On March 2, Dr. Sophia McClennen, Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Penn State University, and Srdja Popovic, a Serbian political organizer and non-violent activist, spoke with the IUB community about politics, activism, and the critical potential of satire. The three-part event, Laughtivism: The Power of Political Satire Today, organized by the College Arts and Humanities Institute (CAHI), brought together an academic and an activist—Dr. McClennen is well known for her research on US international affairs and Latin American literature and politics; Popovic is famous for training activists from Belgrade to Cairo to the New York Occupy Movement on nonviolent strategies for toppling authoritarian regime —who fused data-driven scholarship and political praxis in a meaningful dialogue about nonviolent protest and the power of not taking ourselves too seriously.
McClennen’s talk discussed how the original “fake news”—satiric news shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—have come to be considered some of the most effective and trusted critiques of modern political institutions. This in contrast with viewers’ growing skepticism regarding the veracity and credibility of traditional news sources (e.g. CNN, Fox News). She underscored how satire lays bare the inconsistencies of political figures and also galvanizes people to participate in politics, because it is not only humorous and entertaining, but also informative and educational.
Popovic discussed the value of bottom-up regime change that employs satire as a means of political critique. He told anecdotes of successful—and hilarious—satiric confrontations with authority, such as when Serbian citizens, fed up with the state-controlled media, began taking their televisions on walks in strollers in protest of propaganda-filled newscasts. Or how Siberian citizens set up toys with anti-Putin protest signs, which were later deemed unconstitutional because “toys are not Russian citizens.” As Popovic affirmed, these playful, nonviolent, and legal critiques of power put the politicians in an uncomfortable position: “if he reacts, he will look stupid. If he doesn’t, he will look weak.”
As a literary scholar, I often field skeptical questions about my discipline, such as “but what are the practical implications of art?” or “why does literature matter outside of the university?” To me, the answers to these questions have always been profound and important, yet not always easy to articulate. In response, I try to convey that literature empowers us to think critically. To question the norms of the world in which we live. To examine our biases and consider the ideologies and status quo that we take for granted. Art introduces us to people and places and languages and cultures that we may otherwise never encounter. Literature expands our vocabulary, which broadens our capacity for thinking and reasoning and articulating ourselves.
Laughtivism has afforded me an additional powerful response to that perennial question of why does art matter? Satire is, after all, a literary genre. Thus, activism’s deployment of satire in order to make visible the irony and hypocrisy of a political regime’s actions takes a page from literature’s handbook. McClennen and Popovic’s work highlights how satire—sometimes directly in the form of activism as a sort of performance, sometimes in combination with an artistic medium (film, photography,cartoons, writing, memes)—can have a real-world impact that empowers individuals who do not typically wield political power to assert their rights and to question figures of authority.