We need someone to talk common sense in Washington. President Joe Biden tweeted the other day that his $3.5 Trillion “Build Back Better” plan funded through tax increases “costs zero dollars.” Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently coined the term “irregular migration” to avoid referring to illegal immigration. During the debacle in Kabul, she went to extraordinary lengths to avoid admitting that American citizens would be left “stranded” in Afghanistan. (It depends on the definition of “is”?)
Former President Trump often had only intermittent respect for facts. Then there are the tortured statements of Nancy Pelosi, like her famous “We have to pass ObamaCare to find out what’s in it.” Never mind “mostly peaceful protests” and similar nonsense from mainstream media personalities.
Americans want straight talk. But that’s not what we get out of Washington so much of the time.
Whatever happened to using good old-fashioned humor to point out the foolish talk of those in powerful positions? There’s a long and venerable tradition of just that, embodied by William Shakespeare’s courtly “fool.” His court jesters use humor, observation, common sense, and sharp wit to tell the powerful and wise that they are not.
Mr. Shakespeare intends for the fool to illuminate the truth. One of the Bard’s more famous fools, Touchstone, when threatened with a whip for speaking truth, says, “The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely when wise men do foolishly.”
Satire is another weapon in the hands of motley fools. Jonathan Swift’s 1729 “A Modest Proposal” is a shocking satire that is required reading in many high school literature classes. He proposed raising Irish babies as a source of food (and worse) since the effect of English colonial policies in 18th Century Ireland was just as evil.
There have been some classic American “fools” over the years. Take Mark Twain: “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.” A scandalous accusation, unless you recount the Members from both parties who have been found guilty of corruption. Or the cowboy comedian Will Rogers: “The more you read and observe about this politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other.”
Then there are modern “fools” like Bill Maher and Greg Gutfeld who mix humor and pointed wit. One of the best foolish writers is P.J. O’Rourke. “Not being a liberal, I have very little grasp of things that I know nothing about.” But he is an equal opportunist. “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”
Sometimes politicians are their own fools. Ronald Reagan was famous for his self-deprecating and government-deprecating sense of humor. Responding to critics who thought he was declining mentally with age, he said, “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency, even if I’m in a cabinet meeting.” His comment came forty years before its time.
Shakespeare, true satirists, and the better modern comedians point out the foolish ideas, words, and actions of those in power. Yet that humor and satire are ultimately meant to bring about positive change. The 17th Century satirist John Dryden explained, “The end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction, and he who writes honestly is no more an enemy to the offender than the physician to the patient when he prescribes harsh remedies.”
Of course, there’s a danger in reviving political satire, because we all seem to be losing our sense of humor. Cancel culture says that nothing is funny anymore. Liberals want to “fact check” the satire website The Babylon Bee. Comedians are canceling tours and quitting. Thank goodness for meme creators who avoid the censors and the handful of political cartoonists who remain.
Maybe we all take politics too seriously. There is so much in Washington deserving of a bit of satire, from pork-barrel spending to twisting words like a carnival balloon to noxious acts of political theater and propaganda. Not that any of that is funny, but there is plenty of folly to go around.
The emperors have no clothes, folks. If there are too few voices left in Washington to point this out, the rest of us need to, with perhaps a wry smile and a one-liner to help lower the temperature in the room.
• Tom Copeland is Director of Research at the Centennial Institute and Professor of Politics at Colorado Christian University. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Centennial Institute and Colorado Christian University.