Thoughts on The Tradition of Political Humor and what it means to be a Conservative


I love political cartoons.  I can be a real irreverent son-of-a-gun when I’m in the mood and a pointed political cartoon is always humorous to me.  The past couple years have been particularly ripe with political imagery and in a perverse sort of way I’ve been laughing my head off.  Mind you I DO NOT like or appreciate hate (cartoons or otherwise) or racism, sexism, etc..  But a really good political cartoon is a hoot!

Because of all the shots being fired across political bows I have been thinking about the idea of being either “conservative” or “liberal.”

“Retirement” means I’m older than some other people.  My point of view is different than a Millennial’s, or a Gen-Xer.  I have more history and background into which to put the details of today’s events.  That doesn’t necessarily make my point of view better — just different.  After all, I went to school when history was a bigger part of curriculum than it is today (you know, back in the days when we actually had to memorize stuff!).

Political names confuse me. I have never been good about categorizing things — to me most things fail to fit easily into rigidly defined boxes — so when Politicians start throwing terms around my brain gets foggy in a big hurry. Besides….  Democrats and Republicans aren’t what they once were.  If you look at the political arguments of years gone by you’ll see that  on numerous points Republicans and Democrats have literally exchanged views. They have literally gone from being pro to being con, and from being con to being pro in little more than a lifetime.  What once made a Democrat now makes a Republican,  and vice versa.  That being true, the idea that someone has been a “whatever” for life is ridiculous.  Because the “whatever” you think you are isn’t the same today as it was 20, 40, 60 years ago.

Of course there’s a whole “thing” about the word liberal — room to leave us confused on that side of the argument.  When I was younger we talked about getting a “liberal” education, and we meant that it was an education  which exposed us to a wide variety of ideas — and taught us how to cope with dissent and disagreement.  Today the world of academia seems to be trying hard to stamp out alternative world views, as if your young adults aren’t able to think for themselves and have to be protected from ideas.  Shame on us. We are all the poorer for not exposing our young adults to real dissent, and real diversity. If you want reasons why there’s so much discord in politics today you can blame it in part on the training given to the people sitting in the seats of government.  Today, “conservative” and “liberal” have little meaning other than to define political parties.

But I digress….

Not long ago a “Conservative” was a “Fiscal Conservative”; meaning that they opposed government spending and wanted to return the U.S. to a “more sound” fiscal policy.  As a nation we’ve not been very good about living within our national means.   We spend money we don’t have for programs our eyes covet, but we don’t want to cough up the bucks to pay for them.

The thing is, with the concentration of money among fewer and fewer people those who have what little capital that remains are not now, and never will be able to fund the programs that make a nation strong. The rich don’t want to share —  they all seem to want to keep what they have. And conservatism today seems to mean not much more than take more money from the poor and give more tax breaks to the rich. It’s obscene when individuals who manage companies earn thousands of times more than their employees.  No one is worth that kind of money — Bosses are bosses over the people who make the money for them.  The sorts of bonuses and salaries we see in Corporate America is nothing less than obscene.

With political views leaning in that sort of direction it’s no surprise that there would be a lot of people upset, and a lot of disrespect smoldering among the masses.  The idea put forth by conservatives that they are going to return this country to something closer to what it was when it was founded is ridiculous.

For one thing this is not the world of 1776. Nor of 1800. Nor of 1850, Nor of 1900.  Times have changed; we have learned a bit over the years — we no longer allow slaves, we no longer keep women from voting, the courts have decreed equal treatment under law and by and large we obey those laws; our enemies (the legitimate ones) have changed (we are no longer fighting England for our freedom — but we are still fighting for our freedom).  Unless we roll back all those ideals the economic base that existed in 1776 will never again return and I don’t know anyone who wants that world.

But for another thing — it’s hard to envision the Founding Fathers as being “conservatives.”  Heck, they had ideas that were radical for the time.  They not only had radical ideas, they put those ideas into action — claiming independence put the head of every signer of the Declaration of Independence on the chopping block and the signers of the Constitution risked the noose on one of England’s gallows if this nation had lost the war.  The founders of this country were NOT conservatives.  They were radical in the best way.  They had ideas, and ideal, and they were willing to fight for them. And not just in sound bites.

For all the radical ideas and radical actions — this nation has also been radical in how it has treated those in power — whether in this country or abroad.  And that history of dissent is proud and loud and gets in the way of a lot of policies and schemes.

Political cartooning was strong in the days of the revolution, when pamphlets and newspapers were pretty much the only way to communicate to a broad audience in short time.

Political cartooning was strong after the revolution.  We have never feared ridiculing our President, or their policies, or business, or religion.  We are an irreverent lot, us “Americans” — even to the extreme that we assuming anyone called “American” must be from the U.S. — we do a good job of ignoring Canadians, Mexicans, Central Americans, and  South Americans.  We’re an upstart, arrogant country — and we always have been.  Frankly, I think if US conservatives wanted to be true to their name they would be out protecting the ideals and the spirit of their forebears by moving the U.S. FORWARD, not backward.  But I’m just one opinion.

We take delight in poking fun at leaders and leadership in general and we’ve never been bashful about exposing injustice or cruelty or evil. It’s not surprising to see so many caricatures of Trump and cartoons about him— I mean let’s face it — he provides the humorists and his opponents with an unending supply of material.  He is literally his own worst enemy.  If he stopped tweeting, could learn to stay on text when his speech writers give him good material and would stop behaving like a petulant child the; then satire and mocking would have little or no fodder.  However, he is who he is and any ideas that a 70 year old man will make fundamental changes to his personality are ridiculous.  We have more media than they did in 1776 — so there are more forms of mocking, but the tradition is the same. Hold the feet of those in power to the fire!

I’ve seen and read a lot of complaints from Republicans about the resistance to Trump.  I have to say that while the harpooning of Trump has been unprecedented in fury for a few short months, what I have seen in public about him is nowhere near as vile or as hate-filled as what came out of Republican outlets for the 8 years of President Obama’s terms. Even the horrible attempt by a recent comedian to disparage Trump in a photo with a picture of a severed head — which while disgusting and in poor taste — is not as vile as some of the cartoons and hate literature that was published about President Obama. Still, I think the Trump reaction and her complaining that “Trump is trying to ruin her life” ought to be a good reminder that when you satirize or mock the powerful you do so at a cost.  The powerful are powerful.  And they can be vile and vindictive too — that’s not the sole realm of comedians and political satirists.

I will not post examples of the hate cartoons. If you turn off your Google “safe” filter and search for images under the term  “Obama Racist Cartoons” you’ll see enough to turn your stomach. I’m afraid that  Trump’s refuses to reign in that kind of hatred and vile behavior on the part of his supporters,  gives more fodder to those who will scoff and satirize his behavior. What goes around comes around.  He followed a scorched earth policy with his campaigning;  he ought not to be surprised is he’s getting what he gave. And his continued behavior — being unwilling to learn from his own mistakes — means that he will continue to find time to spend with those who deny the rights of others — as for example his visit to Saudi Arabia, and his lauding of Duterte’s ruthless behavior.  At the same time he can find opportunities for those activities he is too busy to comment on  deaths in Portland at the hands of Racists — something he put off until being goaded into it after over  a week’s delay. If he is mocked and ridiculed he really has only himself to blame — and if any country on earth is going to take up the challenge of ridiculing their own leaders, it’s the U.S..  

With the Internet and instant media having taken over such a large part of U.S. culture there’s little official restraint being offered.  You can’t easily restrain 100 million angry people.  You can’t easily appease the 350 million inhabitants of this country.  Newspapers may have editorial boards to vote on whether a cartoon should be published. The Internet has no such safeguards — it’s a free-for-all out there.  People who are free to say what’s on their minds will do just that.   The Internet enables us to see where people’s hearts really are.  The Internet allows us to look into the darkest corners of the most depraved minds if they want to be vocal about life in these United States.  Those with the most racist, white supremacist views are just as free to state their case in cartoons as the most humble, humane and caring among us. However, hatred is a powerful motivator and the negative voices are far more likely to be expressed than the other.  This is the price of living in a free country.

Still those Founding Fathers give us a land where we could speak out.  They fought the tide of tradition and set us forth on an untried and untested experiment to see whether a population could govern itself without a king and without a dictator.  They did not choose the worn pathway other nations had chosen, they selected something new, and challenging and forward looking; not something old and worn and looking backwards.  The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, these things championed new, progressive ideas; they spoke to the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of ALL our citizens — and by the time we got to the Civil War we realized as a nation that we needed to do something to actually live up to the words on paper.  They gave us a progressive country, one in which the ideals of justice and freedom could flourish and develop as humankind developed.

I really don’t know about people that want the nation to return to some previous ideal.  They must have forgotten what this country stands for, and what the Founding Fathers (and mothers) stood for.  It certainly wasn’t getting stuck in the mud of one day and refusing to move forward.  They gave us a nation in which we can push forward to better and better government; not push back to greater discrimination, more polarization, and privilege for the rich.

I happen to think that dissent is a good idea.  I also happen to think it’s a bad idea to normalize bad behavior, bad manners, and bad judgment.  As a nation we worked for decades under multiple Presidents to build strong alliances with other nations around the world.  Seeing those longterm friends berated about not paying their share for defense by a guy with a history of multiple bankruptcies is beyond laughable.  But there we are friends. Sometimes the only thing to do is to laugh at it. Or cry.  As I’m writing this not long after Trump has announced his decision to take us out of the Paris Climate Agreement.  I’m sure the entire world will be the worse for that — seeing as we are only 6% of the world’s population and we create 1/3 of the CO gases that are causing the problems.  If any nation should have been penalized for it’s behavior — it IS the U.S.  We once thought we were leaders of the free world and leadership comes at a cost.  We can’t be leaders AND shirk our responsibilities.  Attempting to do so deserves to be poked fun at, ridiculed, and cartooned.

click the image to read the article in The Guardian

After writing this I came across this article in the UK media, The Guardian.  It’s an informative look at how extremists are using cartoons, and meme’s to mobilize their side as well as to fight the great PR battle against others.  Extreme Right hate groups are using the same humor and irony that have been part of the U.S. culture for their own purposes. The rules of engagement in politics have changed, my friends.  Given an opportunity to raise their heads and go public again because of the hatred spread during the last election cycle society must once again raise the issues of justice and human rights all over again.  

These are difficult times.  Political humor sometimes helps.  Other times it makes stark and difficult messages easier to bear.  Political humor often enables us to see the abuse more clearly, as if poking fun at it takes the evil out of it and makes it a thing that can be spoken about.

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5 Comments

  1. Outstanding post, Peter! I agree with so many points, though I do have some comments.

    I would say that I fall more into the category of fiscal conservative than what is termed conservative, these days…a party I no longer recognize. As far as haves and have nots…we have always had that problem in our country. Some of the greatest leaders were men who built industry at the cost of others. I think I have mentioned this before, there is a series of videos on YouTube that cover a special, originally on TV called, Greed, narrated by John Stossel. Excellent show for looking at both sides of the coin. When you take the one percenters out of the equation, what happens to the economy and industry? Worth listening to, INMHO.

    My main complaint about the “have nots” of which I technically am, is that so many of them are unwilling to produce…meaning they want the goods and services without the contribution. That just doesn’t work…economically or otherwise. I think one of the best projects the US had was the WPA. Most of our infrastructure was built during that time and much of it is still standing today. People were given work that resulted in expanded and future commerce…more work and stronger economy. The problem is, that you can’t put that kind of program into action today because it’s too regulated. Only the guys who have the big contracts can get the job which doesn’t help the everyday guy who is looking to make ends meet.

    I have no problem with immigrants, documented or otherwise…if they are willing to work and stay out of the criminal elements. Some of my best workers have come from undocumented people. Those who were born here often take their opportunities for granted and in many ways are quite lazy. Our forefathers and many generations that came afterwards were hard workers. Technology and industry has made us physically weak and lazy. It’s not surprising that many stores and services are provided by foreigners. They understand the American Dream and pursue it with vigor while those who were born into complain that life isn’t fair.

    Agreed that Trump’s environmental attitude sucks big time and he is his own worst enemy with his tweets and brash bullying. Proud to be an American? Not really. American or something else? American, at least I know what I’m up against. 😉😜

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    1. The Stossel videos are pretty good. Am aware of them. (not sure if you clued me in to them or someone else…)

      Pretty much every nation on earth has have’s and have not’s — moveable type made it possible for us to KNOW how little we had compared to the rich!

      I pretty much agree, which isn’t a surprise, we agree on a lot of things. I might put the emphasis on another syllable (as it were) but the basic tenets are pretty much the same.

      I do question one thing however. It’s obscenely common for us privileged white folk to “talk” about those folk who don’t want to work and more often than not the implication (if you listen really carefully to the other party’s points) is that they are really talking about poor black welfare families — most often single mothers with children. (When I say “privileged white folk” I do not mean , I mean seeing as we aren’t subjected to random traffic stops and all the other things that go along with being a person of color in the U.S. of which most of us are pretty much unaware just because we ARE white)

      I am at a point where I find it important to challenge that thinking. Yeah — there clearly is a different social value to “family” between ethnicities, but considering how many young-black-men are locked up and murdered I question how much of that line of thought is simply smokescreen for bigotry. I don’t know. But every time I hear the argument my hackles go up.

      The divisions in this country will not go away. Somehow we have to find a way to achieve some semblance of fiscal responsibility coupled with a sense of humane compassion for those who truly need help. I see NO light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a leader with answers. Not even Bernie — who’s ideas while “wonderful” would be impossible to fund. Barring a movement towards solving our problems the next solution becomes one of violence and revolution and the practical part of me thinks that revolution is a likely outcome. However, war has often served to galvanize disparate views. We haven’t had a war on our own soil in a long time. Perhaps the “human” animal in us needs that to remind us why we have something we call “society” at all. We have to be reminded of why it’s good to compromise and why it’s good to do things that benefit the group even if they limit the individual.

      The last time we had a political situation like this was, I guess about 15 years before the Civil War. And we were unable to solve the problem politically, we had to start fighting. I hope we don’t go through that again. And if we do start fighting this time the devastation would be infinitely worse.

      I see no way that the nation can deal compassionately with all it’s citizens so long as the rich get proportionately richer. Yeah — there is an increasing expectation of equality, sometimes without commensurate willingness to work, but polarization is the natural outcome of capitalism I fear. And greed is a tremendous motivator for those who have been successful.

      I don’t know, my friend, it’s a real problem.

      That said — it’s good to be able to laugh at our problems and that’s what political humor does — it highlights problems and by forcing us to laugh at them it makes them a little easier to talk about — and perhaps find a solution.

      >

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, it does and I must say, I laugh when I see a good one…no matter what side of the political aisle. 😉

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