In Norfolk, Nebraska, this year’s Independence Day celebration involved more than just floats with local beauty queens and car dealerships. A float labeled “Obama Presidential Library” featured a dummy in overalls affixed to an outhouse.
Not surprisingly, controversy ensued. Nebraska-based media, along with a few national outlets, have reported a story in which Glory Kathurima, a Norfolk resident originally from Kenya, voiced her concerns about the display. The parade organizers responded that the float’s anonymous sponsors were simply exercising their right to free expression. Parade spokespersons asked whether the parade ought to ban floats supported by most members of the community because of the “5 percent of people who are upset,” and expressed surprise that “anyone is complaining.”
The debate around this seems to have gone in a couple of directions. There’s the question of where the line might be between satire and disrespect. But this tension is often quickly dismissed in a political culture that places a great deal of value on citizens’ rights to even the most objectionable and unpopular speech.
As Jonathan Bernstein pointed out last week, July 4 is a time to celebrate politics, not shy away from it. Our celebrations reflect that conviction. A quick Google search reveals that many local events invite political floats. In the later Bush years, several cities featured “Impeach Bush” signs and floats. This year, the “Doo-Dah” parade in Columbus, Ohio featured a range of political statements. (Note: might be spending next 4th in Columbus…) A small town in Maine features a range of political floats, some quite edgy, each year. This parade attracted some criticism in 2004 when it included a float depicting the recently deceased Ronald Reagan popping out of a coffin and asking, “Nancy Who?” Some members of the community felt this was in poor taste.
Why are coffins and outhouses offensive, while floats depicting politicians in silly masks, or calling for their impeachment, seem within-bounds? This seems obvious but bears spelling out. A common principle is at work in both cases of objectionable parade material: the situations depicted could be perceived as mocking not the president himself, but entire groups of Americans. The Reagan float didn’t skewer the former president’s leadership style, ideology, or decisions; it made fun of his Alzheimer’s. Making fun of people who are no longer around to defend themselves is always a tricky business. But identifying Reagan’s illness as a target for humor made the joke about more than just Reagan. The float could, by extension, be read as a joke on other Americans who suffer from a tragic and debilitating disease.
A similar logic informs the second strain of debate over the outhouse float. Some of the Norfolk citizens who objected to the float maintained that its message was racial, not political. Ms. Kathurima stated that the float made her feel fear for her personal safety. This is different from a sense of political annoyance over a float depicting the Obamas forcing people to eat broccoli or dressed in academic garb, dithering over whether to intervene in an overseas crisis. In other words, satire about issues or even about leaders’ personal quirks is speaking truth to power. Satire that takes down large groups of ordinary people, particularly people who are not especially powerful or who have faced oppression, takes on a different meaning. Comedians refer to these kinds of jokes as “punching down.”
I don’t know where parade organizers should draw lines or if they should draw any at all. But the contemporary political environment shapes how we perceive satire and its relationship to power. Race is a key factor in party identification, with more white voters moving toward the GOP while non-white voters align with the Democrats. A recent study revealed that white citizens, on average, “rated anti-white bias as more prevalent in the 2000s than anti-black bias by more than a full point on the 10-point scale.” (Norton and Sommers 2011) I’m not aware of any studies that directly link their findings to party identification. But we can at least hypothesize that there might be a connection, given the respective policy positions and racial composition of the two parties.
This finding has implications for how different citizens understand power in society and, thus how they might respond to jokes aimed at the president’s racial background. To someone who perceives African-Americans as having the upper hand in matters of racial bias, the Obama outhouse might seem like appropriate satire. The same float would register as punching down to someone who sees African-Americans as disadvantaged by society’s racial biases. The immediate environment might also matter. In Norfolk, parade organizers noted that they would have welcomed a liberal float, had one been entered. Norfolk, which is 88 percent white, is located in Madison County, where Mitt Romney won 73% of the vote in 2012. In the areas where Bush was lampooned on parade floats, the opposite was likely true. Does political satire take on different meaning in communities dominated by one party, as opposed to more competitive, heterogeneous areas? Do the demographics of the community matter?
Freedom of expression allows us to criticize our leaders and hold them accountable. As such, it’s an important part of American political tradition. But our tradition of political equality for all citizens has developed much more slowly and more recently. We may not be able to prevent these two traditions from clashing, but we shouldn’t be surprised when they do. Incidents like the Norfolk float elude easy solutions. They also present opportunities to reflect not only about free speech but on the implications of that expression. Satire – especially when it goes wrong – should prompt us to think about the nature of power in politics and society. Freedom of expression is the beginning of that discussion, not the end of it.
[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]