more negativist, deconstructing approach to society and politics than to a utopia-inspired, action-oriented engagement. In her book The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon asserts that while postmodernity offers "no effective theory of agency that enables a move into political action (original italics), it does work to turn its inevitable ideological grounding into a site of de-naturalizing critique" (2002: 3). The ultimate task of postmodernism, then, is to point out that reality and truth, especially when imposed by authority, are but social constructions determined by our ideologically-steeped perspectives; that which is 'natural' is in fact a product of the political and social apparatuses that guide our interpretations of information.
In order to initiate these ideological deconstructions and highlight the inability to separate perceived truth from its context, the devices of postmodernism embody the traits of self-consciousness and self-contradiction within the irony-infused, double process of reinforcement and subversion of the past. Postmodernism's inability to move forward without looking backward is best expressed in the words of Umberto Eco, who wrote that postmodernism "consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its deconstruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently" (1995: 32).
Parody is but one postmodern device that exemplifies the deconstructing capabilities of self-reflexivity and ironic juxtaposition. Parody, the self-referential art form that involves the imitation of a style in such an exaggerated way as to make its features more visible, has existed since the pre-modern era, but has a particular function appropriate to postmodern times. According to Hutcheon, parody "signals how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference" (2002: 89). That is, parody involves a foreground and background narrative. Ironic exaggeration makes obvious the need for multiple interpretations of the relationship between the surface message and the underlying context. This exaggeration is necessary to prompt the decoding of parody's fundamental intertexuality and the marking of difference in the multiple messages; otherwise, parody simply becomes plagiarism or a reinforcement of the surface narrative.
The parody of Billionaires for Bush undoubtedly involves the interference and reflexivity of double narratives: the narrative of the protestor versus the narrative of the Billionaire and the narrative of clandestine authority versus the narrative of outright tyranny. The surface narrative of billionaires protesting the anti-Bush movement is set in ironic contradiction to the alluded background narratives. The over-the-top caricaturing of the billionaire persona creates a conflict in the mind of the spectator that results in the creation of a number of distancing questions that allow the spectator to immediately begin decoding the performance and make sense of the social commentary behind it. The spectator is immediately aware that billionaires do not participate in street protests. The spectator is also immediately aware that billionaires do not actually wear tiaras or bowler hats on a regular basis. This awareness completes the parody, leaving the spectator critically searching for the point in the scenario where reality ends and exaggeration begins.
One criticism of political parody-- whether in the form of Web sites or street theatre-is that parody ends at commentary and offers no dialectic antithesis to that which is being criticized in order to generate a resolution. However, postmodernism by nature avoids any claim to ultimate truth, thereby limiting the ability to offer ideological alternatives. Perhaps negativism and deconstruction are the only possible approaches to politics when there exists an "unwillingness to make decisions about meaning that would imply singularity of fixity" (Hutcheon, 1992: 37). Parody, then, becomes a powerful political tool in prompting resistance to dominant ideologies without necessarily imposing an equally questionable set of dogma. Overall, parody encourages skepticism and the deconstruction of "common sense" as promoted by those in power. While parody precludes the creation of disciples united under a single doctrine, it does endorse the creation of critical thinkers whose political power lies in their ability to challenge the authoritarian imposition of "truth."
Entertainment as Engagement in the Age of the Spectacle
He will essentially follow the language of the spectacle, for it is the only one he is familiar with; the one in which he learned to speak. No doubt he would like to be regarded as an enemy of its rhetoric; but he will use its syntax.
- Guy Debord
Comments on the Society of the Spectacle
Political discourse in postindustrial Western society has inevitably been shaped by the omnipresence of free market ideology. The creation of a consumer society, fueled by capitalism, both reflects and demands the rampant commodification and commercialization of products and services, with advertising and marketing generating pseudo-needs to maintain the cycle of production/consumption and supply/demand. The movement of political debate in the United States, therefore, greatly relies on its viability in the consumer market. Simply put, if it cannot please the masses or the target market, it will not turn a profit. The ability to captivate and the ability to entertain, therefore, become vital characteristics of any form of communication entering a public discourse shaped by commercialism and profit.
The social conditions produced by more advanced stages of capitalism take form in what Guy Debord called "the society of the spectacle." According to Debord:
The spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life. It is not just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see - commodities are now all that there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity (1994: #42).
commodifying nature of the spectacle is best represented by the culture produced
by the mass media. As long as the political economy is dominated by the motivations
of capitalism, the spectacle is inescapable. The prominence of commercial television
as this society's primary medium for public discourse attests to this inescapability.
In addition to citing the popularity of comedy shows as a political resource
for younger generations, the Pew Research Poll report from January 2004 also
confirmed that "television as a whole remains the public's main source
of campaign news" (Pew Research Center, 2004). According to Neil Postman
in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the implications of this phenomenon
deal directly with the quality of information that is accessible by television
viewers. Postman argues that:
Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure (82: 1985).
information that passes through commercial television-- whether dealing with
politics, sports, or Hollywood-must be packaged with a certain level of mass-appealing
luster. In the society of the spectacle, any news item that might be perceived
by the masses as overly-complex or uninteresting is reproduced and consumed
as an entertainment product. That is, for news and information to be profitable,
it must be both accessible and able to engage the attention of the masses.
As argued by Debord and Postman, entertainment becomes the primary vehicle for the distribution and exchange of information within the society of the spectacle. Under this condition, the fostering of political dialogue no longer necessitates an austere approach. In fact, the treatment of politics as strictly serious subject matter could potentially disengage and deactivate a good portion of the public that has become accustomed to the media culture of info-tainment.
The potential of humor to politically engage an audience is valued by Saul Alinsky in his book Rules for Radicals. In writing about the art of communication for political change, Alinsky argues that "humor is essential, for through humor much is accepted that would have been rejected if presented seriously" (1971: xvii). Indeed, humor is effective in disarming the notion that politics are often intimidating, convoluted, and indigestible.
Alinsky also advocated for the use of political realism in strategizing for social change. Political realists, according to Alinsky, "see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, where morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest" (1971: 12). While theorists like Neil Postman criticize the nature of public discourse in "the age of show business," political realists like Hutcheon, Debord, and Alinsky recognize that to deny the inescapability of the postmodern spectacle is to be overly idealistic and ultimately ineffectual. In fact, those who support the use of humor, parody, and entertainment in political discourse might agree that the master's tools are not the ideal instruments for carrying out the political process; however, they would certainly argue that they are the most suitable tools for affecting change. Furthermore, to repudiate the validity of politics packaged for mass appeal implies a degree of elitism that is reminiscent of the modernist political theory, initiated by Walter Lippmann, that called for the taming of "the bewildered herd" by an exclusive group of policy makers. Postmodernism reflects the integration of mass, popular culture into all social realms previously dominated by exclusivity and high culture, including art, education, and politics. That the process of humor involves both intellect and accessibility reflects this condition, making it a most appropriate tool for postmodernists and political realists alike.
Evaluating the success of Billionaires for Bush in working within and with the tools of spectacular society is simply a matter of recognizing their popularity with and ability to use the mass media. Within four months of actions, the Billionaires generated 20 appearances in mass media, the majority of which were in national media outlets (http://www.billionairesforbush.com/press.php). In fact, the Billionaires achieved an unprecedented record with the New York Times, appearing in the publication four times in two months.This amount of attention from one of the most distinguished news outlets of the country is exceptional for any organization or event, much less one that pushes a progressive political agenda.
The Billionaires have certainly mastered the art of attracting the devices of spectacular society, but how successful have they been in using the spectacle to the benefit of their ultimate goal: detracting from the popularity of George Bush? Of course, such objectives are hard to quantify, but an examination of the content of the twenty articles can serve as an adequate indication. The focus of these articles attests to the fact that while the use of humor and entertainment can attract attention of the masses and the press, it does not necessarily serve as a dependable vehicle for getting a specific message across. This is, of course, the expected challenge in using entertainment to push a serious political message. Most articles highlighted the novelty of the Billionaire approach to political activism, but did not allow room for the substantial political angle to come through. To their credit, having successfully completed the initial phase of their campaign in which the objective was to simply appear on the public and press radar, the Billionaires have only recently initiated Phase 2 (as of May 1, 2004), which involves a more focused, thought-out messaging strategy to manage the very problems with the press they have encountered so far. Though a proper assessment of this particular element of the Billionaires for Bush strategy cannot be completed until the end of the campaign, the difficulty of manipulating the trivial nature of entertainment and the mass media to their political advantage has so far been evident.
Parody and the Performer/Spectator Dynamic
Postmodern humorous parody has the potential to create an effect on an audience that neither postmodernism, humor, nor parody could achieve independently. This effect is essential in the creation of critical thinking agents capable of effective political dialogue and resistance. A description of this phenomenon can be found in both Bertold Brecht's outlining of the 'alienation effect' and in the Situationists' performance of détournement in spectacular society.
In A Short Organum for the Theatre, Bertold Brecht attempts to define an aesthetic for a particular form of socially committed theatre which "not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself" (1947: #35). Specifically, Brecht emphasizes the need for socially committed theatre to jolt the spectator from his/her familiarity enough to rethink the "things that are too obvious for us to bother to understand them" (1947: #44). The spectator must be inspired to abandon the position of passive observer through the mental stimulation generated by certain theatrical devices. The production of this mental stimulation is what Brecht calls the 'alienation effect.' According to Brecht, "A representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar" (1947: #42).
In order to produce the alienation effect, an actor must "discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put his audience into a trance, he must not go into a trance himself" (1947: #47). The interference of the foreground and background narrative in parody creates the very discomfort and unfamiliarity that Brecht is describing. The critical distancing that Brecht advocates is produced through the ironic exaggeration of postmodern parody, in which the feelings of the actor are not "at bottom those of the character, so that the audience's may not at bottom be those of the character either" (1947: #48). Instead of trying to convince the audience that the actor is the character, the alienation effect works to make clear that he/she is rather commenting on the character. Again, postmodern political parody epitomizes this device through the use of caricature rather than exact imitation. The distorted representation of characters and self-conscious stylization of postmodern parody allows for the alienation needed by the spectator to recognize that the performance is a social commentary, and that empathy for the characters is not necessarily desired.
The role of détournement in spectacular society, as performed by the Situationists, maintains a function similar to the alienation effect. Détournement signifies the interference created by intertextuality, or the mutual commentary caused by the juxtaposition of narratives. Détournement is fueled by contradiction; it is, in the words of Guy Debord, "a fragment torn away from its context, from its own movement, and ultimately from the overall frame of reference of its period " (1994: #208). The purpose of détournement is similar to the purpose of the alienation effect or the purpose of ironic caricature; it reflects the "necessity for distance (original italics) to be maintained toward what-ever has been turned into an official verity" (1994: #206). Like the A-effect, the performance of détournement by an actor is intended to jog the spectator out of their passivity and familiarity in order to stimulate their minds. In a spectacular, anesthetized society, only the nudging shock will allow for the innovative and critical thinking necessary for social change.
The creation of the alienation effect and the presentation of détournement by the Billionaires for Bush is essentially a product of caricature. The actors of Billionaires for Bush dress flamboyantly, always in the over-the-top billionaire wardrobe of tiaras, monacles, bowler hats, tuxedos, and evening gowns. Actors also embellish their characters with absurd English accents and exaggerated gestures. Their appearance at left-wing protest events also jolts the unsuspecting spectator out of their every-day, sedated experience. The idea of right-wing billionaires certainly exists in the minds of the spectators, but witnessing caricatures of billionaires on the street with protest signs quickly eradicates any sense of familiarity that is felt for those types of scenarios. It is obvious that the Billionaires are not trying to fool anyone into thinking that they really are billionaires that support Bush. As a result, the spectator becomes hyperaware of the performance. This awareness, along with the caricature, grants the spectator the distance necessary to recognize that the actor is commenting on the character, rather than attempting to become the character.
Postmodern humorous parody is an effective method for initiating political engagement and resistance in a number of ways. First, it is appropriate to the culture of postindustrial Western society, in which postmodernism designates humor and entertainment to be as valid a method of political engagement as any somber approach. Second, the use of irony and parody reinforce the notion of negation, critical thinking, and skepticism, all of which are important tools for invalidating the ideological dominance of those in power. The use of caricature and over-exaggerated irony in this type of performance also functions to jolt the spectator out of his/her normalized, familiar way of seeing things, and distances him/her to the extent that they become conscious of the political commentary that is in effect. Lastly, the use of humor is effective in generating mass appeal.
The only ostensible weakness of this approach seems to be in educating the audience on the substantial information and context associated with any political viewpoint (such as the history behind Bush's economic policies). With multiple devices running simultaneously (such as humor, parody, irony, caricature, etc.), it seems almost impossible to squeeze in any amount of profound theory or information. Perhaps this is appropriate, since humor, parody, and entertainment are intended to appeal more to the emotions than to the rationality of the spectator. With Billionaires for Bush, however, the strategy of using the emotional appeal as an entry point to then engage a more serious discussion is somewhat problematic; the attention span of the press and the public living in these stimulus-inundated, postmodern times seems too fleeting to offer this opportunity.
Perhaps the most effective strategy of the Billionaires for Bush lies in their method of humor, which integrates wit and accessibility, evoking mass appeal, engagement, and amusement. The popularity of the Billionaires for Bush speaks for the public atmosphere that is created in their events and actions-one in which it is okay to laugh and enjoy oneself while discussing politics. It is effective because it is a disarming form of politics that maintains the ability to unite people from various ideological backgrounds under the common desire to negate the political authority of those in power.
Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.
for Bush Web Site. Accessed 5 May. 2004.
Bertold. "A Short Organum for the Theatre." Brecht of Theatre. Ed.
by John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.
Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New
York: Zone Books,1994.
Umbert. "'I Love You Madly,' He Said Self-Consciously." The Truth
Ed. Walter Anderson. New York: Putnam, 1995.
Linda. "The Power of Postmodern Irony." Genre, Trope, Gender. Ed.
Rutland. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1992.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Nisker, Wes. Crazy Wisdom. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1990.
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2004, January 11).
Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe.
Retrieved May 5, 2004, from
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Barbara. "Parody With A Purpose: Online Political Parody in the 2000
Presidential Campaign." Accessed 3 May. 2004.