In ancient Greece, the agora –which means “gathering place” or “assembly”- was where most of the political, spiritual, artistic and commercial life of a city took place. It was also the marketplace. In Athens, it was 30 acres in size and had stoai –porticos-, theaters, a gymnasium, five temples, a courthouse and even a prison. In ancient Rome, the equivalent was the forum. These were places that were full of life and integrated many different activities, from oratory and philosophy, to justice, politics or athletics. It was the beating heart of the city.
In most of Europe, throughout history, the central square has played this crucial role. Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, for example, has traditionally been the scene of everything from bullfights to football games, from markets to public executions. Today, in a hyper connected world, social networks have become a contemporary, technological equivalent of agoras. Like their physical predecessor, social networks are important because they offer information and news from businesses, organizations and other people, and support, augment and extend already existing networks.
One of the many fascinating aspects of social networks has been that it has enabled instantaneous fame or relevance. In a time of disillusion and disenchantment with mainstream politics, social networks have empowered the people, and people, in turn, have empowered non-conventional political actors, like comedians, to participate in the debate of ideas. Medieval jesters were familiar figures in the Middle Ages, they were employed by the court to amuse their master and their guests. Frequently this also included mocking or criticizing the master. Records show that jesters entertained Egyptian pharaohs, and that Aztecs also had them in the 14th and 16th century.
Frequently, in literature, the jester represents honesty and common sense. Monarchs depended on them for insight and advice, as in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Today’s comedians don’t work for the political elites since this would immediately discredit them. Instead, they have slowly become an independent force and an increasingly more powerful one too.
This new type of political celebrity is still quite recent, but becoming more and more relevant. The most famous case is that of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement party, in Italy. In 2013, it was the second most voted list, after the Democratic Party, obtaining a higher share of the vote than opinion polls showed, and winning more votes than any other single party. In the US, comedians like Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher are driving political debate and getting people interested in politics while at the same time entertaining them. In 2010, Jon Stewart hosted a “Rally to Restore Sanity”, with Stephen Colbert, on the Washington Mall. 215,000 people showed up.
While most politicians are totally inept at humor, comedians can be very good at talking about politics, and politicians, articulating and expressing the anger and frustration of the people. This is why they very frequently become uncomfortable for those in power.
Bassem Youssef (above left) is one of the most widely watched comedians in the Arab world and considered by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Apart from being a practicing cardiac surgeon, Youssef is also a comedian with an incredibly successful satirical news program and an enormous following. His humor got him arrested by the Morsi regime and later his show was censured by the military that toppled Morsi, proving that comedians are an incredible force that politicians or rulers simply can’t ignore. But although powerful, even popular public figures like Youssef can be silenced. Last week he announced that he is ending his successful program due to pressures, presumably from the new Egyptian government, led by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
In Spain, José Miguel Monzón, better known as El Gran Wyoming (above right), is also a doctor apart from a comedian. unlike Youssef, however, he does not practice medicine. He does host a popular TV show, “El Intermedio”, which has audiences of up to 3 million. His new book “No estamos locos” (We are not crazy) is a blunt analysis, full of irony, of the current situation of disillusion of Spaniards with their politicians. He is a ferocious critic of abuses of power carried out by the powerful.
Jón Gnarr (above), a popular comedian from Iceland, with more than 72,000 followers on Facebook, was elected in 2010 mayor of Reykjavík, a city that is home to a third of the island’s 320,000 people. His party called Best Party, was created in 2009 and included people with no background in politics. It is really a satirical political party that parodies Icelandic politics. It obtained 34.7% of the vote, clearly a sign of disappointment with establishment politicians. Among other measures, Best Party promised free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo and a drug-free Parliament by 2020. He also announced that he would not enter a coalition government with anyone who had not watched the TV series The Wire. A major supporter of gay rights, as mayor he appeared at the 2010 Gay parade dressed as a drag queen.
There is little doubt that electing Gnarr to city mayor was a protest vote, but voters everywhere are trying new things and, as a professor of political science at the University of Iceland put it, people are ready for anyone, other than the usual suspects. They are empowering the people they consider the most honest, their comedians. Proof of this are the results of the elections for the European Parliament.
Die Partei, a party founded by a former editor-in-chief of a German satirical magazine got 184,525 votes. They ran with slogans such as “Merkel is fat” and defending absurd ideas, like big German tits or building a wall around Switzerland, but they obtained one delegate in the Parliament. They also said that they would rotate their delegate every month so everyone would get a taste of EU money. Disenchanted European citizens also voted extreme right in the UK and in France, and hard left in the PIGS countries. In Spain, Podemos, a party that did not even exist four months ago, was the second most voted party.
Last year, more than 50 clowns ran as candidates in the municipal elections in Brazil. One of them, Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, better known by his stage name Tiririca, had a slogan that said “What does a federal deputy do? Truly, I don’t know. But vote for me and I will find out for you!”. Can’t be much more honest than that. In 2010, Tiririca, who has been accused by opponents of being illiterate, which in principle would disqualify him to run for office, became the second-most-voted congressman in Brazil’s history. His political project focused primarily in helping circus artists, funding cultural projects helping fight prejudice against Northeastern people in the Southern regions of Brazil and increasing funds to primary education.
In the Mexican city of Xalapa, a cat ran for mayor in last year’s elections. El Candigato Morris. He didn’t get elected, but he obtained more than 160,000 likes on his Facebook page. That’s one way in which voters release their frustration. In Portugal, “Homens Da Luta” (Men of Struggle), a musical parody group with more than half a million Facebook followers, which has participated actively in anti-austerity protests since 2011 ran in the municipal elections held in September 2013.
In France, controversial comedian Dieudonné has made headlines recently after a salute that he invented was performed by his friend, footballer Nicolas Anelka, during an English Premier League match. Although he claims the gesture, called quenelle in France, is anti-establishment, many have interpreted it as antisemitic. The comedian, who has been fined on several occasions for inciting racial hatred and hate speech, has even threatened to run for the French presidency.
Perhaps one of the more visceral and outspoken celebrities around has to be Russell Brand. Articulate and intelligent, the British comedian was once defined as “part Robespierre, part Rimbaud”. Not one to shy away from controversy, the flamboyant and charismatic comedian has openly said he thinks there will be a revolution in England and that he imagines the overthrow of the current political system. He confesses to be disenchanted by politics and considers politicians as frauds and liars. Brand is not very clear about what system he would like to see implemented, he in fact seems to prefer some anarchy and chaos as necessary elements of a transition.
What is clear is that dissatisfaction with the political system is widespread and the omnipresence of social networks and media helps spread the discontent. Our democracies and politicians feel obsolete and dated, and there seems to be a desire for something new. And while the people may get the details wrong they know what they want, and that is more diversity and more representation. They have lost their faith in their political systems, they are frustrated. And they are more than happy to try something new, and it really doesn’t really matter whether they voted a party defending big tits, a green party, a group of euroskeptic xenophobes and racists, a mayor offering free towels in swimming pools who dresses as a drag queen, a clown or a cat. They want change. Now all these new actors have the ball in their court, they’ve got their 15 minutes of fame.
Maybe it’s time that we start taking our comedians more seriously. I say…Conchita for president.