Political Hay

Rules of Ridicule

A funny picture is worth a thousand Chinese proverbs.

By 10.24.06

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"Ridicule is man's most potent weapon," says the fifth rule of Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, Saul Alinsky's classic 1971 activist handbook. That's because, "It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule," as Michael "tank moment" Dukakis so painfully knows.

Since the publication of Alinsky's Rules, activists across the political spectrum have tried to adapt those rules to their own purposes, with varying degrees of success. Now a recent paper from the Institute of World Politics argues for ridicule as a weapon to fight terrorists. The author, J. Michael Waller, makes a compelling argument for the effectiveness of ridicule, citing historical examples, including from America's Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, and World War II.

Waller argues that, just as in these conflicts the side that emerged victorious used ridicule effectively, America today can use it against terrorists. In Iraq, since the publication of Waller's paper, the American military took advantage of a great opportunity to do just that, releasing video footage showing Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi fumbling with a rifle. (Zarqawi is now, to the world's benefit, dead -- it's doubtful the rifle fumbling video helped much, but it certainly didn't hurt, either.)

Waller cites Team America: World Police, an all-marionette-cast war-on-terror movie comedy by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as a good example of effective contemporary anti-anti-American ridicule:

Team America is a brilliant work that plays on the obvious faults of an insecure and lonely Kim, the absurdity of United Nations diplomacy in the person of weapons inspector Hans Blix, and on popular stereotypes about Islamist terrorists and Hollywood anti-war personalities... Team America limits its effectiveness, as well as the size of its audience, with extremely crude adolescent (some might call it "adult") humor. Nevertheless, it is a masterpiece of over-the-top ridicule that could be to the current young generation what the irreverent Monty Python and the Holy Grail was to young people thirty years ago. Team America puts the bad guys in their place and shows that, as clumsy and arrogant as Americans might be to many people, they are still the good guys.

It is that obnoxious -- and at times offensive -- up-yours irreverence that makes Team America so effective. Yet that raises an issue Waller doesn't address: That presumption of irreverence limits the professional war fighters' ability to seize on more Zarqawi-with-rifle moments.

Waller argues that, "The United States must take advantage of [ridicule] against terrorists, proliferators, and other threats." Yet as his example of Team America shows, the United States is already doing that the way America does things best -- privately.

Parker and Stone, in addition to (literally) skewering Kim Jong-Il in Team America, have ridiculed Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden on South Park in a manner worthy of Der Fuehrer's Face.

MOREOVER, as Waller notes, "Popular culture also mocked the Axis powers -- not after a decent interval following a given incident or atrocity, but from the start." The same could be said of the Onion's special 9/11 issue published shortly after the terrorist attacks. What American couldn't take cathartic relief in articles like "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell"? And what Islamist fanatic could respond to that?

As Alinksy notes, ridicule "infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage." Terrorism aside, ridicule is also a powerful weapon against those who want to tell us what we can drink, eat, and watch, whom we can hire, where we can work -- in short, against those want to stick their noses where they don't belong.

As Waller rightly notes, tyrants "require a controlled political environment, reinforced by sycophants and toadies, to preserve an impenetrable image. Some are more tolerant of reasoned or principled opposition but few of satire or ridicule." Yet even democratic governments require a certain level of control in their management of all their affairs, especially in diplomacy. What government could, even in jest, vow "to defeat whoever we're at war with"?

State actors are ill-suited to exploit ridicule. And that's just as well. As Waller notes, ridicule is a dictator's worst nightmare, but it is more than that: It is freedom's friend, and as such, an unreliable tool of governments, no matter how democratic.

Rulers simply don't do humor well. If "a picture is worth a thousand words," notes the introduction to Clods' Letters to Mad, a 1970s compendium of the most unintentionally funny letters submitted to Mad magazine, then "a funny picture is worth a thousand Chinese proverbs" -- especially if it's of the emperor.

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About the Author

Ivan Osorio is editorial director and a labor policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.