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Freedom of Satire

  • MarkTwain
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Tags Media and Culture

12/10/2007

On December 15, America celebrates the anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Of those rights, the 1st Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech is perhaps the most celebrated.

If so, there is a good reason. After surviving a critical test from the Sedition Act of 1798, which tried to muzzle political opposition by making it illegal to 'combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government,' it has marked America as a country where people could openly criticize those in government power without ending up in jail or worse.

This freedom to criticize government has led to a typically American form of humor, where wit is used to keep our political representatives in their place through the threat of public embarrassment. For example, consider what some of America's favorite humorists have said.

Mark Twain:

'Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.'

'It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.'

Will Rogers:

'If you make any money, the government shoves you in the creek once a year with it in your pockets, and all that don't get wet you can keep.'

'On account of us being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation on earth that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does.'

'There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.'

'Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for.'

'This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when a baby gets hold of a hammer.'

Groucho Marx:

'Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.'

P.J. O'Rourke:

'Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teen-age boys.'

'The mystery of government is not how Washington works but how to make it stop.'

'The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass from your lawn. The Republicans are the power that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it.'

Making government a target of deserved satire is not restricted to America's humorists, either. Politicians have also jumped on the bandwagon to criticize the excesses and inadequacies of government, observed at close range.

Benjamin Franklin:

'In rivers and bad governments, the lightest things float at the top.'

Thomas Jefferson:

'If we were directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should all want bread.'

Ronald Reagan:

'Government is like a baby: An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.'

Daniel Patrick Moynahan:

'The single most exciting thing you encounter in government is competence, because it is so rare.'

Every other American, famous or not, also seems to have a contribution to the chorus.

Henry Adams:

'Practical politics consists in ignoring facts.'

Ambrose Bierce:

'In our civilization, and under our republican form of government, intelligence is so highly honored that it is rewarded by exemption from office.'

Milton Friedman:

'Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.'

H.L. Mencken:

'If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.'

John Wallner:

'Politicians are like diapers—they should be changed often, and for the same reason.'

Bob Wells:

'For every action there is an equal and opposite government program.'

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Humor is often the most effective way to protest government abuse, highlight the lack of logic behind government pronouncements and programs, expose government corruption and deflate 'public servants' grown self-important. And America's sense of humor helps maintains our spirit of liberty by resisting unjustified encroachments by our government.

Americans should celebrate that our Bill of Rights has preserved our freedom of speech, including our freedom to satirize to our government, for over two centuries. It is one of our essential rights, without which we would be far less free than we are.


Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him mail. See his archives of daily articles and blog posts.

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