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Losing the National Smile?

June 30, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
When Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef called it quits on his political satire show at the beginning of the month, it was a sad, sad day for more than Egyptians.

He was tired of having to move from network to network and he feared for his safety and his family’s safety in the midst of the military takeover of Egypt. After all, military rulers have no sense of humor.

The trouble is, when a nation loses the ability to laugh at itself, when its leaders consider themselves so supreme as beings that they have no ability to smile a little when a comedian pokes them on TV, then that nation is, or is on the way to becoming, an awful place to live.

You’ll notice there weren’t a lot of Soviet-era comics on the international stage telling Stalin jokes (Yakov Smirnoff the exception, and his schtick was invented after he came to the United States.)

I get a sense that the national smile is fading and it scares me a little. Well, it scares me a lot, actually. I am rapidly finding that my brand of satirism, which is by no means elegant, eloquent or world-changing, is going right over people’s heads.

Mention something Archie Bunker said in the 1970s on the sitcom “All in the Family,” and what was side-splitting satire 40 years ago is liable to bring a, “Yeah, so? How come we don’t do that?” or “Sounds good to me” as a repsonse.

When arguing online the other night with a bunch of folks over the reasons why the Ohio State Highway Patrol targets state Route 7 between Steubenville and Toronto, my daily commute route for 30 years, I finally got exasperated.

Seemed safety and an argument against the freedom to drive like a maniac, no matter the road condition or the speed limit, were invalid points to the leaden right-boot, freedom from any regulations crowd. (I suspect tinfoil hats were being adjusted in a way to make the particle beam hit me in the temple. They missed.)

In my exasperation, I turned to my usual. Satire. Irony. A grouse statement with a big smile at the end that went something like “Just so I’m straight. We should do away with all speed limits and when three Rams and a couple oil trucks turn into a tinfoil ball out on Route 7, whoever crawls out of the wreckage first and gets to his concealed-carry gun and shoots the other drivers gets to collect the insurance claim, right?”

The responses weren’t couched with “LOL” after them, making me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t start towing a Howitzer with the PT Cruiser. Never can tell if you need it.

And the scarier part was that in the midst of that argument, I spotted a video post from a law enforcement trainer showing two officers gunned down in cold blood because they stopped a minivan for a traffic violation while the two men inside were hauling a cache of automatic weapons somewhere. The point was that police officers on duty need to be vigilant against anything being “routine.”

Nothing funny there at all. Nor should there be.

But when folks lose the ability to stop laughing at themselves, we’re heading downhill. At least, as far as I can tell, Obama still gets an occasional chuckle from the late-night comedy crowd’s antics toward him. When he stops even trying to smile, it’s time to avoid all speed limits, fight through the northbound traffic jam illegally crossing the Texas border and head to Panama. Or Brazil. Or somewhere that people still smile.

When Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef called it quits on his political satire show at the beginning of the month, it was a sad, sad day for more than Egyptians.

He was tired of having to move from network to network and he feared for his safety and his family’s safety in the midst of the military takeover of Egypt. After all, military rulers have no sense of humor.

The trouble is, when a nation loses the ability to laugh at itself, when its leaders consider themselves so supreme as beings that they have no ability to smile a little when a comedian pokes them on TV, then that nation is, or is on the way to becoming, an awful place to live.

You’ll notice there weren’t a lot of Soviet-era comics on the international stage telling Stalin jokes (Yakov Smirnoff the exception, and his schtick was invented after he came to the United States.)

I get a sense that the national smile is fading and it scares me a little. Well, it scares me a lot, actually.

I am rapidly finding that my brand of satirism, which is by no means elegant, eloquent or world-changing, is going right over people’s heads.

Mention something Archie Bunker said in the 1970s on the sitcom “All in the Family,” and what was side-splitting satire 40 years ago is liable to bring a, “Yeah, so? How come we don’t do that?” or “Sounds good to me” as a respsonse.

When arguing online the other night with a bunch of folks over the reasons why the Ohio State Highway Patrol targets state Route 7 between Steubenville and Toronto, my daily commute route for 30 years, I finally got exasperated.

Seemed safety and an argument against the freedom to drive like a maniac, no matter the road condition or the speed limit, were invalid points to the leaden right-boot, freedom from any regulations crowd. (I suspect tinfoil hats were being adjusted in a way to make the particle beam hit me in the temple. They missed.)

In my exasperation, I turned to my usual. Satire. Irony. A grouse statement with a big smile at the end that went something like “Just so I’m straight. We should do away with all speed limits and when three Rams and a couple oil trucks turn into a tinfoil ball out on Route 7, whoever crawls out of the wreckage first and gets to his concealed-carry gun and shoots the other drivers gets to collect the insurance claim, right?”

The responses weren’t couched with “LOL” after them, making me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t start towing a Howitzer with the PT Cruiser. Never can tell if you need it.

And the scarier part was that in the midst of that argument, I spotted a video post from a law enforcement trainer showing two officers gunned down in cold blood because they stopped a minivan for a traffic violation while the two men inside were hauling a cache of automatic weapons somewhere. The point was that police officers on duty need to be vigilant against anything being “routine.”

Nothing funny there at all. Nor should there be.

But when folks lose the ability to stop laughing at themselves, we’re heading downhill. At least, as far as I can tell, Obama still gets an occasional chuckle from the late-night comedy crowd’s antics toward him. When he stops even trying to smile, it’s time to avoid all speed limits, fight through the northbound traffic jam illegally crossing the Texas border and head to Panama. Or Brazil. Or somewhere that people still smile.

 
 

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