In ancient Ireland, bards were supposed to be able to perform a kind of satire that was so punishing that it could cause boils to rise on the head of its target. This satire, glam dicenn, was traditionally reserved for very bad kings -- especially kings who didn't pay their bards.
The power of satire is something I've been thinking about lately. It is a more powerful weapon than we readily acknowledge, one that really does have the potential to destroy. Sarah Palin, once a successful and highly popular governor, was asked what in her experience qualified her for the job of Vice President. She made a reasonable argument that governors have to handle civil defense matters as the head of the National Guard for their state, and that Alaska has an unusually sensitive position because of the issue of Russian aerial incursion given its proximity. Almost no one remembers her answer, or the responsibility that really does attend to such a position. What everyone remembers is Tina Fey's satire: "I can see Russia from my house!"
The result of such mockery, carried on day and night at a national level, seems to have destroyed Ms. Palin. She ended up reduced to a caricature of the successful, plucky woman she was in 2008. She discovered that being willing to play that caricature was lucrative, as people loved the idea of her as a ridiculous figure so much that they would pay for it. In the end, she made herself over into what they mocked her for being.
I was thinking of this when I saw John Oliver's treatment of Trump -- and Mike Pence. It's a long bit, and the only part I'm interested in really is what is pointed at the VP. He was mocked as being a Salem Witch Trials-era figure. This is intended as punishment for the sin of taking traditional moral positions on things like marriage and abortion. These positions are shared by many millions of Americans of all races. In the case of marriage, his position was quite modest compared to the resistance pushed by Roy Moore of Alabama: he signed a law protecting moral objectors from being dragooned into wedding ceremonies they found blasphemous, and then revised it when objections were raised. This willingness to reconsider his position given further argument is described as him being "forced to sign" another bill, but in fact you can't force a governor to sign anything. Nobody was there with a gun making him sign it. He was reasoned with, which proves that he's reasonable.
Further evidence of his being reasonable occurred this weekend, with the Hamilton mini-controversy. Mike Pence strikes me as a good guy. I think we don't agree on everything, but I never expect that. He's a very ordinary Republican in most respects.
So, when Oliver says that Pence is "even worse" than Trump, and goes on to mock him viciously, I'm wondering what the effect of this unconstrained use of satire must be. Trump deserves all the satire he gets, I think. Hillary Clinton likewise deserved to be mocked. Yet if we use satire against everyone, we lose anyone with whom we can reason. Everyone becomes, in our minds, a mockery. No one is left to talk with.
I would propose a restriction of the weapon of satire on the order of the ancient bards. It's a weapon that should be used with care. As an opening position, is it possible to construct a list of figures in American life who don't deserve to be treated this way? I am especially interested in figures from the opposition: people who deserve to be treated with a modicum of respect, even though we disagree. Any nominees?