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Postmodern Parody as Political Intervention
by Kavita Kulkarni

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Billionaires for Bush: Parody as Political Intervention
by Kavita Kulkarni

[Abstract en español]

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Every joke is a tiny revolution.
- George Orwell

A certain degree of apprehension has always accompanied the integration of humor into the political discourse of Western culture. One might call this a reasonable anxiety, given that upsetting the accepted order of life has been the immortal mission of fools, clowns, jesters, and comedians across time and space. 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.

Of course, to focus solely on humor's capacity to highlight the social and political absurdities of a given moment is to overlook its most basic function: to entertain an audience. Patrons of comedy, whether gathered around a medieval court jester or waiting in a ticket line for a stand-up comedy routine, expect at the very least to have their worlds temporarily diverted from the troubles of everyday living. Whether through physical antics, wordplay, or storytelling, comedians use humor and wit much the same way other artists use their talents to engage an audience.

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 those dealing with war, poverty, or injustice. Humor is thought to attend to the irrational impulses of humanity, rather than employ rationality and logic. Furthermore, a familiar tenet of political culture (though seemingly outdated for any modern democracy) is that while humor is for the masses, politics are for the exclusively competent.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 a 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 . Furthermore, academic researchers, political scientists, and new media theorists alike have recently begun to recognize parody as a valid form of political discourse .

I intend this article to serve as an analysis of the role of humor and parody in spectacular postmodern culture, particularly as devices of political intervention. I am specifically interested in a) why parody is an appropriate device for political activism in postmodern culture, and b) how humor can politically engage the masses. This paper will also serve as a case study of Billionaires for Bush, a New York City-based political organization 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 true nature of his "disastrous" 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.

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