Is satire educational or does it lead to a shallow understanding of current affairs? Does it weaken the power of news or replace it?
Has the state of American politics become so dire that we can only laugh (despairingly) about it?
Pop quiz: Who said “I can see Russia from my house?” No, not Sarah Palin, but Tina Fey in her spot-on portrayal of Palin on Saturday Night Live, in what will forever be part of the legacy of the 2008 presidential election. Although you can’t blame Fey for Palin’s political implosion, her parody is one of many examples of how satire wields a huge influence in American politics.
This is nothing new. Benjamin Franklin mocked the British in Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One, and cartoonist Thomas Nast took on—and was key to the demise of—the powerful Tammany Hall political machine. Even Woody Allen tossed his hat in the ring with the movie Bananas. The list of great, and not-so-great, American political satire goes on and on. But nowadays the reach of satire is wider than ever, its power exponentially amplified by cable TV, the Internet and social media such as Twitter. But is this a good thing? At its best, satire exposes—through ridicule—problems of government and society that don’t get the attention they deserve. I would argue that just as a free press is necessary for a vibrant democracy, so too is the presence of satire—to say what’s unsaid, read public opinion and show us who is behind the curtain.
That’s not to say that political satire always encourages healthy civic discourse. It can be mean-spirited and obsess over all-too-human gaffes. Even worse, it can lead us to believe that government is hopeless and there are no solutions worth striving for. Yes, The Onion is brilliant and hilarious, and no one is better at felling idols than Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, but are they helping us to transcend polarization or compounding it? Is satire educational, or does it lead to a shallow understanding of current affairs? Does it weaken the power of the news, augment the news or replace it? Has the state of American politics become so dire that we can only laugh (despairingly) about it?
Now that the election is over and we have a moment to reflect, we mull over these and other questions in our November/December 2012 symposium, with the help of practitioners of the art as well as savvy media observers. We’ve opened up the forum to non-Jews: Satire is not unique to Jews, although some of its sharpest wits have been and are Jews. Among those we speak with are Dave Barry, Andy Borowitz, David Brooks, Barney Frank, Rob Kutner, Robert Mankoff, Trevor Potter, Paula Poundstone, Peter Sagal, Allison Silverman, Rebecca Traister, Moshe Waldoks and Gene Weingarten.
Women are also on our minds. Now that new cabinet members are being selected, Moment wants to see more women step into positions of political power, appointed and elected. Moment’s Rabbi Harold S. White Fellow Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil profiles former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In her piece, Kandil explores the role of women in foreign policy—including the two women, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, who followed in Albright’s footsteps—and traces the paths women often take to power as well as the changing role of secretary of state.
We are delighted to announce that the first-place winner of our annual Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction contest is Joan Leegant, the author of Wherever You Go and An Hour in Paradise. Her story “Roots” is published in this issue and was chosen by this year’s judge Walter Mosley. Please come meet Joan and Walter, as well as our second- and third-place winners, on December 4th in Manhattan at Hebrew Union College at 7:30 p.m. The event is free, but registration is required at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our literary offerings also include reviews of books by Herman Wouk and Shlomo Sand as well as of a new three-volume tome on the Jews of New York, plus an expanded readers’ section of notable 2012 books.
Back to satire: Moment’s live symposium on humor and politics is November 18th in Washington, DC. We will bestow Moment Magazine Creativity Awards on David Brooks, Robert Mankoff, Paula Poundstone, Allison Silverman and Nina Totenberg and honor Bert Foer, a beloved Moment board member. We hope you can join us, but if you can’t, or you’ve missed it, we will post highlights on Moment Video on our new website, momentmag.com.
Moment Video is one of the many new features of our relaunched website, which integrates our popular InTheMoment blog and makes it easier for you to interact with the magazine. The website is updated daily with blog posts and web-only exclusives but doesn’t include all the content that can be found in our print and digital editions.
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