The Shortcomings of Satire in the Trump Era

Comedians capitalized on political satire this election cycle, and it was hilarious. Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Donald Trump put Saturday Night Live in the spotlight. Stephen Colbert found his niche on the Late Show with his coverage of the election, and countless other comedians like Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers satirized politics. The intersection of comedy and satire lends itself perfectly to the current political climate as scandal after scandal comes out of Washington. It continues to sustain post-election TV ratings, and the number of comedians covering current events is still growing. These shows entertain audiences, but they don’t necessarily provoke critical thought about policies or make compelling critiques of politicians. That’s not necessarily a problem. Some networks simply goof on politics for comedic material and are not trying to make political statements, but the popularization of Trump impersonations raises questions about the role of satire in the Trump era.

Comedians tend to focus on personality traits and mannerisms rather than issues. Traditional satire relies on the exaggeration of personalities or ideas to reveal absurdities. The issue, unfortunately, is that Trump’s entire campaign and his presidency is already the epitome of absurd. Take Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump. It’s funny to watch him mock Trump’s strange speech patterns and unusual hand gestures, but Baldwin does not successfully satirize Trump. His impersonation is so similar to the real thing that a newspaper in the Dominican Republic mistook a picture of Baldwin’s impersonation for Trump. It is difficult to find a way to exaggerate his personality to the point of real satire. The audience is entertained, but impersonations of Trump don’t have the element of absurdity that reveals new contradictions or insights into Trump. Impersonations and mockery of Trump’s personality cannot say more than he has already tweeted. It is great comedy, but it is not real satire, because it does not challenge the viewer to think beyond his or her preconceptions.

Critiques of politician’s personalities are safe, because it is easy to tap into viewers’ previous knowledge of politicians to make a joke. Comedy is saturated with jokes about news and politicians, but little of it makes a lasting impact. The more comedians focus on personality, the less they talk about real issues and policies. It is harder to make clever impactful critiques about Trump’s tax plan, than it is to laugh at his bizarre hair or orange skin. Highlighting Trump’s buffoonery is valuable, but it falls short of providing a real critique of issues. Comedians also need to satirize his policies if they intend to make a compelling argument against Trump’s presidency.

Popular political satire does not provide a successful critique of Donald Trump because comedians are not willing to make viewers uncomfortable. Comedians miss the element of dark humor that makes satire affective. A great example of good satire is Tom Lehrer’s satirical song “Send the Marines”1. Written in ‘65 during the Vietnam War, “Send the Marines” critiques US military intervention abroad:

For might makes right, until they see the light,

They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected,

‘Till someone we like can be elected.

Members of the corps, all hate the thought of war

They’d rather kill them off by peaceful means.

He perfectly described the US government’s hypocrisy of supporting regimes for political expediency rather than actual concern for human rights. Lehrer did not hold back. There is no leniency for politicians who send armed troops abroad in the name of protecting the status quo. Most importantly, he wrote this song at a time when the Vietnam was still very popular. In 1965, only 24% of Americans  believed the US made a mistake by sending troops to Vietnam. In writing this song, he took a risk by confronting Americans with their own hypocrisy. It is easy to critique something that is widely unpopular, but Lehrer was willing to take a meaningful and controversial stance on a popular war. This satire is also successful because it is not focused on one actor. Lehrer briefly mentions President Lyndon B. Johnson in the introduction to the song, but the song is not about Johnson. This is not for lack of material because Johnson was notoriously crass. The result of this is an unforgiving critique of anyone involved in hawkish military intervention. There is no room for a scapegoat because the song satirizes anyone who supports the armed military intervention in a meaningless war. It implicates the people who support the war, the key figures in policy making, and the main stage politicians like Johnson.

Current comedians provide comic relief to Americans, which also affords citizens a certain amount of complacency by reconfirming our preconceptions. Political satire needs to move away from impersonations of politicians and criticisms of mannerisms. A lot of shows do this already, but there needs to be a significant shift in the ratio of Trump impersonations to actual critiques of policies. Satire needs fewer hair jokes and more criticism of issues that affect people. Our judgement of the quality of policy making should not rely on who is making the policy. Focusing on the personalities of people like Trump and Spicer sets the bar for “doing a good” very low. We cannot reward politicians for abstaining from crazy tweeting for a week. Doing the bare minimum is exactly that: the bare minimum.

Furthermore, exaggeration of personalities is not a convincing argument for supporters to change their minds. Trump’s personality attracted many voters, or, conversely, many voters voted for him in spite of his personality. A slightly dramatized version of Trump is not an effective argument for people who supported him. Satire needs to present a more compelling argument that is based on critiques of policies and resist the temptation of mocking politicians’ mannerisms.

Networks that air political satire may have polarized viewers, but there is still an opportunity to reach a wider audience. The people who watch Trump impersonations are mostly liberal, and they probably do not need to be persuaded. For these viewers, political satire provides relief from the anxieties of a Trump presidency. Skits are tailored to a liberal audience, but late shows and comedians have the potential to reach non-liberal viewers as well. If SNL focused more energy on mocking horrible policies that affect Trump supporters, they would retain their liberal audience while also convincing voters. Political satire has the potential to be an effective critic of a Trump presidency and a source of entertainment and relief for liberals. As the market for political satire expands, there is a lot of room for experimentation, so please, stop with the Trump impersonations, and let’s see some real satire.

-Jessica Steele

 1. Lehrer, Tom(1965). Send the Marines. That Was the Year That Was [Live Album]. (1965). San Francisco: Reprise/Warner Bros. Records.

Further reading:

Donald Trump Is a Conundrum for Political Comedy (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/arts/television/donald-trump-is-a-conundrum-for-political-comedy.html?_r=0)

Saturday Night Live and the Limits of Trump Mockery (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/saturday-night-live-and-the-limits-of-trump-mockery)

Sinking Giggling into the Sea (https://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/jonathan-coe/sinking-giggling-into-the-sea)

 

 

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Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in History. She is interested international law, human rights, and Russian history. Jessica has written for Transitions Online Magazine in Prague and interned at the International Rescue Committee. When she’s not in class or working on the Journal, she likes loitering in bookstores and drinking coffee.

When Lady Liberty Wasn't For Immigrants

Anti-immigration policies are not new to the American political scene, and the ‘Muslim ban’ is just another policy in a long tradition of isolationist and xenophobic political practices. Critics of the ban often cite America’s strong tradition of immigration as a defense of liberal immigration policies, but the United States is not just a country with a tradition of openness–it is also a country plagued by history of rampant xenophobia and nativism. The simplistic narrative of America as a “nation of immigrants” ignores its past with religious persecution, immigration quotas, and the rejection of Jewish refugees during the holocaust. So when criticizing the travel ban for discriminating against immigrants based on religion or race, is it effective to use the narrative, or the cliché, that America has a proud history of immigration? Ignoring the history of xenophobia in the United States leads to watered-down rhetoric that denies immigrants and refugees the defense they deserve against a ban based on nationality or religion. It is imperative that Americans understand our history of nativism starting with the modern-day symbol of immigration to the United States: the Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty, which we associate with immigration to the United States, was not always a symbol of openness and acceptance. In 1865, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi conceived the idea of giving America a gift to honor 100 years of an independent United States. Bartholdi also intended for it to celebrate Lincoln and abolition, but by the time he gathered enough support to build the statue, the country was mired in the Jim Crow Era, and the statue largely lost its identity as a celebration of abolitionism1. When it finally opened, the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of Franco-American relations and freedom from tyranny, while also acting as the gatekeeper of the United States.

Nativism and xenophobia grew with the wave of German and Irish immigrants during the 1880s, and Americans became concerned about the number of people coming into the country. Historically Catholic and poor, Irish immigrants were seen as a huge threat to Protestant New Yorkers. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist from the era, illustrated many anti-Irish images which reflected the political climate of the time. His cartoons compared Catholic immigrants to nefarious crocodiles and portrayed Irish people as drunken fools. Political art at the time, like the Judge Magazine cover titled “Proposed Emigrant Dumping Site,” depicted American xenophobia rather vividly. The illustration on the front shows the Statue of Liberty holding up her skirt in disgust as immigrants land on Liberty Island around her feet. This cover highlights Americans’ opinions about immigrants taking refuge in the US. Many feared that Europe was sending its worst people to America and that immigrants would contaminate the country. The United States’ history of immigration is deeply rooted in religious discrimination. A Muslim ban hardly seems farfetched in the context of America’s history with religious persecution and immigration quotas.

The idea of controlling immigration into the United States based on nationality or ethnicity is also an essential part of American history. Historically, the US government only supported immigration that conformed to “American Ideals.” In 1882, President Charles Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, which was the first U.S. federal law that restricted immigration based on nationality. America’s approval of immigration was limited to traditional western immigration, and did not welcome Asian immigrants. This ban tore families apart and created a huge people-smuggling industry. It also shaped modern-day cities. Chinatowns resulted from violence and racism that prevented Chinese Americans from assimilating into the United States, as property laws made it extremely difficult for them to move outside Chinatowns. Later in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge expanded the ban to include most Asian countries with the National Origins Act and set quotas for the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, specifically Eastern European Jews.

In 1939, the US government infamously turned away a ship of Jewish families who fled Nazi Germany. The SS St. Louis carried more than 900 Jews who escaped on a German luxury liner, but they were sent back to Europe for not having the proper paperwork. As a result, 254 passengers died. Anti-Semitism and nativism overruled American’s compassion for refugees, and in that moment the United States of America threw away everything Bartholdi had admired and praised it for. This tradition of immigration is not a defense against a travel ban that denies refugees safety–it is one that condemns them to the mercy of a long history of racism, religious persecution, and xenophobia.

The US government did not repeal the National Origins Act until 1943, when it decided it was hypocritical to ban immigrants from US allied nations in World War II. Fascism showed the dangers of trying to create a racially-pure state, and America attempted to distance itself from racial purity. Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, “The New Colossus” popularized the Statue of Liberty’s connection to immigration with its famous line: “Give me your tired, your poor.” In her poem, Lazarus characterized the Statue of Liberty as welcoming weary immigrants to the United States. To this day, the Statue of Liberty is immortalized an icon of welcoming people of all ethnicities and backgrounds into America.

 

Falling back on American tradition is not an effective way of condemning discrimination or racism. America is a nation of immigrants, and it is important to remember that. However, we are also a nation that let fear override our compassion for others with disastrous results. Refugees and immigrants trying to come to the United States deserve a better defense. Clichéd arguments do not add to the conversation about immigration, in fact, they impede the possibility of reform and progress. If liberals are going to use history as a talking point, they need to talk about the historical consequences of xenophobia. The debate has to move away from an argument about tradition and become a nuanced discussion about human rights and current policies.

-Jessica Steele

1Berenson, E. (2012). Statue of Liberty. Yale University Press.        

 

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Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in History. She is interested international law, human rights, and Russian history. Jessica has written for Transitions Online Magazine in Prague and interned at the International Rescue Committee. When she’s not in class or working on the Journal, she likes loitering in bookstores and drinking coffee.

Putin’s Economic Crisis

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Much of the dialogue surrounding Russia’s sudden withdrawal from Syria portrays Vladimir Putin as a scheming mastermind who defeated the Obama administration in an Syrian proxy war. While Putin might attempt to make a show of Russian military strength, he can’t afford the muscle show in Syria anymore. Putin is broke.

 We’ve all seen the shirtless pictures of Putin riding on horses and hunting. These images, along with the Russian military, are a part of a massive propaganda campaign to restore a sense of national pride in Russia. Putin’s efforts to increase nationalism stem from his attempt to retain control of the masses and loyalty from his supporters while the economy crashes. The state of the insecure economy is nothing new to Russia, but after several years of economic turmoil, this drop in oil prices could greatly diminish Putin’s popularity.

The Russian economy, which relies heavily on the petroleum industry, has been in shambles since 2015. International sanctions, a drop in the price of oil, and structural instability of the market decimated the economy;Russia’s GDP shrank by about 5%. On top of that, the price of crude oil plummeted again to a low of USD 30 a barrel in February. The government gets nearly half of its revenue from oil and natural gas and right now, the budget assumes that the price of oil is USD 50 a barrel. If the price of oil does not rise soon, Russia’s GDP growth is going to take another hit this year.  

Though Putin’s popularity has remained shockingly high throughout years of recession, as a result of numerous propaganda campaigns, but it is starting to fall as Russians watch their money funnel into a war in Syria and a failing economic system. Putin made a risky play in Syria: he chose to risk further ruining the economy in hopes of solidifying Russian influence in the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad is Putin’s last ally in the Middle East, and if rebel fighters overthrew Assad, Putin would face the consequences. Russia’s influence has faded since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and another perceived “loss” of Syria to the Americans cannot bode well for Putin back in Russia. In addition to facing the anger of the populace, Putin would also have to face the Kremlin and explain his failure, which could ultimately result in his impeachment. Rather than risk this, Putin chose to fight in Syria, and it happened to pay off. He did effectively eliminate most of the rebels with his bombing campaign and reinforce Assad’s regime, but his underlying weakness shows in the sudden withdraw from Syria. Putin had to leave, because he cannot afford to stay.

Russia is not a military superpower. Reinforcing Russia’s military might and influence worldwide is only a short term fix to boost Putin’s dying popularity. People will not be satisfied with Putin if he cannot fix the economy, because, at the end of the day, Russian nationalism won’t put food on the table.

- Jessica Steele 

 

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Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in History. She is interested international law, human rights, and Russian history. Jessica has written for Transitions Online Magazine in Prague and interned at the International Rescue Committee. When she’s not in class or working on the Journal, she likes loitering in bookstores and drinking coffee.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Penal Labor

source: wikimedia commons

source: wikimedia commons

Minimum wage has been a popular topic this election season. Some candidates are promising to raise the federal minimum wage to as high $15 an hour-- a living wage. This might be a great step towards closing the increasingly large wealth gap in the United States, but what many forget is that many US citizens don’t even get minimum wage in the first place. We’re talking about prisoners, who make an average of $0.92 an hour, and don’t have the right to unionize.

The United States has a history of convict leasing which dates back to the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished “slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime”, explicitly allows for penal labor. After the Civil War, many Southern landowners would lease plots of land and tools to newly freed slaves at exorbitant prices. This was called sharecropping, and it usually led to African Americans falling into debt and essentially continued the cycle of slavery in the US. With the Southern economy in shambles after the war, industries needed a cheap source of labor, and so, governments created convict leasing. As African Americans were imprisoned for not being able to payback landowners, private industries would rent them as laborers at low prices. The loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, which allows for penal labor, essentially afforded people the opportunity to, in many ways, re-enslave African Americans. Share cropping combined with Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws led to the beginning of the mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States. White supremacists designed these laws to enforce social and economic norms, which prevented newly free slaves from rising up in society, and together Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws created a racial caste system during the Reconstruction era, which we still see in our prison structures today. Although we’d like to think that Jim Crow Laws are just an embarrassing stumble in America’s great history, we have to face the reality that these laws still shape our society. California just desegregated its prisons in 2014. Just to put this in perspective, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that abolished segregation with “separate but equal is inherently unequal” happened in 1954.

When we talk about penal labor, we are talking about the legacy of slavery. Today, US prisons are overwhelming populated by African Americans, who are forced to labor in horrible conditions for abysmal pay. Some might argue that prisoners should not be paid and that labor is part of the punishment; however, prisoners are not the only victims. The real victims of low prison wages are minority communities.

Refusing to pay prisoners re-enforces the poverty in minority communities, starting with children. Not only do most inmates have a child, but about half of parents in state prison provide the primary financial support for their minor children. Poor wages directly affect inmates’ families and continue the cycle of poverty. On a larger scale, this causes stagnation in the economy as poor communities don’t have the means to buy goods and stimulate market growth. It might save taxpayer dollars in the short run, but it is not a sustainable solution in the long run.

So when we talk about penal labor, what we really need to talk about is institutionalized racism.

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Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in History. She is interested international law, human rights, and Russian history. Jessica has written for Transitions Online Magazine in Prague and interned at the International Rescue Committee. When she’s not in class or working on the Journal, she likes loitering in bookstores and drinking coffee.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt: Women’s Undue Burden

Women’s health clinics are the new battleground for abortion rights. Forty three years after abortions were legalized in the case of Roe v. Wade (1973), states cannot make abortions illegal, but they are doing their best to stop women from having access to medical information about abortions and abortions clinics. “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers” (TRAP) laws attempt to dissuade women from getting abortions by requiring that women make multiple visits to clinics, view an ultrasound of the fetus before making a decision, or receive medically incorrect information from a physician, such as the fact that abortions can cause breast cancer.

For the sake of women’s health, TRAP laws need to be eradicated immediately. As a result of these laws, there has already been a rise of unsafe self-induced abortions. These thinly veiled attempts at preventing women from having access to health care providers, which offer abortion services, are already having a devastating effect on the community. Not only are women resorting to unsafe methods of aborting unwanted pregnancies, they are also losing access to cervical cancer screenings, STD and STI testing, pregnancy tests, and other services provided by organizations like Planned Parenthood.

This is bigger than just abortion. Legislators implement laws like the Texas House Bill 2, also known as the HB2 , under the pretense of protecting women’s health, when they are doing nothing more than trying to undermine a woman’s right to choose. HB2 made it to the Supreme Court in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, in which Whole Woman’s Health, a women’s healthcare provider, is disputing the claims of  John Hellerstedt, the Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. Hellerstedt claims that HB2  is protecting women from unsafe clinics. Whole Women’s Health argues that HB2  is actually just a way to prevent women from having access to abortion services.

Let’s take a look at the bill.

The HB2 law requires that abortion clinics meet the same specific requirements that ambulatory surgical centers do; for example, clinics would have to have hallways wide enough for two gurneys to pass each other, a minimum number of janitorial closets, and be within a 30 miles of a hospital.

On the surface, the bill looks like a concerted effort to ensure that women who have complications with an abortion can get appropriate medical care. That is, it looks good until you realize that these ridiculous requirements shutdown 18 of the 41 Texas abortion clinics in 2013, and, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Hellerstedt, there will only be 12 abortion clinics left in Texas. How is this protecting women’s health if it prevents women from getting health care in the first place? This directly contradicts the “undue burden” standard of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which prevents states from preventing women from getting abortions by restricting their access to clinics. States can promote a pro-life stance, but ultimately they must offer abortion services; the HB2 law restricts thousands of women’s access to abortion by forcing women who live in rural areas-- and are often lower income than those in cities-- to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic.

Supporters of the HB2 law argue that the laws protect women from unsafe procedures and bring up the case of Kermit Gosnell, a Pennsylvania physician who ran an unclean clinic and performed illegal late-term abortions for low income and minority women. What HB2 supporters fail to mention is that Gosnell’s clinic had not been inspected in almost 16 years. His grotesque clinic is not representative of abortion clinics, and shutting down safe clinics will actually lead to women seeking unsafe abortions from people like Gosnell out of desperation. 

It is true, any surgery can have complications, but not all surgeries have the same levels of risk. The HB2 law relies on people believing the myth that abortions are high-risk or dangerous, but in reality, abortions are extremely safe procedures; in fact, an abortion is safer than a colonoscopy or the procedure for removing wisdom teeth. It is nine times safer for a woman to get an abortion, whether it is a medical abortions or a surgical abortion, than to carry a pregnancy to term. Furthermore, nearly 90% of all abortions happen within the first 16 weeks of the pregnancy, and over half of all abortions take place during the first eight weeks where there is no need for a surgical procedure. Justice Ginsburg questioned the necessity of having a surgical center at the abortion clinic: “[W]hat is the benefit of having an ambulatory surgical center to take two pills when there's no-- no surgical procedure at all involved”? The answer: there isn’t one. As she later pointed out, complications with a medical abortion would not happen in the actual clinic; it would happen in the woman’s home. There are no advantages in requiring that clinics be within 30 miles of a hospital.

This case will set a precedent for the other 44 states, which are also implementing TRAP laws. If the court decides that the HB2 law is constitutional, more states will likely follow Texas’ example and impose these strict regulations. As a result, we will see the return of self-induced abortions and a decline in access to women’s health care in general. No matter how you look at it, it is clear that the HB2 law and all other TRAP laws need to go for the sake of women’s health.

- Jessica Steele

Comment

Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in History. She is interested international law, human rights, and Russian history. Jessica has written for Transitions Online Magazine in Prague and interned at the International Rescue Committee. When she’s not in class or working on the Journal, she likes loitering in bookstores and drinking coffee.