Revolutionary-Era Political Satirists Make Saturday Night Live Look Tame


Over at History New Network, Andrew Wehrman, a historian at Central Michigan University, discusses the role of political satire in the 1760s and 1770s.

Here is a taste:

The cartoon-like representations of Donald Trump and his advisors Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and perhaps especially Steve Bannon on Saturday Night live point to a crisis of constitutional authority perhaps not seen in American popular culture since America’s first constitutional crisis during the tense decade prior to the American Revolution. Americans have developed a familiarity with the President’s advisors — their characters, agendas, and foibles — similar to the way in which Americans made sense of Great Britain’s policies prior to the Revolution. Saturday Night Live’s depictions of Trump’s narcissistic know-nothingness, Sean Spicer’s weaponized podium, Conway’s “alternative facts,” Ivanka Trump’s complicity, Jared Kushner’s speechless power-grab, and, of course, Steve Bannon’s ominously skeletal grim reaper, harken back to early fears that constitutional checks and balances do not protect a nation from nefarious advisors, ministers, family members, and interlopers.

While the policies, issues, and people differ greatly, these representations echo with the ways in which political satirists in the 1760s and 1770s warned colonial Americans of an impending constitutional crisis. Just as Americans point at Steve Bannon’s influence for the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement or the “Travel Ban,” colonials did not initially rail against King George directly, but rather his ministers, especially the dark, sinister, and now largely forgotten Earl of Bute.

Read the rest here.


“The Drum Major Instinct”

During our history of the Civil Rights Movement bus tour we spent a lot of time watching documentaries and listening to recording of speeches.  On Sunday morning Todd Allen played Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” King delivered this sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on February 4, 1968.


As I listened from my seat I was struck by this part of the sermon:

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)

Here is King, only months away from his death, suggesting that the issue of poverty and low-wages is a justice issue that seems to transcend race.

This point reminds me of this recent Saturday Night Live sketch starring Tom Hanks:


Saturday Night Live Tackles Susan B. Anthony

Watch the sketch from January 14:

This is an amazing sketch. We must not miss the lessons about historical thinking embedded in it.  I will use this over and over again in my classes.

Most of the commentary on the sketch that I have seen has focused on Anthony’s closing line: “Abortion is murder.”  For example, after the sketch aired on Saturday night the Susan B. Anthony Museum tweeted:

Of course the pro-life camp seemed pretty pleased by the portrayal of Anthony.

Obviously the sketch writers were trying to say something about the disconnect between Anthony’s heroic work on behalf of women’s rights and the rather self-absorbed millennial women visiting her historic house.  While Anthony shares her wisdom (“A woman can only be in chains if she allows herself to be in chains” and “An idea is the most dangerous weapon can have.”), these modern women, even as they seem genuinely excited that Anthony has appeared before them, are obsessed with food, technology, and their own comfort.

But there is an even larger point to made here.  It is about the way we encounter the past. Our society spends millions and millions of dollars each year traveling to and visiting historical sites, but we often fail to have any real encounter with the past on its own terms.  We do not want to be confronted with the claims of the past on our lives.  It is too annoying.  We want nostalgia. We want an entertaining tour with a lot of fun facts. We want to make the past fit comfortably within our world. Sadly, when the past asks us to take a harder look at ourselves we fall back into our present-day narcissism.

It seems to me that history education–at all levels (K-12 and at public sites)–is not merely about visiting cool sites and spending time “oohing” and “ahhing” about what happened in those places. It is about teaching our students to move beyond tourism and nostalgia toward empathy, understanding, an even personal transformation.