Category Archives: Congress

“A University Course” on the Value of Satire in a Crazy World

Life, fundamentally, is absurd.  Every day we encounter opinions, actions, experiences, or events that make us wonder whether we are crazy, whether the world is — or whether there is sanity to be found anywhere.

Satire provides a vehicle for holding such contradictory world views in simultaneous suspension — a way of shifting the ground to contain the uncontainable, to allow the simultaneous expression of unresolvable and sometimes ambiguous opposites.  While some argue that students struggle with recognizing satire or analyzing it successfully, I think that the struggle is more than worth it — and I find that once students move away from the idea that there is one right answer, they truly enjoy the power of satire to open their minds to new possibilities, uncertainties, or perspectives, without the overwhelming despair that sometimes comes from a “serious” or “straight” presentation of difficult material or moral conundrums.   As I have argued in a previous posting, the power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh painfully, or laugh it off — if we so choose.  Because sometimes, laughing is the only way that we can keep moving, keep functioning in an upside-down world.

In the late spring of 1923, W. E. B. Du Bois found himself in such a place.  About six months earlier, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill “died” in the Senate, the victim of a filibuster and a deeply divided nation, after four years of Congressional debate and re-working of the bill in committee and on the floor of the House.  The bill had been introduced by Congressman Dyer of Missouri in 1918, and its defeat was marked that spring by a lynching in his home state, the communal and extra-legal murder of James T. Scott in Columbia, Missouri.  Scott was an African American employee of the University of Missouri, and the lynching was noted nationally for the presence of students — and particularly, 50 female students — though reports state that none of them actually “took part,” but were spectators.  While Du Bois had often responded to previous lynchings with a trademark sarcasm and satirical outlook, the defeat of the Dyer Bill and the lynching of Scott seem to bring a new level intensity to his satire — a satire marked by both despair and desperate hope.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois's opening salvo.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois’s opening salvo.

The cover of that June’s issue offers no clue as to the intensity of the subject matter on its opening page.  The drawing is peaceful, a mother and her daughter with flowers against an open and non-threatening backdrop of hills, trees, and sky.  It is an intimate moment, and the mother frankly and calmly returns the spectator’s gaze, while the little girl seems off in her own thoughts, undisturbed by the watcher.  The title of the magazine, The Crisis, jars a little, its meaning in opposition to the peaceful, domestic feeling of the artwork.

But that moment of dissonance becomes cacophony when the page is turned, revealing a scathing and brilliantly, horrifically, and shockingly funny satire entitled “A University Course in Lynching,” penned by W. E. B. Du Bois.

The page is clearly marked “Opinion” in bold letters rivaling the title of magazine, Du Bois opens the editorial by proclaiming that “We are glad to note that the University of Missouri has opened a new course in Applied Lynching.  Many of our American Universities have long defended the institution, but they have not been frank or brave enough actually to arrange a mob murder so that students could see it.”  He notes that the lynching of James T. Scott took place in broad daylight and that at least 50 women were in attendance, most of them students.  Du Bois goes on to satirically praise the University’s efforts in a style that recalls Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”:  “We are very much in favor of this method of teaching 100 per cent Americanism; as long as mob murder is an approved institution in the United States, students at the universities should have a first-hand chance to judge exactly what a lynching is.”

He describes the case in brief detail, stating that “everything was as it should be” for a teachable moment.  Scott “protested his innocence” against that charge that he had “lured” and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl “to his last breath.”  The father has “no doubt” of Scott’s guilt, but “deprecates” the violence of the mob.  What Du Bois does not say here was that the girl’s father, an immigrant professor at the University, actually tried to speak up and stop the lynching, but chose to be silent when the crowd threatened to lynch him as well.  Du Bois concludes:

Here was every element of the modern American lynching.  We are glad that the future fathers and mothers of the West saw it, and we are expecting great results from this course of study at one of the most eminent of our State Universities.

Suddenly, this little girl and her mother are in a different world.

A world upside-down.  A world in which communal murder is officially condoned, due process is suspended, and lynching is not a phenomenon of a wicked South, but of the West.

My students notice different things every time I teach this satire.  Partly because Du Bois’s piece also mentions a lynching at the southern University where I teach, my students often focus on that aspect, on the power of the satire to enlighten them about history they did not know, history that hits close to home.  This week, however, my students focused Continue reading →

Advertisements

Wendy Davis: Humorous responses in a time of passionate political debate

Tracy Wuster

Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others).  Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity.  Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.

wendy davis filibuster cartoon comic

Source

I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue.  What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.

Continue reading →

Seeking: New Contributing Editors/Best Political Humor of the Season

Tracy Wuster

 

We here at Humor in America are seeking to add one or two contributing editors to replace several departing editors.  The task of an editor is fairly straightforward: contribute content once per month on an area of humor studies.  Our departing editors work in the fields of visual humor and stand-up, but we are open to adding solid work in almost any area of humor studies.

You will be scheduled to post a piece once per month, although I am extremely flexible about scheduling. The goal is to make your work for the site useful for your own academic interests and valuable to our readers.  If you are interested, please contact Tracy Wuster at wustert@gmail.com.  If you have expressed interest before, please do so again to remind us of who you are and let us know you still might be interest.

For more information, see our “Write for Us!” page, and feel free to ask questions.

****

In other news, we have an open slot for a day shortly before the election, and I was hoping to post a sampling of the best political humor of the political season.  What I need from you is an email with nominations–what humor (cartoons, TV satire, internet meme, video, commentary, joke, tweet, etc.) was your favorite or was most interesting in how humor and politics interact.  Please email me at: wustert@gmail.com

In the meantime, here is one nomination, from Joss Whedon, on Romney and Zombies:

Thanks.

 

Voter ID Laws and the Question of Political Satire

Tracy Wuster

Most of the time, politics is a serious business.  People tend to take the government fairly seriously–our laws, our government, our rights.  True, traditionally Congress has been an object of fun, and politicians–from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin–have been the butt of jokes.  But the importance of political humor–from parody to cartoons to satire–might best be seen as a reflection of how seriously people take politics.

In this highly political year, I have been very interested in questions of how political humor functions in American society.  Recently, I discussed the satire of the RNC and DNC conventions on the Daily Show.  Similarly, Self Deprecate’s contributions to our site and his site have tackled the current state of political humor.

One political issue that I have been increasingly concerned with this year is distinctly not funny: voter suppression.  While proponents of voter ID and other voting laws argue that voter fraud is a real issue (apart from their clownish attempts to prove voter fraud by committing voter fraud), critics of these laws have argued that they are better explained as politically motivated efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, the poor, and the elderly.  As John Dean argued in a blog post entitled, “The Republican’s Shameless War on Voting“:

There is absolutely no question that Republicans are trying to suppress non-whites from voting, throughout the Southern states, in an effort that has been accelerating since 2010.  It is not difficult to catalogue this abusive Republican mission, which unfortunately has spread, in a few instances, to states above the Mason-Dixon Line as well.

Other stories back up this argument:

Juan Williams on Fox News

Harold Meyerson on the Washington Post

Charles Blow in the New York Times

Recent developments in voter laws in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states also testify to the seriousness of this issue.  Those with any historical sense hear echoes of past efforts to restrict suffrage for political gain and based on cultural prejudice.  Serious stuff.

Where does the humor come in?

Let’s start with Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strip from July 23 of this year:

doonesbury jim crow voter id suppression gary trudeau

And from the next day:

doonesbury voter id supression jim crow

And check out the rest of the series: here, here, here , and ending with this one:

But that wasn’t all…

Continue reading →

Merry Christmas!

Managing Editor

Originally from 2011, but Christmas comes every year, so welcome.  You might want to check out these holiday-themed pieces:

Bo Diddley, Santa Claus

by Matt Powell

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

by Caroline Sposto

In the Archives: Thomas Nast and Santa Claus (1862-1890)

by ABE

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

by Matt Powell

Santa is coming to town, so watch yourself.

by David Olsen

XMas Envy or The Plight of the Jews

by Steve Brykman

The Muppets: An Exercise in Humorous Metacinematic Irony

by Michael Giles Purgason

One of my favorite Christmas tales, from David Sedaris, on traditions of other places, including Santa in the Netherlands:

Also, hear him read from his Santaland Diaries.

And see below for some Christmas themed political cartoons (updated for 2013!):

Continue reading →

American Deadline Politics, Supercommittees, and Channeling Teddy

Deadlines.

They’ve become an American way of life.  We live deadline to deadline, prioritizing and tackling our daily tasks by choosing which 2×4 we don’t want to hit us in the face at this particular moment.  We dash, not from project to project or goal to goal, but from deadline to deadline, clutching cups of our favorite sugar-infused caffeine fix.   With whipped cream on top.  And we always get the lids so we don’t spill when we have to duck because we missed a deadline that we decided wasn’t a “real” one.

Hold onto your coffee and get ready to duck, America.  As usual, Congress is taking American trends to new heights of parody.

Remember that Wednesday night deadline?  Remember November 23, when the bi-partisan Supercommittee for Deficit Reduction is supposed to agree on a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit or punitive automatic spending cuts would kick in?  Well, apparently, the committee has all gone out for coffee.

With lids.  And those little sleeve thingys that are supposed to keep your fingers from getting burned.

Last week, it seemed that the committee was aiming for a last-minute solution, in the grand tradition of American Deadline Politics.  Facing the looming Wednesday deadline, the co-chair of the Supercomittee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, made a momentous announcement last Friday to reassure the American people:  the special Congressional committee was actually going to — brace yourselves — work through the weekend.

But last night it became clear that at least 6 out of the 12 committee members didn’t meet anywhere but in the green rooms of various broadcast shows, already in damage-control mode, clutching their lidded coffees and trying desperately to put their particular spin on the committee’s absolute failure.   They were all talking about their efforts in the past tense, folks.  Three days before the deadline.

It’s un-American.

Truth is, they apparently wanted a full week’s vacation for the Thanksgiving holidays like every other Congressperson.  No, really.  I’m not kidding.  Could I make up stuff like this?  According to this morning’s Washington Post, our nation’s capitol is almost empty of politicians, and “legislative reaction to the committee’s failure will not come until early next month.”

They all left town.  Before the deadline.  I say, let’s give them all a real vacation.  A permanent one.  At least it would cut something out of the Federal budget.

What happened?  Back in August, politicians had a commitment to meeting deadlines, honoring American tradition.  Back in August, American Deadline Politics had begun to resemble my students’ gleeful management of online assignment submission:

“I turned mine in at 11:48!”
“Gotcha!  Mine is 11:52.30.”
“No way!  You l-o-s-e-r-s!  11:58 and 45 seconds!  Woot!  Woot!  Woot!

Remember how triumphant Congress and the President were back in the summer, when at the last possible moment, they gleefully and proudly came up with a compromise to keep the Federal government from shutting down?  And then they were surprised when everyone else was shaking their heads and lowering our credit rating?  That is American Deadline Politics.  I’m telling you.  At least my students usually turn in strong and provocative work, even when their coffee cups have lids.

Honestly, though, the political and economic fiascoes of the past year make me shockingly nostalgic for the vision of America as perpetrated by one of our current favorite honorary Americans, the irascible Dr. House, before he was Dr. House, back in 1992 when he was a Brit.


We don’t care whose ass we kick.  If we’re ever all alone,

We just stand in front of a mirror and try to kick our own.
You can move your ass, haul your ass, and bustin’ ass is fine
And there ain’t a better place to put your ass than on the line . . . .

The one colloquialism he missed, surprisingly, was “covering your ass.”  A real  American would never have missed that one.  Seriously, though, if I put a PayPal link right here, will you all chip in to help buy these folks on the Debt Supercommittee a good mirror?  The ones they own must be the fun-house type.

Truly, it all makes me long for one of our most famous ass-kicking Presidents, for all his flaws.  And he had many . . .

Continue reading →

Really?!?!!? with Seth and Kermit

Saturday Night Live – Weekend Update: Really with Seth and Kermit – Video – http://www.nbc.com.

The Muppet Movie opens this week.  For people who grew up watching the Muppet Show and the early Muppet movies, the return of the gang to cultural relevance is exciting.  Watch out for a review of the movie.  In the meantime, enjoy Kermit the Frog and Seth Meyers skewering Congress on Saturday Night Live.