Earlier this month, viewers rejoiced at the return of Jon Stewart to The Daily Show--and the timing couldn't be better. While in the Middle East on hiatus, as Angelique Haugerud, author of No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America, notes in a recent article in the Huffington Post (paraphrased here):
Jon Stewart visited Egypt less than two weeks before the July 2013 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and appeared in Cairo as a guest on Bassem Youssef's satirical news show, Al Bernameg (The Program) [which the Washington Post calls "Egypt's version of the Daily Show]." The two have become good friends...[and] their satirical news counterparts have multiplied in other countries as well.
In Egypt, as Stewart is acutely aware, satire takes courage. When Egyptian authorities arrested Bassem Youssef just a few months before Morsi's ouster, Stewart responded on The Daily Show. Pretending to speak directly to the Egyptian leader, Stewart said: "So, Bassem Youssef pokes fun at your hat and your lack of promised democratic reforms. What are you worried about? You're the president of Egypt. You have an army. He has puns and a show." In a tongue-in-cheek allusion to U.S. politics, Stewart continued, "Making fun of the president's hats and less than fluent English? That was my entire career for eight years."
Do political rulers really fear satirists? Even dictators may accept citizens' hatred but fear their laughter since it dramatizes the limits of propaganda and repression. At the same time, "If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke," as Stewart quipped to Youssef during his June 2013 guest appearance on Al Bernameg, "then you don't have a regime."
Of course, autocratic rule is not the only target for today's political humorists. Wealth Inequality, says Haugerud, "is Catnip for Satirists." This month marks the 5th Anniversary of the Wall Street Collapse, and the 2nd of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. While the Economic Crisis dominated the headlines at the time of the collapse, over the years the story has lost its urgency and been eclipsed by other national and world events. So, because we're not hearing about the economy as much as we were, we must be better off than we were 5 years ago. Right? Not if Robert Reich's award-winning new film Inequality for All is anything to go by. Many, including Reich, have compared the income gap today to the similar gross disparity between rich and poor during the Gilded Age. But eventually, as Reich predicts in a recent interview with Stewart on the Daily Show, "this "cognitive dissonance brings forth citizen activism."
In No Billionaire Left Behind, Haugerud tells the story of "The Billionaires," the elegant precursors of Occupy Wall Street who combine both political satire and citizen activism. Deftly deploying both serious and satirical tactics, the Billionaires--glamorous rather than scruffy, hip rather than traditional, polite rather than offensive, and harmless rather than dangerous--posed as cartoonish versions of robber barons and aristocrats. Their street theater was subversive, and their props include champagne glasses, cigarette holders and huge cigars—as well as bright banners and placards that are professionally printed rather than hand-lettered. “Leave No Billionaire Behind!” “Corporations Are People Too!” This network of creative activists shone a spotlight on America’s growing wealth divide and its implications for our democracy.
Their charismatic leader, Andrew Boyd, embraces Sisyphean political challenges and writes that “solidarity is a form of tenderness….the simple act of caring for the world is itself a victory. Haugerud taps into the hope, inspiration, and creativity of those who are compelled to act: to express dissent in ways that overturn conventional protest genres and jostle us--and perhaps even make us chuckle--out of complacency.