The serious business of satire

Dr Matthew Birchall
Insights Newsletter
7 October, 2022

It’s hard to write satire when politicians do all the work for you. Take the UK’s embattled Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng. The guy wrote a PhD thesis on a currency crisis in the 1690s. His first act as Chancellor? Unleashing one of his own.

So much for learning the lessons of history.

To be fair, his boss hasn’t fared that much better. As the self-appointed heir to Margaret Thatcher, Liz Truss has already been forced to disown her controversial plan to scrap the 45p top rate of income tax. It turns out the lady is for turning.

But it’s another trend that has me concerned. Astonishingly, it seems that many people no longer know what satire is, let alone why it matters. How we have fallen since the good old days of Horace.

Cue The Onion’s decision this week to file an amicus brief before the US Supreme Court.

The satirical news site made the highly unusual intervention after an appeals court prevented Anthony Novak from suing the Parma Police Department in Ohio for a breach of his First Amendment rights. Novak was arrested in 2016 for creating a Facebook page that lampooned them.

Many won’t find Novak’s gags funny. I didn’t much care for the mock police order to “stay inside and catch up with the family day”. It sounds tedious and more than a little irritating, plus it bears an uncanny resemblance to how I spent a good chunk of my time late last year holed up in Auckland.

Others might find his jokes in poor taste. Too bad. That’s the price of admission to a free and open society.

The Onion’s spirited defence of satire is therefore a tonic for those worried about the health of democracy across the globe.

This is about far more than one’s right to take the piss. Satire has endured as a literary genre for a multitude of reasons, but one of the more compelling is that it allows us to capture the absurd in a way that literal representation cannot.

In the post-truth era, it’s hard to think of anything more important.

As the leading voice of the progressive left, The New Zealand Initiative takes your right to satire seriously.

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