Why don’t our leaders get the joke?

It’s always telling when you call something a joke but it’s not very funny.  Consider, why is politics today such a joke?

Jokes and politicians coming together immediately brings to mind the US President’s annual correspondence dinner ; and it looks like Trump is fearful of attending again.

In practice, it’s a laudable democratic tradition for the US President to share a night with the fourth-estate in mutual respect, to celebrate excellence and the freedom of the press. Highlighted by the musings of a comedian as Roaster-in-Chief, skewering the hapless ‘most powerful man in the world’. This role was ironically performed by Colbert entertaining President Bush and press.

The antecedents of today’s comedians were the medieval Jesters.

However, it feels like we’ve lost a lot of the intrinsic purpose of the Jester in politics.  In medieval courts the role of the Jester was three-fold:

  1. to entertain the king’s court,
  2. to respond where the king couldn’t (a jester could insult on behalf of his liege and not be challenged back)
  3. and importantly speak truth back to the king.

It feels like our modern Jesters are too removed from our king’s courts. Modern democracies have decentred social worlds, we are no longer orientated around the classes of the court, in relation to the king. So, we’re not in the same place when we hear the jokes.

Our generations great Jester, Jon Stewart renovated Jester traditions to create ‘comedic journalism’ as a genre and infotain a generation of people new to politics and policy.  But did he have the right audience?  We were laughing but were our leaders hearing his insight?

An antidote to Tyranny

‘Our culture is just a series of checks and balances. The whole idea that we’re in a battle between tyranny and freedom – it’s a series of pendulum swings’. Jon Stewart

The most important function of the Jester was to speak truth to the king.  This might have originated from the Roman tradition of the Auriga, a slave who would speak in the ear of victorious roman generals ‘Momento Homo’ – remember you are only a man – during their triumphs.  A reminder that glory was temporary so don’t let it go to your head.

Likewise, the Jester was the only one in the court that could contradict the absolute monarch.   His insight and interventions a timely dose of wisdom as a built-in antidote to tyranny.

The court jester had the right to say the most outrageous things to the king. Everything was permitted’ – Umberto Eco

This symbolism was reflected in his costume as an inversion of royal power: motley crown, grinning sceptre, and a riot of unrestrained fashion.  Clearly foolish, he was not a threat to ambition and power.

            ‘My way of telling a Joke is to tell the truth.  That is the funniest joke in the world’ – Muhammad Ali

Trump ducked his first correspondent’s dinner and he’s not alone in the world in leaders not wanting to hear ‘truth’ reflected.   Perhaps democracies need to give our Jesters back to the rulers – a bit of objective perspective might be just the thing for the challenges facing the modern leadership, instead of a silo of like-minded yes people.

The Founding Fathers might have overlooked something important, although to be fair they did have Benjamin Franklin in their midst.  Imagine the senate process ratifying the appointment of the official White House Jester….

‘   If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime’.  Jon Stewart


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