Comedians, Politicians, and Jonathan Swift

This week I am remembering the comedian Phyllis Diller, and reading Jonathan Swift’s political satire. Ms. Diller, a diversely talented entertainer and comic satirist, was in the news this week; reading Swift was an ironic coincidence, considering that in America the rhetoric surrounding the November 2012 presidential election is heating up. The current climate of rhetoric and journalism in America makes me feel like Gulliver swimming to Lilliput, only my sea is an ocean of irony rather than water. The rhetoric is so pervasive that I began to believe  satire might be the easiest thing to write.  It seems like the various contenders do it for you. Some days it seems like all an author needs to do is change the dates and the names, and viola, the satire is written a la Jonathan Swift.

I don not mean to minimize Swift’s accomplishments, just to illustrate how remarkable the inundation is right now. Because I am so removed from Swift’s lifetime, and knowledge of politics and society in his era, the notes in my critical edition underline the irony, and perhaps hypocrisy, which contributes so much to the satire in the text. Engaging with contemporary political rhetoric, journalism and commentary in America right now is like having another set of notes in the form of talking heads, advertisements, and the various candidates’ political machines. Everyone from Phyllis Diller, to a radio broadcast titled ‘The Linguistics of the Word Entitlement,’ political parties, their candidates, and the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision contribute to the barrage of rhetoric.

The rhetoric is most interesting because of how easily some candidates and parties become overwhelmed by their own words, or how they appropriate criticism directed at them. For example, one American state’s board of education successfully eliminated references to President Thomas Jefferson from school text books, then in the face of criticism, touted ‘Jeffersonian Democracy’ as their justification and core of their sociopolitical platform. Or a farmer who in a radio interview insists his vote will be for a candidate promising to reduce government ‘entitlements’ while he benefits from farm subsidy payments. And a conservative Christian political group distributes free copies of Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ to college freshmen, and dubbed her their ‘novelist laureate,’ while conveniently ignoring Rand’s stance as a pro-choice atheist. Hypocrisy? Of course, but hypocrisy is a target of satire and the process of contending with words.

To paraphrase Socrates, ‘contending with words happens wherever men speak;’ ironically, Socrates intimately knew the highs and lows reached by contending and bewitching with words. Bewitching might be the best description of what happens to people in this flood of rhetoric that is political, subjective, theoretical, and sometimes hardens into ideology. It can assert itself as pedagogy simply because it is relentless, confusing, and intentional. Too political? Not really. Remember, we started off with a comedian.

This week an interview Ms. Diller once gave about the rhetoric of comedy was broadcast in the midst of the plethora of political discourse. She talked about the intentional manipulation of language for comic effect. If a comedian focuses on the manipulation of language to such a degree, imagine how focused political rhetoricians are. Diller’s comments juxtaposed with American political discourse and Swift’s work created a perfect storm of literary analysis. It reminded me how lucky I am to be enrolled in English studies at this particular time.

English studies at the University of London International Programmes requires intellectual skills and the ability to communicate knowledge. It demands analytical skills that, at the end of the day, are the tools required for effective decision-making. It also expands one’s sense of humor and appreciation that rhetoricians and their audiences are made. Language has always been in the service of politics and comedy. Luckily we have authors like Swift to pick a path between the two. The November presidential election just might turn on Americans’ interpretation of Ayn Rand’s manifesto and the linguistic morphology of the word entitlement. It would be very funny, except for the fact it is no joke. And that’s perfect satire.

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