It can feel a bit sour-faced to discuss the ‘purpose’ of humour. The primary purpose of humour is, of course, to make people laugh – to help us relax, bond, and bring enjoyment to a stressful day. But in the political sphere humour has another, arguably more important role – to puncture the pomposity and propaganda of the powerful, and challenge the stories they tell about themselves.
Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a near-perfect example of this. In character as ‘Stephen Colbert’ (a right-wing not particularly good television propagandist) he challenged the contradictions and hypocrisies of the Bush administration, right in the heart of Washington with the world watching. The performance is hilariously funny, but also serves a useful social purpose in challenging the Bush administration’s presentation of themselves as strong and wise protectors of the American people. Really ruthless political satire of this sort draws drawing attention to the emperor’s nudity, reframing him from a strong, dynamic leader into a small, pitiful creature worthy of contempt.
Colbert’s strong track record with political humour makes this Sunday’s Emmy Awards – which he hosted – all the more disappointing. In particular the involvement of former White House spokesman Sean Spicer, coming out on stage on a motorised podium, recreating one of the more surreal aspects of Saturday Night Live’s version of him.
‘Comical Ali’ (Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf) became a figure of fun at the beginning of the Iraq War for his ludicrous claims of victory while the coalition forces were approaching his location. But although some found him funny, he shouldn’t be invited onto light entertainment events to join in the fun. To do so would be to play down the horrors of the regime he was a part of.
Obviously the Trump administration are nowhere near as bad as the Hussain regime, but already they are in the process of causing suffering. The ongoing attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act would take away coverage from 24 million Americans and make it harder for others with ‘pre-existing conditions’ to get insurance, in order to give tax breaks to Americans paid more than $200,000 a year. The Trump administration is threatening to undo the immigration programme Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which would result in 800,000 young immigrants, raised in America, being deported to countries they have no practical knowledge of. Trump has repeatedly been quick to tweet about terrorist attacks committed by Muslims, while ignoring terrorist attacks such as the Quebec Mosque shooting, committed by a white man who admired Trump.
In only eight months the Trump administration has brought uncertainty, emotional pain and racial division to America, and for six months Spicer was a willing part of that.
A lawsuit alleges that Spicer was personally involved with efforts to spread a lie about Seth Rich. The evidence-free claim is that Rich – a Democratic staffer killed in a random robbery – was murdered to protect a dark Clinton secret. Think about that – there is a very serious allegation that Spicer was personally involved in politicising the death of an innocent man, causing Rich’s loved ones greater pain, in order to fuel the false idea that both of America’s biggest political parties are as bad as each other. But he drove a motorised podium! You know, like on that show! That is so funny, it’s like on the show but with the real guy!!
This is not a party political issue. Barsatack Obama is lucky in a sense that his most vicious critics were such idiots – claiming that he was born in Kenya or was the Anti-Christ. It’s easy to present oneself as the innocent victim of smears in such circumstances. But it’s possible to imagine a parallel timeline where a Colbert equivalent was equally vicious to Obama, highlighting the vast gap between his smooth persona and his darker actions:
- President Obama received over seven million dollars in donations from Wall Street in 2008. Coincidentally, no bankers went to jail for their part in the financial crash. I wonder if there’s a link there?”
- “President Obama is a loving husband, who always shows his wife how much he loves her. Just today he went home during his lunch break and serenaded Michelle with her favourite Al Green songs. Then he went down to the situation room and ordered a drone strike on a wedding in Afghanistan. Such a romantic man.”
When interviewed Sean Spicer seems, at heart, to be a decent person. But so, when he discusses his love of painting and campaigns for troops, does George W Bush. That decency shouldn’t mask the fact that Bush’s decisions led to thousands of unnecessary deaths and permanent injuries. Similarly, Spicer has contributed to a lot of stress and worry, with worse suffering to come as a result of his actions. He should be the recipient of furious anger, not allowed to downplay his complicity.