Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Speaker Paul Ryan issued stirring calls to unity following the horrific shooting this week of Republican Congressman Steven Scalise and several others at an early morning softball practice in Virginia. At the same time, others, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich, are now blaming the Democrats, the media and on entertainers who have been critical of President Donald Trump. For anyone who has listened to the President incite crowds at his rallies to violence, this charge is ludicrous. Even teachers are noticing the so-called Trump effect on children in schoolyards, the increase in bullying and racial taunts. So let’s for a moment say there’s more than enough blame to go around for the coarsening of language and lack of civility.
But there’s a difference between incitement to violence and satirizing the flaws of public figures for purposes of illuminating, understanding, and, yes, entertaining. For many people, the late night talk show hosts have been a lifeline during these early stages of the Trump administration. (If you can’t stay up that late, there’s always the DVR.) Being able to laugh with others rather than cry at the daily outrages perpetrated by the President has had a high therapeutic value. Are some of the presenters over the top? You bet. Kathy Griffin’s holding up a bloody head of Trump (no Salome holding the head of St. John the Baptist) is a case in point. It was disgusting and offensive and a reason to click her off.
But, to critics who fault Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers and others for demeaning the office of the President, it’s clear it is the President himself, with his inane tweeting, rewriting of history, lies, attacks on the media, and self-dealing, who is demeaning the office of the President.
Satirist Jonathan Swift, whose savage wit eviscerated major figures of the early 18th century in England, often used pseudonyms to cloak his identity. Our 21st century satirists perform in their own names, combining courage with wit to stand up for those of us who lack their talent or platforms.
The attack on speech now extends to the arts. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America withdrew financial backing from a New York Public Theater production of Julius Caesar that characterizes its central figure in a manner highly suggestive of Donald Trump. Note: five years ago Delta did not withdraw its support from Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater production of the same play that included the slaying of Julius Caesar portrayed as Barack Obama. (I don’t remember any outrage, Republican or otherwise.)
I well remember Barbara Garson’s 1967 play MacBird, a grotesque satire of Lyndon Johnson that sparked discussions of whether the playright was implying that Johnson was involved in the killing of JFK.
We have a long tradition of edgy art forms that are edgy and make you squirm in your seat even while entertaining you. Words do matter, of course. But we need to take a deep breath and find a better balance between the important goals of seeking a more civil public discourse and preserving our precious First Amendment freedoms.