A bust of Don Quixote sits in one corner of my classroom, a whimsical gift from my seniors. Earlier this year they read an excerpt from Cervantes’ satirical novel and laughed at Don Quixote’s delusional quest to right all the wrongs of the world. Despite the fact that he is a ridiculous character on an impossible quest – or perhaps because they are poised to start quests of their own after high school – my students feel enough kinship with Don Quixote to adopt him as the class mascot.
Such is the power of satire – humor and criticism and an invitation to self-reflection all in one.
When I teach British literature, my students read Jonathan Swift’s satirical “A Modest Proposal,” a scathing indictment of absentee English landowners and the devastation they caused in Ireland. His essay purports to be a suggestion that Irish infants be harvested as food for the English. Swift is deliberately provocative, going into detail about how to butcher and cook the children.
Students who miss the irony are horrified that Swift appears to advocate for cannibalism. Their misunderstanding makes for a good lesson on how to look beyond the obvious to the complex underpinnings of satire, a skill too many adults lack.
Satire can be gentle or savage, incisive or vague, but it always highlights a serious concern. Good satire hits close enough to the mark to get under the skin of the person or institution being criticized. Presidents and other newsmakers have always been targets. Saturday Night Live famously took Gerald Ford’s one publicized uncharacteristic stumble and turned it into a running pratfall joke.
More recently on Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele,” Jordan Peele played the low-key Obama while Keegan-Michael Key played Luther, his “anger translator,” who ranted loudly about what Obama could think but not say. It was a jab at Obama’s circumspect, overly-cautious tone – and Obama took it in stride, inviting Key to play Luther at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Satire isn’t new, of course. It’s been around forever. Editorial cartoons, parody songs, even fake news have been the mainstay of satirists. Satire is the stock and trade of late night TV, comedy sketch shows, and magazines such as the Onion and Mad Magazine.
This political season has been a heyday for satirists. Witness the current administration’s prickly Tweets about Alec Baldwin’s pouty impersonation of Trump on Saturday Night Live. Or watch the viral Every Second Counts videos where different countries ask to play second fiddle to America First—with a Trump sound-alike voiceover extolling their merits.
Satire is often criticized as offensive or disrespectful and is the target of censors. But shutting down the satirist – or shutting out the message – misses an opportunity to learn from our critics.
Mark Twain said, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” Calling laughter a weapon points to two things satire does well – makes us laugh and makes us uncomfortable. The best satire makes us laugh at human foibles, punctures our self-importance, and illuminates scandals and injustices – but more importantly, it calls us to right those wrongs, as quixotic a quest as that may sometimes seem.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: email@example.com.