How satire happens
On May 4, 1970, when 29 Ohio National Guardsmen shot 67 rounds of ammunition at a group of unarmed Kent State University students protesting Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, killing four students and wounding nine others, I was the president of the Harvard Lampoon, the nation’s oldest college humor magazine.
Campuses across the country erupted in protests, some of them violent. Four million students at 450 colleges and universities went on strike. Some Harvard students may have supported Nixon’s widening of the war, and some may have found a way to forgive the Kent State shooters, but I didn’t know any of them, and certainly not on the Lampoon. We were furious, and since lampooning is what we did, that’s how we channeled our rage.
Mary Ann Vecchio kneels by the body of a student lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970, following the shooting of students protesting the Viet Nam War. Photo was winner of Pulitzer Prize. Photo by John Filo/AP
Though I didn’t know it then, this was the same year that Charlie Hebdo first appeared, as the rebranding of a weekly called Hara-Kiri, which had been banned by the French government for a cover mocking the effusive press coverage of former President Charles de Gaulle’s death by contrasting it with the media’s relatively restrained attention to a nightclub fire that killed 146 people the week before.
The broadsheet that the Lampoon published four days after Kent State didn’t get us banned, but it aspired to the same tastelessness. Our format was a parody of the treatment Nixon was getting in the establishment press. We thought the papers were bending over backwards to be respectful toward a paranoid warmonger while showing contempt for student protesters, whom they portrayed as dirty draft-dodging druggies. So we decided to out-do the sycophantic media by dialing the suck-up into the red zone.
Under the headline “Famous Dick Shrinker to Lobotomize Punks,” we reported approvingly the news that Nixon’s former psychiatrist had developed a pencil-and-paper test to screen American children aged six to eight for “anti-social attitudes and potential for hostile behavior.” Another item lauded Nixon’s appointment of Tommy, the deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard immortalized by the Who’s rock opera, as his top advisor, “‘who can tell me all I need to know to run the country.’”
But the story that pushed the envelope farthest was “Tricia Nixon to Wed Jew.” Mr. Right was a nice boy from Yale studying to be a dentist. “Asked if marrying outside her faith posed a problem, Trish cooed, ‘Not really. The ancient Jewish custom of….’” I cringe at the words that came next; they describe the blood libel, and I won’t repeat them here. That custom, Trish continued, “‘really differs very little from the policies Daddy advocates. I think every girl wants the man she weds to share those special little pleasures of her Pa.’”
I can easily imagine a cartoon depicting that scene. It would resemble any number of cartoons on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, and it would similarly polarize its audience –some finding it wicked, even blasphemous; others, hilariously on target. If the hate-speech rules on many college campuses today had been in place back then, publishing such a story could well have gotten us hauled up before a disciplinary board.
What might our defense have been? The genealogy of satire runs from Aristophanes to Mad Magazine, Voltaire to Colbert, Swift to “South Park,” Orwell to “The Onion” and “The Interview.” Freedom of speech must include the freedom to outrage. If you have to fight fire with fire, you have to fight indecency with more indecency. Rudeness subverts oppression. Crudeness ventilates orthodoxy. Laughter strips the emperor naked. Satire is a check on power. Why else would tyrants and fundamentalists bother to ban and punish it? “He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries,” wrote Osip Mandelstam in “The Stalin Epigram,” a poem that condemned him to exile and death. Last month in Cairo, Bassem Youssef, sometimes called the Egyptian Jon Stewart, was fined millions of dollars for satirizing that country’s president and military leaders. Last week in Paris, imps were murdered by fanatics for making fun of fanaticism.
Of course barbarians and dictators can be just as jovial as cartoonists or college kids. Comedy can kill. I know there’s a line between humor that dehumanizes and lampoonery that democratizes. If nothing is sacred, nothing is civilized. But who gets to draw that line, how do you demarcate the holy, without privileging the very authority that parody exists to challenge?
On the back page of the Lampoon’s Kent State broadside, we ran two quotes. One is an excerpt from Mark Twain’s 1905 essay “The Damned Human Race,” as relevant to 1970 as when he wrote it, and as miserably apt today. The passage ends with this:
“Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion – several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven. He was at it in the time of the Caesars, he was at it in Mahomet’s time, he was at it in the time of the Inquisition, he was at it in France a couple of centuries, he was at it in England in Mary’s day, he has been at it ever since he first saw the light… – he will be at it somewhere else tomorrow.”
The other quote accompanied a drawing of a girl kneeling over the body of a Kent State student, based on a photo by John Filo, who would win the Pulitzer Prize for it. In that iconic image of terror and grief, her arms are outstretched in agony, her face contorted by a silent scream. The words are from King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.”
As long as the only animal that has the True Religion is at it somewhere else tomorrow, the obligation of satire will be to speak again. And to speak against.
Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at email@example.com.