IS COMEDY OUR LAST HOPE?

Babyshark's Minority Report - Washington Mall

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.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Beppe Grillo

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.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Stewart Colbert Maher

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.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Bassem Youssef & Gran Wyoming

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.

mayor-of-reykjavic-jon-gnarr-pride-parade-drag

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.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Tiririca

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.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Candigato Morris

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.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Dieudonné Anelka

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.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Russel Brand

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.

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Prophets in the land of Prophets

In a TED conference some time ago, Wadah Khanfar, who was director general of the Al Jazeera network (today President of the Sharq Forum), recalled a call on his personal phone. He did not know who was calling, or how he managed to get his number, but the voice was from a person in Tahrir Square in Egypt. The voice implored him not to switch off the cameras. “You are protecting us by showing what is happening here. If you switch off the cameras tonight, there will be a genocide.”

Al Jazeera’s cameras did not go off. They amplified the voice of all those protesters and broadcast it to the world. A revolution so unexpected that no one knew well how to interpret. The world was in a state of shock and taken completely by surprise. Al Jazeera’s newsroom in Doha (Qatar) was soon flooded with pictures, with videos and news, most from people in the streets, who had become front-line reporters. The network was there to provide context, amplification and even protection for protesters seizing power from their oppressive regimes.

The world was watching: traffic to Al Jazeera’s online broadcasts skyrocketed 2,500 percent, during the 18 days of the Egyptian Revolution, and roughly half of that traffic was from the United States. Ordinary people fighting to overthrow Hosni Mubarak discovered that ordinary people a world away actually cared. And then, as we were all watching this drama unfold, the spark also ignited in Libya, and then in other countries.

Well aware he was representing the voice of millions of Arabs, Khanfar in his TED conference asked the world to support the young generation that was taking the Middle East into a new era. “The future that we were dreaming for in the Middle East has eventually arrived” he said. He urged the West not to interfere and impose its will and interests on the region in an effort to establish governments that would be friendly to the West’s economic and political interests. He asked that the West accept and support the choice of the Arab people.

Al Jazeera, is headquartered in Doha, Qatar. Over the years it has expanded to what it is today, a network with several outlets, including the Internet in multiple languages. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, provided a loan of QAR 500 million ($137 million) to sustain Al Jazeera through its first five years. The Emir had been contemplating a satellite channel even before he deposed his father. A free press complemented his vision of the emirate as a center of commercial development and progress.

The network was launched in 1996, and even though it was financed in part by the Emir, the network was never about pleasing anybody, it soon was was shocking audiences and governments alike. It presented, for example, the Israeli speaking Hebrew on Arab television for the first time, and some talk shows were a constant source of controversy regarding issues of morality and religion.

But Al Jazeera over the years seems to have finally earned the respect it deserved. It has endured and come a long way. With roughly 45 million viewers around the world today, the network once accused of having sympathy with extremist causes in the past is now invited to TED conferences.

But in what is perhaps the best compliment to date, and clear proof of how far Al Jazeera has come, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on 4 March 2011, saying: “Al Jazeera has been the leader, they are literally changing people’s minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective (…) in fact viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials.”

Wadah Khanfar has left and has been replaced by a member of the Qatar royal family. Will Al Jazeera lose its prestige, objectivity and credibility?

It is hard to be a prophet in your own land, but Al Jazeera’s credibility has been hard earned. It wasn’t out to be just another news channel, it never took the easy route, it struggled to remain loyal to the principles of true unbiased reporting. It has not been an easy ride, and mostly one it made alone, while being attacked from all sides. It was the lone voice that cried in the desert. After all, Al Jazeera does mean “the island” in Arabic.

(To read my original article, published in March 2011: Prophets in the Land of Prophets)